DES MOINES, Iowa — On a recent balmy December evening, the political allure of Ted Cruz was on full display in a nearly deserted Des Moines parking lot. There were more than a couple of Texas license plates parked in front of vaguely Eastern Bloc apartments, a sign that what had been announced by the campaign in early December had come to pass: Cruz’s team had rented out the space to house 500 out-of-state volunteers. Each had signed up online to spend the weeks leading up to the caucus walking Des Moines’s blocks, chipper mercenaries in the hotly contested Battle of Iowa. The Cruz campaign had been lauded for its online connectivity and barnstorming ground game, and here it was in action.
A woman who had driven a few hours to get to Iowa was loading up her SUV to drive back home. She chatted amiably for a few minutes, then went inside for one last quick word with her new Cruz friends, many of them Texans. She returned slightly bashful and fully clammed up: Her fellow amateurs had told her not to talk to a reporter. So rigorous was the campaign apparatus that even its lowliest foot soldiers were media savvy.
The Texans politely said goodbye and closed the door. The woman drove off.
With five weeks to go until the caucuses, the yeoman’s work of presidential politicking is now being undertaken in earnest. Most Iowans have yet to make up their minds about whom to support for president, so candidates and their state teams must now solidify their cases. But who has the best Iowa ground game?
Four metrics help get at that answer: field offices, paid staff, events held and time spent in the state (I made efforts to cross-check numbers with news reports and campaigns, though some declined to comment on their staffing and organization):1
|CANDIDATE||FIELD OFFICES||PAID STAFF||DAYS ON GROUND||EVENTS|
If one were to reply purely on numbers, Rick Santorum would be judged to have the best Iowa ground game. He has spent more time and effort in the state than anyone, attending 210 events over 74 days as of this writing. Again, if pure numbers ruled, Mike Huckabee would be doing the next best. He’s gone to 145 events over 58 days in Iowa, and his paid staff is thought to be the second highest on the Republican side at 13.
But the numbers only take you so far in campaigning. It’s not just how many staff members you have, it’s what they’re doing.
Cruz, the current leader of the Republican field in the state, has built substantial buzz around his Iowa operation. He’s locked down key religious conservative endorsements from Steve King and Bob Vander Plaats (Iowa Evangelicals are a powerful force in the GOP caucus), fostered a “99 pastors” strategy (one for each county), and spent considerable cowboy boots-on-ground time in the state: 91 events over 41 days.
In addition to traditional Evangelical ring-kissing and Pizza Ranch-stumping tactics, Cruz has cultivated a strong grassroots presence online. The Cruz mobile app, which game-ifies the campaign process — users win points for sharing their contact lists or for posting messages of support to Facebook and Twitter — has close to 30,000 downloads, according to Chris Wilson, head of analytics for the campaign.
In a rural state like Iowa, some supporters say they’ve developed a sense of community from the app. Linda Stickle lives in Stone City, an eastern Iowa town that Grant Wood of American Gothic fame once painted in all its undulating stillness. “It’s a suburb of Anamosa,” Stickle said, adding wryly, “Anamosa has 5,000 people.”
Stickle, 66, whose husband farms, has a number of what she calls “rural contacts” — she spent a summer delivering bulls via truck to farmers all over the state. She has acted as a Cruz proxy at gatherings in her county. “I have met so many wonderful people and I have made relationships, just doing this,” Stickle said.
Her friend Kay Quirk, 61, of Buena Vista County, in the northwestern part of the state, agreed. “My husband says it’s a good thing we don’t live closer to you because then he would never see me!” she said to Stickle.
Quirk holds the No. 1 slot on the Cruz Crew Iowa leaderboard with nearly 172,000 points (Stickle is No. 3 in the state with over 30,000) and says she devotes a couple of hours a day to posting to Twitter and Facebook. “Ted Cruz called me the ‘Twitter warrior,’ ” she said.
While Cruz might be hitting the traditional ground-game marks, Iowa political consultant Eric Woolson rates Donald Trump’s organization as one of the better ones in the state, where the majority of candidates in the large Republican field seem to be running rote campaigns of town hall appearances. Trump’s marquee rallies, by contrast, have been among the more prominent features of this cycle so far. Woolson, who managed Mike Huckabee’s 2008 winning caucus campaign, said Trump’s strength in Iowa was due to savvy staffing picks by the New York City-based campaign.
“Any time Chuck Laudner is running an organization, it’s going to have a good ground game,” he said, referring to Trump’s Iowa state director, who oversaw Rick Santorum’s 2012 Caucus win.
He said that Laudner, who knows that Trump voters could include a high number of people who haven’t previously caucused, is running voter-training sessions to familiarize the uninitiated with the process.
While Trump’s Iowa team is bigger than those of all but one of his GOP rivals — the campaign confirmed that it now has 16 paid staff members working out of its West Des Moines office — the candidate has been in the state for only 24 days to hold 33 events. Only George Pataki and John Kasich have logged less time in Iowa, and most voters have no idea who the former is, which may explain why the three-term former governor of New York dropped out on Tuesday. Kasich, meanwhile, is polling at around 2 percent.
And then there is the curious case of Marco Rubio, a distant third in Iowa at 12 percent. Rubio’s campaign, which has been criticized for a lack of retail politicking, would not comment on its Iowa presence, but reports have identified that it has at least four paid staffers; on a late afternoon visit a few days ago, Rubio’s Ankeny headquarters was empty but for four young men sitting at their desks.
Though Rubio’s donors have been getting antsy, his team has been steadfast in its message that it is running in a national primary, not the traditional Iowa/New Hampshire dogfight, though he’s actually doing well in New Hampshire, finding himself in second place to Trump. Rubio’s focus has been on mass communication — he made a $5 million ad buy in Iowa, while Cruz, by comparison, only spent $315,000 on radio and television minutes.
While it would be a bit of a slog for Rubio to steal a Trump or Cruz spot in Iowa, he does appear to be at least ramping up his efforts — in December, he held 13 events there, the most he’s ever done. There are a few weeks left, after all, in the Battle of Iowa.