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What Happened to the Vaunted Iowa Campaign?

Local Operatives Say Lack of Traditional Organization Means Unpredictable Caucuses

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Michele Bachmann, an Iowa native, has already established a campaign office there for the presidential caucuses on Jan. 3.

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.

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