DES MOINES, Iowa — Ted Cruz's lead in the Republican presidential race has evaporated in Iowa and Donald Trump is back on top, poised for victory Monday night, according to public polling.
But campaign officials for the U.S. senator from Texas say things aren't that simple, and the Cruz team is increasingly eyeing a win based on a kind of sweet spot of turnout — high but not too high. What's riding on the bet is one of the central questions of Trump's candidacy: Can the billionaire convert the thousands of people who pack stadiums for his rallies into reliable voters?
Cruz's number-crunchers are expecting turnout to top the record of 122,000 four years ago — but not by as much as some public surveys have suggested. Campaign officials have zeroed in on a range of 130,000 to 140,000, but they are not taking any chances, running models for the most extreme scenarios, including those in which turnout is sky high.
Cruz's top supporters in Iowa have been candid about the threshold at which turnout begins spelling peril for their candidate.
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"If there is a turnout that goes well above 135,000, then that looks well for Trump," said U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a national co-chair of Cruz's campaign. "If there's a turnout that's down in that area, still a record turnout — something 135,000 or less — then that looks really good for Ted Cruz, and it's a more legitimate measure — the loyal caucus goers that are paying attention and evaluating on the issues."
Analysts agree that Trump's success in Iowa could depend on changing the caucus electorate in size and shape, expanding turnout while scrambling its ideological makeup. The billionaire's campaign has been tight-lipped about its field operation in the state, though it says it is bringing new voters into the fold.
Trump's campaign has not responded to requests for comment on its ground game in Iowa.
Public surveys show Trump gaining on Cruz for most of the month after starting the period effectively tied with the senator. As of Friday, Trump had a roughly 6-point lead over Cruz in one polling average, a sharp reversal from just 17 days ago, when the senator held the No. 1 spot by a hair.
Cruz's campaign, however, believes recent polls are overestimating caucus turnout by tens of thousands of voters. That was evident in a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday, which found Trump beating Cruz 30 percent to 23 percent with a turnout of 170,000. When that turnout was increased to 200,000, Trump's lead over Cruz expanded to 32 percent to 21 percent. When that turnout was decreased to 130,000 — a number much closer to the Cruz campaign's expectation — Cruz and Trump were tied at 26 percent.
"Turnout is basically what separates Trump and Cruz right now," Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray said in a statement on the poll. "Trump’s victory hinges on having a high number of self-motivated, lone wolf caucusgoers show up Monday night."
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Despite their confidence in a victory Monday night, Cruz campaign officials admit there are few surefire ways to detect in advance whether Trump is mobilizing people who have never participated in the caucuses.
"It's hard to tell," Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters Thursday night after the seventh GOP debate. "If they send us a spreadsheet, I'll match it up and see if it's right," Roe joked.
One metric the Cruz campaign is monitoring is re-registration, or in the case of Trump, when Democrats or independents switch their affiliation to Republican so they can vote for him in the GOP nominating contest. The trend was vividly on display in 2008, when Barack Obama rode a wave of record-shattering turnout to beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic caucuses, but this time around, Roe said he is "not seeing any indication" of a similar pattern on the GOP side.
However, that does not mean it will not happen: Iowa lets voters change their registration on the spot Monday night.
Whatever advantage Trump has among such caucusgoers, Cruz's campaign believes its voters are more individually committed and better organized. In the home stretch before the caucuses, Cruz's campaign has most prominently boasted of having over 12,000 volunteers in Iowa, 1,573 precinct captains and 836 supporters who are expected to stay through January at volunteer residence in Des Moines known as "Camp Cruz."
At a breakfast hosted Friday morning by Bloomberg Politics, Roe told reporters the campaign knows exactly whom it needs to target in the final four days before the caucuses. As of Friday, Roe said, internal data showed that 9,131 people were deciding between Cruz and Trump, 3,185 between Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and 2,807 between Cruz and U.S. Marco Rubio of Florida.
The campaign calculus is unfolding against the backdrop of a turnout estimates that have many in Cruz's orbit shaking their heads in disbelief. Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader in Iowa also serving as a national-co chair of Cruz's campaign, said he has heard projections for turnout as high as 250,000 to 300,000.
"I can be proven wrong at any time, but I just don't see that being even close," Vander Plaats said, predicting Cruz could still do "really well" if turnout is as high as 160,000. "If it starts getting up to 200,000, it might be all bets are off, because who's coming at that point?"