CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Nathan Hanson and Rich Lewerke are perhaps the most discussed, most invisible and most important people in Iowa politics: Long-time Iowans who have never attended a caucus before but say they will do so for the first time on Feb. 1 to vote for Donald Trump.
"I just never really paid attention to politics as much as I do now," Hanson, 36, who works in an auto dealership, told me as we waited for Trump to appear at the historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Saturday. "Everything that's happening around us now, and the way things are going — it's just sparked my interest a heck of a lot more now."
"It's almost like Republicans don't want Trump, even though a lot of the American people do," added Lewerke, 52, a building contractor. "So I do think it's very important to caucus this time."
Bob and Donna Marreel, just retired, are two more of those non-caucusers who plan to show up Feb. 1.
"Never caucused before," said Bob, a former Mitchell County supervisor. "Haven't, but we're going to," added Donna.
I asked whether they were Republicans. "Hell, yeah," said Donna. So why haven't they attended caucuses? "I guess because there wasn't a candidate that I believed in as much as this one," Donna explained, nodding to the Trump signs around us.
The question — nearly the only question — of the Iowa caucuses is whether people like Hanson, Lewerke and the Marreels will turn out to vote on Feb. 1.
A lot of commentators have described Iowans like them as so loosely connected to politics that they are unlikely to trouble themselves to leave home on what is sure to be a cold night to spend an hour at a caucus. There's certainly been a lot of wishful commentary to that effect.
Maybe they won't show up there. On the other hand, when the Trump rally began, the temperature in Clear Lake was zero degrees and falling — pretty cold even for the area. People waited outside in line for quite a while to see Trump — everyone had to go through the Secret Service security checkpoint. By the time the event was over, it was dark outside, windy and -2 degrees, headed still lower.
If they'll come out in those conditions to see Trump, they might just come out for the caucuses.
Recent polls indicate how important previously uninvolved voters will be for Trump. The new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist Iowa poll applied a screen to identify voters who have taken part in caucuses in the past and are most likely to do so again. Among those likely caucusgoers, Ted Cruz leads the Iowa race, 28 percent to Trump's 24 percent. But among potential caucusgoers — those who don't have a history of caucusing but might this time — Trump leads Cruz, 26 percent to 24 percent. (In both scenarios, Marco Rubio is a distant third.)
Onstage, Trump said his advisers tell him he should say publicly that he'll be happy just to do well in Iowa — to finish second or third or even fourth. But Trump told the crowd that's not enough. "I think, actually, when it comes time, I think we're going to actually overperform," Trump said. "I have a feeling that far more people are going to vote than they even think."
That's the question.
When the rally was over, and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" was blasting over the sound system, I ran into Nathan Hanson and Rich Lewerke again. What did they think?
"It was awesome — exactly what I thought it would be," said Hanson. "Straightforward. Very impressed. A lot of energy."
"To the point — just like I like it," said Lewerke.
I asked again whether they would attend a caucus. "Absolutely — yes, sir," they said.
The future of Republicans, establishment and otherwise, who seek to defeat Trump lies in the hope that Hanson and Lewerke, and thousands more like them, don't mean what they say and won't show up on Feb. 1. Maybe that will happen. But after a cold night in Clear Lake, that's not at all a safe bet.