We are weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, and there is a lingering question we can no longer afford to ignore: Have the rules changed?
Can Herman Cain, for example, continue to run a national campaign/book tour, eschew building an Iowa “organization,” and still win there?
It has traditionally been understood that elections — especially caucuses — require campaigns to create an infrastructure capable of turning out voters. It’s not enough for people to abstractly support you — a ground game that actually delivers voters to the polls (or caucuses) is what matters.
But a growing number of people seem to be betting that the rules have, in fact, changed. And if Cain goes on to win Iowa, I might be persuaded as well. Until then, I’m skeptical of the notion that a charismatic national figure who appeals to the base (but lacks organization) can outperform a strong ground operation. I just am.
As you’ll recall, Howard Dean was exciting. He had the internet. And the rules had changed … And he lost because he was outmaneuvered on the ground.
But that, of course, was eight years ago.
(Before we move on — and without getting too deep into the weeds on this — it might be worth explaining what I mean by organizing in Iowa. Everyone does this a bit differently, but the concept is the same — you identify your supporters, and turn them out on Election Day; meanwhile, you identify undecided voters and work on persuading them to support your candidate.)
… a One is your strongest supporter, someone who has signed a pledge card promising to go to the polls and vote for you. A Two is a person who has pledged verbally to support you or has signed up at an event. Taken together, the Ones and Twos form your “hard count,” those voters the campaign depends on to come out and vote. (Sort of. Actually, human nature being what it is, most campaigns figure they will get only about 80 percent of their Ones and 60 percent of their Twos on Election Day.) A Three is a person leaning toward you, a Four is supporting one of your opponents, and a Five is strongly for one of your opponents. The list of Ones, Twos, and Threes is compiled by calling or knocking on the doors of hundreds of thousands of people and asking them how they feel about the candidates. (This can also be done by robo-call, when a computer dials the phone and a recorded message asks the person to punch a button on the phone keypad to indicate level of support. The Kerry campaign was very big on the use of robo-calls, making sure whenever possible, however, that the recorded message came from a recognizable local or statewide supporter. One reason the Kerry camp liked robo-calling was that in the beginning, when Kerry was doing very poorly in Iowa, it was depressing for his volunteers to call people and be constantly told the person was not going to vote for their guy. By letting robo-calls cull the list, human volunteers could then take the list of Ones and Twos produced by the calls and follow up, making human contact.)
… By the way, if you are remotely interested in Iowa, I highly recommend reading Roger Simon’s entire column.
Something else to consider: It’s not too late for campaigns to begin incorporating a ground game. At this point in 2003, it was assumed that Howard Dean would easily win Iowa. And John Kerry was written off for dead.
But very late in the game — after Thanksgiving! — Kerry turned over his Iowa operation to a then little-known Democratic operative named Michael Whouley (pronounced Hoo-lee). As the Washington Post reported in January of 2004,
Arriving in Des Moines just after Thanksgiving, Whouley apparently saw both trouble and opportunity. He demanded that the campaign immediately pour money into the state to shore up Kerry’s weak third-place position behind former Vermont governor Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo)…
… Whouley insisted on, and got, 100 staffers moved into Iowa from New Hampshire, where Kerry was falling further behind Dean, including several longtime colleagues from Boston. “He’d ask us for more money every day,” says Cahill, who grew up in Dorchester, the same working-class Irish section of Boston as Whouley. “I knew if he needed it, he needed it. If he asked, he got.”
At this point, it seems most likely that the “boring” candidates — Romney (who might skip it all together, banking on winning New Hampshire) and Perry — will have the infrastructure to run such an operation. Meanwhile, the “exciting” candidates — Cain and Gingrich — will probably rely more on debates and media buzz. (I don’t envision the Cain or Gingrich teams being overly worried about how many Ones and Twos they’ve got — but maybe I’m wrong?)
What happens in Iowa this January might finally tell us if the world has really changed. Or not…