Donald Trump’s moment of truth is at hand as the Iowa caucuses are underway.
Everyone who was in line by 8 p.m. ET was allowed to take part in the caucuses — the opening votes of the 2016 White House race, which also mark the first test of the billionaire real estate mogul’s ability to transform his media celebrity into electoral support.
And for the Democrats, national front-runner Hillary Clinton is hoping to hold off upstart challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders and avoid a humiliating repeat of Iowa caucus night eight years ago, when she was felled by another improbable challenger — Barack Obama.
Polls suggest that Trump, who has never run for any political office before, stands on the verge of a potentially stunning victory that would shake the Republican Party establishment. But Iowa caucuses are notoriously hard to predict and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is banking on a strong turnout from evangelical voters to build a classic Iowa winning coalition.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, is hoping for a late surge that could defy expectations and offer him momentum heading into next week’s New Hampshire Primary.
Several candidates visited caucus sites on Monday evening. Trump mingled with voters at one West Des Moines location with his wife, Melania, and did some last minute campaigning.
“We are going to strengthen our borders, we are going to build a wall. We are going to bring our country back,” Trump said, stirring cheers from some in the audience.
Long-shot candidate Carly Fiorina appeared at the back of the room at the same caucus site and waved to those inside. Cruz was also expected to head to a caucus location.
Several hundred thousand Iowans in 1,681 precincts are expected to venture out with scattered snow showers in the forecast to exercise their cherished right to cast the first votes in the race that will determine the 45th President of the United States.
The Iowa caucuses have huge symbolic power, and while they don’t always predict who will be sworn in as the next president, they can offer a crucial boost to candidates who do well. They also spell doom for those who barely register and then do badly in the New Hampshire primary.
Earlier on Monday, Cruz, Trump’s main GOP rival heading into tonight, said he’s feeling “at peace” about the caucuses.
“I’m feeling good,” he said on Glenn Beck’s radio program. “I’m feeling at peace, and I’m feeling inspired.”
If Trump emerges on top in Iowa, Cruz said he would “happily congratulate him.”
Even before the caucuses began, Carson’s campaign said he wouldn’t go directly to New Hampshire or South Carolina — the site of the next primary contests. Instead, the retired neurosurgeon, who was briefly the Iowa front-runner last fall, will go to Florida to rest and see family.
Earlier on Monday, he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer insisted he could still post a strong finish.
“The people who support me are extremely enthusiastic,” the retired pediatric neurosurgeon said.
Democrats are also bracing for a nervous night.
Clinton expressed confidence about her prospects earlier Monday and reiterated her argument that Sanders won’t be able to deliver on some of his ambitions policy proposals.
“I am a progressive who wants to make progress and actually produce real results in people’s lives. That’s what I’m offering,” she said on CNN’s “New Day.” “I’m not overpromising.”
The former secretary of state, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, eased their nerves ahead of the caucuses with a walk around Gray’s Lake in Des Moines, leaving staffers behind.
On the eve of the caucuses, the race to win Iowa turned more sharply combative as candidates desperate for an edge dashed through a frenzied final day of campaigning.
Trump branded Cruz a “liar” and made a play for the Texas senator’s evangelical power base. Cruz questioned Trump’s conservative authenticity on abortion and religious liberty and appeared alongside Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, who branded same-sex marriage “wicked” and “evil.”
Sanders complained that he could not keep up with distortions of his record made by the Clinton camp. And a former aide to President Barack Obama took to Twitter to accuse the Vermont senator of repudiating their old boss’ record.
In many ways, this year’s caucuses are coming down to a choice for voters in both parties between visceral emotional connection to insurgent candidates such as Trump and Sanders and the organizational machine politics of Cruz and Clinton.
The final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll before the caucus, which was released on Saturday and has a strong record of predicting the results, showed two tense races.
Trump led Cruz 28% to 23% with Rubio in third at 15% in a race that may rest on whether the billionaire reality star can entice his army of anti-establishment voters to turn out and swamp Cruz’s conservative coalition.
Clinton, hitting her stride on the stump in recent days, leads Sanders 45% to 42%, and faces a similar turnout equation: If Sanders can persuade a new generation of young voters to show up, he has a good chance to upset the national front-runner.
A Quinnipiac University poll released on Monday also found Trump on top, beating Cruz 31% to 24%. This poll, however, put Sanders ahead of Clinton 49% to 46%.
Clinton vs. Sanders
Clinton is positioning herself as the most qualified commander in chief and the best person to save Obama’s legacy. But Sanders is vowing to stage a “revolution” that will overturn a corrupt political structure bankrolled by a busted campaign finance system that he says is soft on Wall Street and favors the wealthy.
A win for Clinton would give her leeway to weather what could be a loss in New Hampshire next week and allow her to pivot to South Carolina, where minority voters could provide a firewall against a Sanders surge.
Cruz under pressure
Cruz is under intense pressure to deliver a victory on Monday night since Iowa is a state perhaps most receptive to his appeal to the most ideological conservatives and evangelicals. A defeat would cast doubt on his wider appeal in the delegate-rich Southern states he hopes could pave the way to the nomination.
Cruz is also drawing fire from his other flank, as Rubio seeks at least a third-place finish to make the case that he is a stronger alternative to Cruz and Trump than ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“This whole notion Ted has that he’s the only conservative, I think as people learn more about his record, they’ll realize what he really (is) is very calculating,” Rubio told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.