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Trump, Clinton, Bombast and Ennui Surge in Iowa

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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With candidates in both parties racing toward photo finishes in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, the issues have receded from view. Instead, the final push is a contest of raw emotion, war, sports, animal magnetism and last-minute gimmicks. I've seen election campaigns up close in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and other European countries, but I've never seen one get so personal.

I wouldn't go so far as to predict the outcome, but the last pre-caucus poll, commissioned by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, meshes with my impressions.

QuickTake U.S. Presidential Elections

The final poll has usually called the winners correctly. This year, though, the spread between the leading Democratic candidates is within the 4-percent margin of error, and the top two Republicans' support differs by just 5 percentage points.

Further data gives an edge to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, which fits what I've seen and heard on the campaign trail in these last frantic days.

Ann Selzer, whose firm conducts the polls, told me before the poll was released that the late momentum usually matters as much as the top-line results. That appears to have gone in Clinton's and Trump's favor. Both added supporters in January while their main rivals, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz respectively, lost some.

The leaders approached Monday with more caucus-goers who'd made up their mind to back them: 71 percent for Trump and 83 percent for Clinton, compared with 61 percent for Cruz and 69 percent for Sanders. Both front-runners have added more loyal voters in the last days before the caucuses than their pursuers.

I saw Clinton on Saturday night at a Cedar Rapids high school, where her campaign speech was preceded by brief appearances by her husband Bill and daughter Chelsea. Chelsea excused herself to sit down after saying a few words about how proud she was to be her parents' daughter: She's pregnant and noticeably feeling the strain of campaigning. The ex-president looked tired and a little subdued, but he hit all the right notes, saying his wife was firm in her beliefs, committed to change but open to compromise for the sake of achieving results. He embraced her warmly and longer than strictly necessary – answering with body language a question women voters tend to have about her and articulated shrilly by the only female Republican contender, Carly Fiorina: Why hadn't she left her husband after learning of his infidelities?

The candidate herself has changed strikingly since a week ago, when I first saw her on the stump. Though she still never breaks a sweat and ignores the water that volunteers set out for her, she has pared down her speech to precise, powerful sound bites, delivered with fierce emotion, sometimes as a series of harsh battle cries.

She has also moved to close the ideological distance with the more radical Sanders. On education, for example, she's no longer talking about free community college while Sanders promises to eliminate tuition in state universities. Instead she talks broadly about "debt-free tuition." Those who can afford to pay -- like Trump's kids, she says -- should, and others shouldn't accumulate debt. Clinton promises to make sure schools don't transfer all their costs to the students. She also promises to go further than Sanders on regulating the financial sector.

And, while continuing to argue that Obamacare is a good basis for a future comprehensive health care system -- something with which Sanders disagrees -- she emphasizes that she shares the Vermont senator's vision of the final goal.

In effect, Clinton has used the week to steal Sanders's thunder. He still dominates among young voters, who may change the balance in his favor if they attend caucuses in unexpectedly high numbers, and there were few young faces to be seen at the Clinton rally apart from kids brought by their parents to see the Clinton family. Yet the Clinton campaign has brought young volunteers from other states to canvas votes. They know how to deliver a grown-up message to their peers.

"I like Bernie's ideas," says Jess Gaghan, 18, who goes to school in Tennessee but who showed up with fellow student Gustavo Mireles, 19, to volunteer for Clinton. "But if Bernie wins the nomination, literally no one who is Republican will vote for him in the general election. Hillary is not extreme like him, she's more realistic, and if she wins, there's a better chance that these ideas will become reality."

Meanwhile, Sanders's campaign and his stump speech haven't changed much. He's kept up a schedule as exhausting as Clinton's, but he has failed to build on his earlier surge while Clinton has paid attention and adjusted.

The Trump-Cruz dynamic has been markedly different. The New York businessman has played the confident incumbent, making even his most negative comments sound affable, while allowing his over-eager opponent to hurt himself. 

After Trump held his own showbiz event while other candidates debated on Thursday night, he flew to a rally in New Hampshire, and the Cruz campaign, with the help of conservative radio hosts, spun the theme of Trump's alleged disrespect to Iowa voters. But the billionaire was promptly back in Iowa, conducting rallies as if they were TV shows. His sons were also in the state, hunting with the governor's son Eric Branstad, a spokesman for Iowa's powerful ethanol industry, and repeating that everything their father touches turns to gold. 

Cruz, of course, has spoken out against ethanol, angering Governor Terry Branstad, who is a Republican institution. He has oozed negativity, running attack ads first against Trump, then, more recently, against Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is in third place in the polls. During Thursday's debate, the Texas senator was booed after complaining that other candidates were given too many chances to attack him.

On the stump, Cruz has been the most relentless campaigner, having fulfilled a pledge to hit all 99 Iowa counties. He has repeated the same speech without much modification, and confrontations with ordinary people in small audiences haven't done him much good. One Democratic voter so thoroughly embarrassed him over Obamacare that Clinton even recounted the episode at her Cedar Rapids rally.

On Saturday, Cruz suffered another blow after the social networks erupted in anger over a mailing his campaign had sent out that suggested that not showing up to vote was a "violation" and that the state was "grading" voters on their attendance record. Campaign managers argued such mailings had been used before, but many saw the trick as excessive and, more damagingly, not nice. I heard an older women, a self-described Cruz fan, actually cry about it on a local conservative radio station, WHO 1040.

All this might explain the late momentum going in favor of Trump and, to a lesser extent, Rubio.

In a race this close, there is no way to rule out last-minute changes. Regardless of the outcome, though, this is a riveting, gladiatorial spectacle with the people of Iowa cast as the Roman crowd expected to hold their thumbs up or down. To their credit, Iowans mostly appear tired by now, eager to judge the traveling show and let it move on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net