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What Happened to the Vaunted Iowa Campaign?

Local Operatives Say Lack of Traditional Organization Means Unpredictable Caucuses

If a presidential campaign organizes an Iowa operation, and no one hears about it, does it make a sound the night of the caucuses?

Some White House contenders are betting the answer is yes as they casually — or in many cases haphazardly — cobble together campaigns this month in the Hawkeye State.

For the past few decades, presidential hopefuls made a show of their Iowa campaigns, boasting local endorsements and flashing extensive lists of chairmen from the state’s 99 counties, backers who will be ready to turn out supporters for that candidate at the caucuses. 

But this cycle, campaigns aren’t playing the traditional ground game.

Presidential candidates have minimally organized their Iowa campaigns — if they’re organizing at all. One month before the Jan. 3 caucuses, Iowa veterans expect one of the most unpredictable, nontraditional caucuses in recent history.

“To be sitting here on Dec. 1 with no campaign announcing a 99-county chair organization is mind-boggling,” said Tim Albrecht, a veteran of the caucuses and spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who has not endorsed a candidate. “That’s the first thing you check off on your organizational checklist. This is the clearest, most glaring indication of just how wide open the Iowa caucus is at this point.”

Not a single presidential candidate has opened more than one office in the Hawkeye State. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who polls show is a frontrunner in the race, just opened his first Iowa office, a headquarters based in Urbandale.

“Frankly, a lot of these campaigns are under-prepared right now for what it’s going to take. Take Gingrich: He didn’t even have any staff until two weeks ago, and he’s leading the polls,” said Doug Gross, a top Iowa Republican operative not affiliated with a campaign this time around. He worked for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008.

“If you really want to outperform or perform your poll numbers, you really have to be organized. December is going to be everything for these candidates,” Gross said.

At this time in 2007, Romney was cutting the ribbon on his third office in Iowa, part of the $10 million investment he made for his Hawkeye State campaign in 2008. Each day, tens of thousands of volunteers hit the phones to corral caucusers.

This cycle, Romney spent less than $150,000 on advertisements so far in the form of an initial ad buy last week in the state. That’s in part because he’s focused efforts on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. He has four paid staffers on the ground in Iowa, plus a consultant — a fraction of the 23 full-time staffers and 60 paid county coordinators that one former Romney aide estimated the campaign employed there in 2008.

“It’s a significantly smaller operation than it was four years ago,” said Brian Kennedy, chairman of Romney’s Iowa Steering Committee. “The campaign benefits from the fact that Gov. Romney spent so much time in Iowa and built a lot of support four years ago. He hasn’t had to invest in the same manner this time.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s struggling campaign insists it is prepared for the caucuses with one office in West Des Moines and nine staff members, including a paid consultant and four regional field directors. Robert Haus, Perry’s state director, said it’s a strategic move not to show Perry’s organizational hand before next month.

“I would never want to put a list out there,” Haus said. “Then people start trying to pick them off.”

Many Iowa operatives argue the presidential underdogs — former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Texas) — have the strongest, most traditional organizations. But even their top aides are mum on the specifics of their caucuses turnout operations.

Paul has a single, small office running in Ankeny, including five full-time staffers who work with volunteers, according to his Iowa campaign chairman, Drew Ivers.  

“We’re in the respectable position and about the same level as we were four years ago in terms of the nuts and bolts in the number of precincts and counties,” Ivers said. “We have more identified supporters in each of those 1,784 precincts than we did four years ago.”

In 2008, Romney took second place and Paul came in fourth.

Santorum has been the most public about visiting all 99 counties in Iowa but has just one office, in Des Moines. Minimal fundraising has forced him to run a bare-bones operation.

“From everything I see, Santorum is doing things the right way and probably what a lot of folks consider the old-fashioned way, getting down to the precincts. Bachmann’s doing the same thing,” said Chuck Laudner, a Santorum supporter  and longtime Iowa operative. “But that’s about it. … I still show up at meetings where not every campaign has a representative at it. That’s just so unusual.”

Bachmann, an Iowa native, lists 12 members of her state leadership team and one Urbandale office on her website. Eric Woolson, a top Bachmann aide, did not return an inquiry asking for more details about her campaign.

Organized underdogs and unprepared or under-the-radar frontrunners will make for an unpredictable result in Iowa one month from now. Iowa operatives say that, if anything, this year’s candidate caucuses organizations remind them of another kind of election: a primary.

“I think with the advent of technology, the influence of a lot of different communications channels, the caucuses are more hybrid in 2012 than they’ve ever been before — a hybrid between a traditional caucus and a primary,” Haus said.

Traditionally, presidential campaigns organize differently for primaries and caucuses. Campaigns focus more on local organization and voter recruitment in a caucus system, and they put a greater emphasis on statewide polling and television campaigns in a primary.

But even though the Iowa caucuses might look more like a primary this year, they aren’t. A campaign’s organization will prove its worth in the results as Republicans trudge through a cold January night to their local precinct caucuses.

“But I would remind people that this is a caucus, not a primary,” Laudner said. “And the caucus is on Jan. 3, after a three-day, federal, drunken holiday.”

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