Iowa Caucus Perspective: Ground Game Edition

IowaPrimaryThe New York Times took a swipe at Donald Trump’s Iowa campaign on Saturday. The article was titled, Donald Trump Campaign Lags in Mobilizing Iowa Caucus Voters. The article claims that Trump’s ground game in Iowa isn’t up to the task of turning out people to their local caucuses on the evening of February 1st.

The article states that Trump’s campaign only had 130 people participate in its first caucus training. The campaign has not invested in voter canvasing like others have. And finally, recent voter registration numbers from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office showed no significant growth in Republican registrations. More simply put, the New York Times believes that the Trump campaign is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

To back up its claim, the Times points out that Rand Paul has already signed up 800 precinct captains. Where did they get that number? Straight from Paul campaign. Now, I find the number to be very believable. The Paul campaign is well run with plenty of seasoned Iowans at the helm. But let’s not forget that that the Paul campaign isn’t showing many signs of life in Iowa or anywhere else. It’s somewhat ironic that the Times is willing to take a campaign’s word on how well organized they are when that same campaign is mired in low single digits in Iowa and everywhere else.

The Times also noted that the Ben Carson Super PAC has more than twice as many Iowa staffers than the Trump campaign. That too may be accurate, but just because they have twice the number of Iowa staffers that Trump and most other Iowa campaigns have, doesn’t necessarily make them twice as good or twice as effective.

The Times claims that the Trump campaign as not put in the work to canvass potential Iowa caucus goers. Yes, it seems likely that the Trump campaign has not called through the list of registered Republican voters to take their temperature on their candidate, but it seems to me that the Trump campaign has used its campaign rallies to self-identify Iowans. If you show up or request a ticket to attend, it means you are interested. If you filled out a supporter card and identified what you are willing to do for the campaign, it means they have a hot lead.

Frankly, the Times article went out of its way to suggest that Trump is not doing what it takes to win in Iowa, but failed to really offer an example of another campaign who was doing it right.

The article did mention Ted Cruz’s 48-bed dormitory and the 500 out-of-state activists who are coming to Iowa to help the campaign. It sounds impressive, but bringing in a bunch of outsiders to convince Iowans who to caucus for isn’t necessarily a great idea. I’ve talked to some people who have encountered Cruz people out canvasing door-to-door. If you think the Trump campaign is foolish for sitting on a stacks of supporter cards or lists of people who attended events, then what does it say when the Cruz campaign sends some gal to a strange neighborhood she’s never been to in her life to knock on doors and talk to people about her candidate?

The fact of the matter is that none of the campaigns in Iowa are overly organized. And if we are being completely honest, even the best campaign should be nervous as hell six weeks out from caucus night. Organizing for the caucuses is a herculean task. Not only are you organizing turnout in almost 1700 locations, but there are a bunch of voters who are not about to let a campaign, even one they may support, tell them what they need to do.

Call it whatever you want, but the term “Iowa stubborn” can accurately describe many Iowa Republican activists. Just ask them, they are the experts. They don’t need a preppy kid from the Bush campaign or some out-of-stater who has a Ted Cruz poster hanging over their bed to tell them how to caucus.

Personally, I love these people. I may actually be one of them. These are people who instantaneously know when there is a problem, and they are more than willing to point it out. And if a campaign had asked for their input early on in the process, they would just have looked at them and said, you are the experts, I’m sure you will figure it out. Good luck ever herding that kind of cat before caucus night!

Another major factor that nobody is talking about is overall turnout. I would imagine more turnout numbers would be bandied about if the campaigns on the ground in Iowa had any clue about where they currently stand. The one piece of information in the New York Times article that stood out to was the 48,000 people the Trump campaign is attempting to turnout.

Let’s first put that number into perspective. The largest vote getter in the history of the Republican caucuses in Iowa is Mike Huckabee, who in 2008, received 40,841 votes. To put that into perspective, George W. Bush got 35,948 in 2000. If Trump can turn out his 48,000, I don’t thing he can be beat. I also think a candidate like Cruz will struggle to get more votes than Bush got in 2000.

You can tell a lot about a campaign once you get a clue as to what they think turnout is going to be. For instance, in 2007 while working at the Iowa GOP, someone from the Romney campaign stopped by the office after hours, and after chatting for a while, I asked this person what they thought overall turnout would be. They said very low, somewhere around 76,000. I chuckled and said that there was no way we wouldn’t break 100,000, and I couldn’t see us falling below 1996 numbers.

It was at that moment I realized that the Romney campaign was completely screwed. Earlier in the day, I had written my projection on post-it note on the back of a picture on my wall. My prediction was somewhere near 110,000. On caucus night, more than 118,000 people participated.

Why was the Romney projection so far off? Because turnout had to be that low in order from Romney to win. They had the best ground campaign money could buy. The candidate did the most events in the state. In their mind and in the minds of the media, nobody else could hold a candle to what Romney had in Iowa. Romney also knew that they were going to turnout 30,000 people on caucus night. No way did they ever believe that Huckabee would could turnout 40,000. Thus, the Romney campaign believed that those 30,000 caucus goers would be good for at least 30-40 percent of all caucus goers.

Boy, were they wrong. The big mistake they made was not really respecting Huckabee. Instead of being worried about his broad appeal, they laughed and ridiculed his cobbled together campaign. It was a mess, and it was cobbled together. The Huckabee campaign consisted of just a few field staffers. Eric Woolson, his Iowa campaign manager, knew what he was doing, but was overwhelmed by the Huckabee surge. A candidate who was articulate, folksy, and incredibly likeable held it all together.

Four years later, Santorum not only rebuilt a similar coalition of voters, but his campaign wasn’t going to win any awards for having the best staffers in Iowa or the being the best prepared. Frankly, Santorum’s team was probably a little better organized, but still people would scoff at the notion if you thought that he had assembled an all-star team.

There are a lot of similarities between politics and sports, but if we have learned anything about politics in Iowa it’s that the old sports adage that the best team always wins, doesn’t always apply. Mitt Romney ran the best caucus campaign in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, and all he has to show for it is two-second place finishes. And again, I don’t see anyone out there with a campaign organization that’s in the same league as what Romney built.