DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — In Iowa's leadoff presidential caucuses, longshot Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley could finally be a player.
That's probably not because of any hidden depths of support for the low-polling former Maryland governor. Rather, the quirks of the Iowa process mean that candidates must have a minimum level of support in each of the state's nearly 1,700 voting precincts. If O'Malley backers can't reach the threshold, they will have to select another candidate.
That second-choice support may matter to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders if their contest is at tight Feb. 1 as polls now suggest.
"If the race is tied, if it actually is that close, then on caucus night, the O'Malley folks can be absolutely critical on who the winner is," said Norm Sterzenbach, a former Iowa Democratic Party executive director. "They can have an impact if they lean en masse."
The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll found Clinton with 42 percent, Sanders with 40 percent and O'Malley with just 4 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers. The poll, conducted between Jan. 7 and 10, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, suggesting it could be a toss-up between the former secretary of state and the Vermont senator.
O'Malley has campaigned aggressively in Iowa. He's racked up endorsements from county and local officials and has some well-regarded activists and paid staffers. But he has failed to catch on with most Democrats.
"We need to beat expectations here," he said, adding that his people have been told their goal is "to get viable." He said he is not encouraging his supporters to go with one candidate or the other if his numbers are lacking.
Given how local the caucus meetings are, O'Malley certainly could make the cut in some areas and not others.
The Democratic caucuses require participants to gather in schools and churches, then form groups of candidate supporters. Supporters of candidates who don't reach a certain level of support — typically 15 percent — must disperse, giving others a chance to argue for their support. Candidates then are awarded delegates based on their support.
"The way the math is set up, two or three people in a smaller precinct could make a lot of impact," said Paul Tewes, a Democratic consultant who served as Barack Obama's Iowa director in 2008.
Republican caucuses use a more straightforward process, though the same attendance rules apply.
The viability requirements can lead to some interesting horse-trading leading up to and during the caucuses. In 2004, for example, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich struck a deal in the days before the caucuses. Each encouraged his supporters to go to the other candidate if he could not reach the necessary number.
Edwards ultimately surprised many with a second-place finish, while Kucinich was a distant fifth.
"I saw it with my own eyes," said Brad Anderson, a Democratic operative who has backed Clinton. "Kucinich was not viable and the Kucinich people walked over to the Edwards camp, as if on cue. That was an alliance that didn't really even take shape until the last few days."
Compared with 2004 or 2008, which both featured large fields, this three-person race presents fewer opportunities for negotiation. So far, no formal deals have been announced. The O'Malley supporters would have more sway over the race if they were unified with one candidate, but where they would go is not clear. Another possibility is that one leading campaign might seek to share supporters with O'Malley to help him reach the minimum so that his people don't back the other option.
Both campaigns have been training the volunteers who will try to rally support on Election Night. Clinton supporters think they could appeal to those seeking a more establishment leader, while Sanders' backers think his liberal message will resonate.
"It will probably come down to whichever campaign does a better job of reaching out to those O'Malley folks," said Pat Rynard, a former Democratic operative who runs Iowa Starting Line, a Democratic-leaning news site.
The Polk County Democratic chairman, Tom Henderson, an O'Malley supporter, noted that O'Malley was a Clinton backer in 2008. He stressed that he did not speak for the campaign, but said an arrangement with Clinton might make sense. But he said any deal would have to "cut both ways." That could mean that Clinton supporters would help O'Malley reach viability in some locations where he was close, if she had already received the maximum number of delegates.
But Brian Gerjets, co-chairman of Sioux County Democrats, who has endorsed O'Malley, said he would "probably stand up, tentatively in the Bernie camp if push comes to shove.... Both the governor and Bernie have been talking minimum-wage hikes."