Which political strategy will prove
more effective for Republican candidates in
the Iowa Caucus?
By Bret Voorhees
There is an old adage in football that says
you can’t win unless you have a solid ground
game. While that analogy has also been used
in terms of winning the Iowa caucus, this year
it will be tested in new ways. Will the old
themes of developing an organization of county
chairs and precinct captains to ensure supporters
get to the caucus sites — combined with solid
personal retail visits to the state — win? Or
will that be overshadowed by heavy television
and electronic ads, national debates, social
media and the compression of a number of early
state caucuses and primaries? And how will late
poll surges play out for candidates like Newt
Gingrich and Ron Paul?
What happens at the caucus?
Of the 600,000 registered Republicans in Iowa,
it is estimated that roughly one out of five
will take the time to find the caucus site for
their precinct on Jan. 3. While those sites
had previously been neighborhood homes, the
1,784 precincts now use schools, libraries and
After electing a chair to run the meeting, a
spokesperson for each candidate — typically
the precinct captain — is allowed to make one
last sales pitch. Candidate preference ballots
are handed out, and caucus goers then vote for
their selections. Unlike Democrats, who have
a percentage threshold candidates need to meet
to be termed viable, Republicans simply cast
ballots that are tabulated and compiled to determine
Having a solid organization of county chairs
— and more importantly, precinct captains —
is “huge” according to Bill Shickel, co-chair
of the Iowa Republic Party who has served as
a state representative and mayor of Mason City.
Shickel said these captains are essential and
have the key missions of enlisting supporters
and making sure they make it to the caucus site.
“Those that have taken the time to organize
will have an advantage over those that haven’t,”
The other part of the traditional ground game
includes taking time to visit Iowa and meet
Iowans on a one-on-one basis.
“I believe that face time is important,” Shickel
said. “Iowans expect that.”
At the same time, Shickel also notes the dimension
and importance of social media outlets such
as Facebook, Twitter and other digital communication
paths. He said those sites now act as “echo
chambers” that can accentuate the positives
of candidates and also compound negatives as
bloggers and posters chew on candidate performances.
Building that organization takes time and paid
boots on the ground, which is obvious in the
following four campaigns that have followed
the traditional model.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann hit her peak
after winning the Republican straw poll in Iowa
on Aug. 13, but then dropped in the polls. She
has made a strong commitment to Iowa and has
been building her organization of county chairs
and precinct captains. She reshuffled her campaign
and hired Eric Woolson to lead her Iowa efforts.
Woolson, a proven campaign operative, is known
for spearheading a surprise showing by Mike
Huckabee in the 2008 caucuses. In an ideal world,
Woolson said, campaigns have both an air game
with solid television and electronic ads and
“The ground game is very important and something
we have been relying on as we build the county
organization,” he said. “It is hard to just
run an air game and cut through the clutter.”
Bachmann has consistently visited Iowa and conducted
a solid retail campaign. In the closing days,
she held a 99-county barnstorming tour.
Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum leads the
pack in terms of personal visits in Iowa, and
his campaign includes the catch phrase of visiting
all 99 counties. During the national debates,
he dropped names of Iowa county seats and towns
with accuracy and ease. At a recent stump speech
at Pioneer Hi-Bred International Headquarters
in Johnston, Santorum acknowledged that he has
very little resources. “But I have had the energy
and commitment to soldier on in spite of everyone
saying I have no chance of winning,” he said.
Santorum tells the story of his first congressional
win when he went door-to-door in a heavily Democratic
Pennsylvania district. “I went out and knocked
on doors, talked about the things I believed
in and worked hard,” he said. “Don’t pay attention
to national polls. Be independent and lead.”
Santorum said his goal is to exceed his low
poll numbers and “do better than everyone thinks
I will do.” Finishing ahead of Bachmann and
Texas Governor Rick Perry will be vital for
television and not seeing a series of ads promoting
the Texas governor is difficult to do. According
to NBC’s First Read, Rick Perry will spend more
than $4 million in ad buys in Iowa.
Perry entered the race in August on the day
of the straw poll. National spokesperson Ray
Sullivan said the campaign “quickly recognized
the importance of putting a strong professional
and volunteer grass roots organization in Iowa.”
Matt Gronewald, a deputy executive director
for the state party and considered a campaign
pro, was named state campaign lead. Ten paid
staff members were hired, and offices were opened
in Des Moines, Mason City, Sioux City, Cedar
Rapids and Davenport.
“We view this as a three-legged stool with grass
roots organization, paid and earned media in
terms of public relations and the best conservative
record and policy ideas,” Sullivan said. “Iowans
expect to see and hear from the candidates.
They are independent and take their job very
Sullivan said Perry “puts a premium on grass
roots organization and good old-fashioned retail
While Perry was an early poll leader, he has
dropped back with spotty debate performances.
“We feel like we have had a few very strong
weeks on the campaign trail. Our grass roots
and media are building momentum, and the race
remains very fluid,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan is “optimistic about a strong showing”
but is reluctant to predict an exact placement.
Perry, Texas Congressman Ron Paul has combined
a heavy air game with a solid ground game. According
to First Read, he will spend $2.8 million on
the air game. As for the ground game, he opened
his Ankeny office in late April. His paid Iowa
staff numbers five with a state director and
four regional directors, according to James
Barcia, deputy press secretary.
“Iowa essentially is a ground game with local
people dealing with local people,” Barcia said.
Barcia said Paul has been “very active and competitive
with over 50 appearances in Iowa.” He notes
that Paul is very candid with the question and
answer sessions held during town hall meetings.
“He is very generous with his time and is not
in and out of the door,” said Barcia.
Paul has consistently polled in the top three
and has a recognized set of ardent supporters.
That has translated into a heavy volunteer base,
according to Barcia who said the idea is to
grow on a constant incremental basis. A strong
top three in the caucus is the goal.
While these four candidates have followed the
traditional Iowa model, two of the leaders did
not follow that path.
Gingrich’s campaign hovered out of sight through
the year after his campaign staff resigned en
masse. But a funny thing happened on what some
called “a book tour.” Gingrich surged late in
November and December, became a serious candidate
and scrambled to build an organization in Iowa.
He has launched a limited ad campaign. His campaign
did not respond to Cityview for comment.
Mitt Romney showed little early interest in
Iowa and concentrated instead on the New Hampshire
seemed to change when Gingrich surged. Romney
and his surrogates also launched a late ad effort
to promote his positives while attacking Gingrich.
His campaign also did not respond to Cityview
Debates and the unknown factors
One of the unknowns in this year’s campaign
involves the multitude of nationally televised
debates which have given the candidates an opportunity
to outline their positions on key issues, while
attacking their opponents. For candidates like
Jon Huntsman, with no organization in Iowa,
the debates that he qualified for were his only
opportunity to reach out to caucus goers.
Shickel said message and organization are the
keys to a strong candidate. “When you have both,
look out,” he said. He is surprised by the amount
of impact of the debates. Traditionally, debates
are something candidates try to “get past” without
errors and are not “historically used to draw
supporters,” he said.
The debates “and 24-hour social media news cycle
seems to have nationalized the campaign more
than in previous cycles,” Sullivan said from
the Perry camp. Social media has given campaigns
new tools to quickly spread positive and negative
There is an old saying that might apply now
— “in for a penny, in for a pound.” While Iowa
remains the first state that gives the candidates
an opportunity to drive momentum, New Hampshire
follows just a week later. The line-up this
year is Iowa on Jan. 3, New Hampshire on Jan.
10, South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on
Jan. 31. Some candidates have focused on later
states; Bachmann for example has spent time
and resources in South Carolina. The line-up
may diminish Iowa’s impact.
While the Republicans are garnering all of
the attention, Iowa Democrats will also caucus
on Jan. 3. As a battleground state, the “ground
game and activating people now is going to help
in the general election,” according to Sam Roecker,
Communications Director from the state committee.
Roecker said the televised debates take time
away in terms of preparing for candidates, and
they have to be very focused on the televised
shows. But he said they “don’t compare to being
able to question the candidate. One-on-one and
retails are very important,” he said. “It takes
more than TV ads to win.”
As one might expect, the campaigns are reluctant
to establish a solid goal in terms of placing
in Iowa and don’t want to be in a position to
perform lower than pre-caucus predictions. Placing
better than the poll numbers is often cited
as the objective. As already noted, Paul’s campaign
was one of the few that put the bar at a top
Santorum said Iowa could end up as a “muddled
mess,” and the caucus could not decide anything
if the end result is a tight grouping. All of
the campaigns stress “fluid” poll results, meaning
that Iowans have still not decided on a clear
While placing in the top three in Iowa has traditionally
been considered vital, fourth place might be
enough for a candidate who anticipates a solid
showing in New Hampshire, which follows a week
One thing is certain. The state will shrink
back to pumpkin status and confusion with Idaho
at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 3 when results
are known — that is until the general election
cycle heats up and, as a battleground state,
Iowa regains some prominence. CV