In Iowa, GOP candidates still lag behind Democrats in ground game effort

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President Donald Trump looks around the room at the 2015 Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines on May 16, 2015. (The Daily Iowan/Sergio Flores)

As Hillary Clinton’s foot soldiers barrel through Iowa, dominating her party rivals by endorsements and full-time staff and organizing offices, a very different picture is coming into focus across the political spectrum.
So-called “outsider” Republicans vying for their party’s nomination have spiked in state and national polls.

But these politicos leading the presidential horse race have significantly fewer offices and full-time staff than their Democratic counterparts.

Brash business mogul Donald Trump, sitting first among the 14 GOP contenders, has just one official office in the state, located near a cluster of technology companies in West Des Moines.

Trump has almost one-seventh the number of staff members as Clinton, who had 78 “dedicated organizers” as of Nov. 17, when The Daily Iowan published a report on the three Democratic ground-game efforts.

RELATED: Clinton outpacing Democratic rivals in Iowa ground game

But does a candidate with the most brick and mortar offices and staffers really matter to Iowa’s conservative GOP caucus-going electorate? And is there a “sweet spot” or threshold of success?

Targeting the three GOP presidential hopefuls leading the majority of state and national polls, the DI surveyed a handful of longtime and newcomer Iowa political strategists to find out, 62 days before the Iowa caucuses.

Keeping Republican caucus history in mind

Some state political watchers, such as Gayle Alberda, a visiting professor of political science at Drake University, have argued that more campaign staff and resources that are pumped into the state is “pivotal” in winning the caucuses.
But history hasn’t always followed that political equation.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was able to come from the behind of the pack with only one campaign office and 11 full-time staff to win the 2012 caucuses and 11 states over eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Trump ground game Trouble for Trump

Some analysts interviewed for this story said Trump has the most political ground game to pick up of any Republican seeking the nomination.

“For so long, Trump’s popularity rested on his celebrity,” said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science.

Alberda — a former staffer on the John McCainSarah Palin 2008 presidential campaign — noted that one of the biggest hurdles Trump still needs to overcome is his wealthy New Yorker persona.

It doesn’t often come of as relatable to conservative Iowans, Alberda said.

At most events, Trump’s 12 paid staffers have been less aggressive with having potential voters sign “commit to caucus” cards, as opposed to some candidates, such as Democrat Martin O’Malley.

Often, Trump Iowa strategist Chuck Laudner has ridden stag on the campaign’s dark blue TRUMP: Make America great again campaign bus that serves as the candidate’s second office.

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Large-scale pre-caucus events that Trump tends to conduct don’t do a good job captivating or motivating people to then turn out on caucus night, regardless of name recognition, Hagle warned.

If Trump’s goal is to lock up the nomination, Hagle said, he will need to mix in smaller-scale events, such as a stopovers at small-town gas stations or the ever-popular Pizza Ranch.

Hagle keeps regular tabs on the movings and shakings of Iowa politics, particularly the GOP, and he has advised the UI College Republicans.

“It still remains to be seen whether [Trump’s] supporters actually turn out on caucus night,” Hagle said.

Despite his front-runner status, Trump hasn’t even cracked the top-10 among GOP candidates with the most visits to the state this cycle, DI records show.

Cruz ground game Cruz capitalizes on new attention

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has just four paid staffers in Iowa. Doors to his one Iowa office in Urbandale didn’t open until Sept. 26.Cruz’s once bottom-of-the-barrel presidential bid has floated almost to top in the latest poll of likely Republican caucus-goers.

His antiestablishment and evangelical speech lines are filling school gymnasiums and small restaurants here.

During an appearance in Coralville on Monday, Cruz tried to persuade the audience of mostly retired UI employees and labor workers that he is a grass-roots candidate.

RELATED: Rising in Iowa polls, Ted Cruz ratchets up retail politics strategy, hits at federal education

The nearly 20-year political veteran said his bid has received approximately 500,000 contributions, with an average donation of $73.

A recent Quinnipiac University Poll of likely Republican caucus-goers gave Cruz 23 percent support, second only to Trump’s 25 percent support.

The landline and cell-phone poll was conducted from Nov. 16-22, throughout Iowa, from 600 likely Republican caucus-goers. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

On the trail in recent weeks, the Texas junior senator has worked to fashion himself as a foreign-policy hawk, going as far on Monday to say he and former President Ronald Reagan shared common foreign-policy playbooks.

RELATED: Martin O’Malley to return to the University of Iowa

“Reagan understood peace through strength, and we won the Cold War,” he said, finger pointing to the audience, before adding that he has the “most aggressive” plan of any candidate to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

The newest poll gave Cruz a double-digit increase from the previous Quinnipiac survey. In a poll released Oct. 22, just 10 percent of those Republicans saw Cruz as their top choice.

Cruz has done nearly 90 events in 40 days, according to DI records, the most of the top three candidates in the latest Quinnipiac University Poll.

Carson ground game smallerCarson captures Walker backers

The campaign to nominate retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has grown at a healthy clip in recent months in Iowa, largely thanks to the suspension of two Republican campaigns.

Approximately 135 Iowans now serve as county heads for Carson, giving some counties co-heads, campaign records show.

Four of the new heads came on board from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s now-defunct campaign: Helen Wall of rural Alden, Barb Hischler of Fairfield, Elizabeth Van Steenis of Oskaloosa, and Dorothy Moore of Ruthven.

RELATED: Loebsack joins GOP in refugee vote

With 18 percent support among the Iowa Republicans surveyed in the recent Quinnipiac poll, Carson sits in third place.
He has done 57 events over 26 days in the state this cycle, according to DI records.

Six paid staffers organize in Carson’s state headquarters in Urbandale and at his second branch in Cedar Rapids.

Political pundits have long maintained that candidates who can’t get their messages off the ground in Iowa have immense difficulty mounting national campaigns.

“At this point, the candidates who really want to try here are here,” Hagle said.

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