Iowa caucus or Ikea couch? Choose your ordeal

Story highlights

  • Voting in a caucus is a whole lot harder than in a primary, says Donna Brazile
  • Iowa often narrows the field to no more than three candidates in each party, she writes

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for civic engagement and voter participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)There's an old saying that there are only three first-class tickets issued out of the Iowa caucus -- the rest are exit-row seats.

When it comes to the first-in-the-nation contest, I am more of an old school traditionalist who believes that after the candidates complete canvassing across the state, it's time for registered voters to do their homework by summing up the closing arguments from the last debate or forum, reading any last-minute materials and getting ready to gather with their neighbors on Monday night at 7 p.m.
    Caucusing is not an easy thing to do compared with simple primary voting. If the primary is a race, the Iowa caucuses are a steeplechase -- for voters. Most people would probably rather spend an evening assembling Ikea furniture than caucusing in Iowa. At least with Ikea, at the end you have a couch for all your trouble.
    Several of the top-tier candidates, including the insurgents, have run textbook campaigns in Iowa. They have visited all 99 counties or come close. They have compiled lists of potential supporters who will caucus for them, and they have made closing arguments to persuade the undecided voters.
    Traditionalists rely on their volunteers, data from previous caucus nights to reach traditional voters, phone banks to reach reliable partisans, celebrities to encourage new voters and surrogates to inspire the undecided.
    Most of the time, candidates use activists who are respected in their communities to stand up and persuade voters to back their candidate. And that's never easy because voters often come to caucus still deciding among the candidates. We might be in for a long night on both sides if first-time voters or independents decide to caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans. Their inexperience and indecision may slow down the process.
    One top field operative who has organized multiple times in Iowa reminded me in an email that "good field (operation) beats poor field badly in a close race." My own experience -- two Iowa caucuses on the ground ('84 and '88) plus a third if you count my 2000 role, and one New Hampshire primary on the ground ('88) -- confirmed and reconfirmed to me that in the closing days, it comes down to the ground game.
    So where do we stand? It's hard to predict without knowing who will show up.
    Traditionally, Iowans wait to the last minute to decide whether they will attend their caucus. Weather is always a factor, especially in rural areas where volunteers are needed to pick up seniors and those without transportation.
    Republicans have to reckon with a little more chaos come caucus night. Businessman Donald Trump has run a serious race. If Trump supporters, who continue to fill up stadiums, concert venues and other facilities, come out in Iowa, one of my colleagues remarked that "the establishment can try, but I don't think he can be stopped. On the other hand, if the new people he needs do not show up, I would not count out Rubio having a surprisingly strong finish in Iowa."
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    Further, as one Democratic strategist put it, "any normal year -- Mike Huckabee (winning Iowa) in 2008 and Rick Santorum 2012 -- should mean Ted Cruz in 2016 -- but is it a normal year? Hasn't been so far." I agree.
    On the Democratic side, a very close race is possible given the demographics of the state. Iowa is 92% white. That's not much of a factor for the Republicans as the GOP itself is 89% white. But as my old colleague Joe Trippi pointed out, for Democrats, "whoever wins Iowa has to prove they can win in a much more diverse electorate like South Carolina to have any real chance at representing the party -- that's what Barack Obama did in 2008."
    Expect Sanders to do well in college towns and some rural areas. Clinton has been down this road before, so her team is experienced and knows how to get out her supporters. If O'Malley voters don't reach the threshold of 15% to obtain delegates, they can caucus with the supporters of the other two candidates or try to form an uncommitted slate.
    If you do indeed get three tickets out of Iowa, nobody is happier about that than Martin O'Malley. He gets to fly into New Hampshire regardless of the outcome. But if there are just three tickets out of Iowa for the Republicans, then with Trump and Cruz doing well, there is really only one ticket out of Iowa for the Republican establishment candidate.
    At the end of the night, be sure to remember it's all about the number of delegates each candidate won -- so far. After Iowa, New Hampshire is just a little over a week away. That's great news for the media, political junkies and anyone who didn't win in Iowa.