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10 Plot Threads To Watch In Monday's Iowa Caucuses

In which America finally starts winnowing down this election cycle’s cast of characters.

The wait is finally over. After years and years of speculating what would happen in the 2016 election, tonight ... we still won’t know what will happen in the 2016 election. However, we will know which candidates are preferred among a very narrow set of particularly partisan voters in 99 counties who have enough free time to spend hours being put in the corner for their candidate before a snowstorm.

It’s the Iowa caucuses.

The voting starts tonight at 7 p.m. Central. Here’s a taste of what to expect.

The GOP

In the Republican race, the two most hated men in the field are competing to be liked just enough by a pool of voters that has failed to accurately pick a presidential winner in more than a decade. (In 2012, Rick Santorum and his truck won the caucuses. Mike Huckabee and his bass won in 2008.) The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll has Donald Trump with 28 percent of the vote. Ted Cruz is only 5 percentage points behind — and the poll has a margin of error of 4 percent. Marco Rubio has 15 percent support but is the most favored backup candidate.

If the whole idea of caucusing is confusing to you (don’t worry, you aren’t alone), this video from Vermont Public Radio, featuring many politically active Legos, is helpful.

Testing The Theory That Winners Aren’t Losers

Trump, who has never not been confident about his chances of being a winner, warned Iowa that it was dangerously close to being a loser state again if it did not side with the candidate who appears Beetlejuice-style every single time the word “winning” is uttered three times by a voter. “You have a lousy record,” Trump told his fans in Council Bluffs. “Sixteen years you haven’t picked a winner. Please pick a winner this time.”

“Wouldn’t that be terrible if I lost in Iowa, won everywhere else?” he added. “I’d be very angry. But only for a day. I still love you.” This seems unlikely. If Trump does lose today, it doesn’t seem unthinkable that he will DM every single person who voted for Ted Cruz, telling them they are haters and losers — or even worse, buy up the entire state via eminent domain once he’s president and turn it into a giant, cornfield-filled golf course.

The big question for tonight is whether those thousands of people who keep showing up at Trump rallies will vote. Some of them can’t — many Trump rally attendees travel from different states just to hear him ramble for hours about how his polls are terrific. If Trump can convince enough of his disaffected, mostly uninterested-in-politics posse to attend a caucus — which sometimes takes hours to complete — it seems unlikely that his fortunes will wane in states where all voters have to do to signal their support is fill out a ballot.

How Much Trump Could A Ted Cruz Trump If A Ted Cruz Could Trump Trump?

Cruz, meanwhile, has been doing what he does best: getting people angry. His campaign has been sending out mailers trying to scare residents into heading to the caucuses by threatening them with a “VOTER VIOLATION” if they fail to turn out. (Note: No voter will be punished if they fail to caucus, which is good, since hardly more than a quarter of registered voters usually end up at a caucus every presidential year.)

Funnily enough, Cruz would probably benefit most if not many voters showed up — as it would signal that Trump supporters aren’t always Trump voters. Cruz has long been considered the favored candidate of evangelicals, who happen to make up a large percentage of likely Iowa caucus-goers.

If Cruz fails to win in Iowa, he will, as per usual, probably try to salvage his electoral chances by thinking of the perfect pop culture reference to simultaneously explain and write off his loss.

Fearless prediction: Cruz will follow the example of your OG and tweet, “You have distracted from my creative process.”

Establishment Musical Chairs

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich are busy yelling at each other like kids throwing food in the cafeteria, distracting the grown-ups while Cruz and Trump sneak into the kitchen and steal all the mozzarella sticks. None of these three candidates — who appear to only be in this race because they start every day by staring at the mirror and whispering with utmost conviction, “I am the only sane person in this race” — has probably ever believed he had a chance at winning Iowa, and they've been spending all their time in the state that will vote on February 9: New Hampshire.

Despite their marathon hand-shaking, Trump and Cruz are also doing quite well there, too, although Kasich is getting close to their numbers. Bush, whose donor friends have basically all deserted him, gave up on Iowa ages ago. However, he conceded last week that he could do surprisingly well, since expectations are so low, like if M. Night Shyamalan made a new movie that got 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes instead of 10.

Everyone Else

Don’t forget all of those other people who definitely won’t be president. Huckabee and Santorum — whose candidacies have mainly consisted of tapping voters on the shoulders and saying, “Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Remember you thought we were the greatest once? Remember? Remember?” — have a combined 4 percent in the polls. We can only hope that Carly Fiorina will stay in the race long enough to make a last-ditch effort at victory by reprising her infamous Adventure Time meets Fox News fearmongering demon sheep ad with a spot featuring a flying armadillo in a orange wig trying to call Vladimir Putin on his first day in office and instead exploding into a rain of Monopoly money and dead bald eagles. And if we never reach that point, maybe she’ll at least tell us what her presidency would entail besides calling up all the famous world leaders she knows.

Oh! I Didn’t See You There.

You may not have noticed, but Ben Carson and Rand Paul are still in the race too. They probably won’t be for very much longer — or if they refuse to leave the race, people will just start ignoring them even more than usual. With Paul out of the race, the Republican Party will also never have to discuss privacy, criminal-justice reform, or foreign policy restraint at a debate again.

Meanwhile, Over In The Democratic Corner...

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... Everyone is wondering how Bernie Sanders’s many young supporters will influence the Democratic caucuses. The race is close — Hillary Clinton has 45 percent support in the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, while Sanders has 42 percent support. Again, the poll has a 4 percent margin of error.

Many of Sanders’s supporters are concentrated in university towns; the senator will need to do well in rural areas, too, if he hopes to win. His campaign has been busy trying to convince students to head home to vote — something that may be difficult given all the snow that’s supposed to fall tonight. Sanders might also be helped by the fact that about 40 percent of Democratic voters in the state consider themselves socialists.

Bern Victim?

FiveThirtyEight gives Clinton, whose campaign manager even was out knocking on doors this weekend, a 66 percent chance of winning in Iowa. Sanders, however, has an 82 percent chance of winning in New Hampshire at the moment, according to the site. Sanders's campaign also announced this weekend that he raised around $20 million in January, meaning that regardless of what happens tonight, the Democratic primary seems destined to go on forever; Clinton in particular has enough resources to campaign until the end of time if necessary.

After New Hampshire, Clinton’s path to the nomination could become clearer, even if she doesn’t excel in these first two weeks. She has a huge lead in the South Carolina primary — which will feature a far more diverse pool of voters than Iowa or New Hampshire. Of course, things could change pretty rapidly if Sanders manages a sweep.

That Other Guy

Martin O’Malley, who stares at the camera during every debate, seemingly trying to hypnotize a few Americans into realizing that he might look enough like Bill Pullman to be a good president during any intergalactic wars that might break out in the next four years, has no chance of winning any states this primary season. However, it turns out that the few O’Malley supporters in Iowa have far more of a chance of having an impact on the election than the former Maryland governor ever did.

Because of the weird way the Democratic caucuses in Iowa work, any candidate who can’t get more than 15 percent of the vote in a precinct has to forfeit all of his supporters — who then have to join Team Sanders or Team Clinton. Since the polls make it look like this could be an exceptionally close race between the two top candidates, the winner in a few precincts may just be the favored pick of sad O’Malley fans. On the other hand, there may be so few people supporting O’Malley, who has no money left, that they won’t even get to tip the scales at all. Back in late December, only one person showed up to an O’Malley event in Iowa. He told Politico that Hillary Clinton was his second choice.

What’s Next?

After tonight, Iowans no longer have to worry about being ambushed by a sad, angry, desperate man every time they try to go buy pizza. Annoying and expensive political ads will evaporate and be replaced by annoying and expensive Super Bowl ads.

However, there is a small chance that the Iowa caucuses may never end. The scheduled snowstorm, probably paid for by Jeb’s super PAC as a diversionary tactic, is supposed to start late Monday night, as voters start to head home, leaving them stuck inside with their traitor neighbors who voted for the wrong candidate. “A Ted Cruz voter and a Donald Trump voter are trapped inside a small room with only a few chocolate-chip cookies overnight during a blizzard — and their conversation is all being streamed live by an equally trapped CNN reporter” sounds like a terrifying mash-up of The Hunger Games and My Dinner With Andre.

After that, Iowa has only four years to realize that the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Poll should make a comeback for 2020. It’s been nearly 30 years since Bob Dole’s “Top Banana” flavor and Michael Dukakis’s 'Massachewy Chocolate' won big. It’s already sad enough that this year’s cast of caucus characters weren’t used as dessert muses.

For everyone outside of this small state, get worried. Your turn is coming soon. And just remember, we’ve got more than nine months to go.