Feature:Opinion

The lessons from Iowa

Gentry Collins Partner, Collins Anderson Philp Public Affairs

Tuesday night’s Iowa caucuses, with their historically close results, were not the first razor-thin margin in modern Iowa presidential politics. In 2000, the general election in Iowa was decided by three-tenths of a percentage point. In 2004, Iowa was decided by seven-tenths of a percentage point.

While Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul were all successful, the best news out of Iowa is that multiple indicators now point to the Hawkeye State being very competitive again in 2012 — despite long-held conventional wisdom that it is a state Obama’s re-election campaign will waltz away with.

Just what are those indicators? For starters, President Obama’s approval rating has been consistently in the low-to-mid forties in Iowa. No president has won re-election with an approval rating below 49, and many pollsters believe it must be above 50.

Next, there are more Republicans and fewer Democrats in Iowa than in 2008. The Republican Party of Iowa has logged 33 consecutive months of registration gains. Since Obama’s election, one in every ten registered Democrats in the state left his party.

And Iowa Republicans are hugely motivated to turn out. Tuesday’s caucuses saw a record-setting turnout of 122,225. It is notable that turnout happened in the absence of consensus candidates and large, well-staffed, and well-funded turnout operations like those seen in 1996, 2000, or 2008. Also noteworthy is that The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll showed some 40% of likely caucus goers still had some softness in their support of any individual Republican.

Some 38% of the caucus electorate reported never having been to a caucus before, and youth participation was up dramatically for Republicans. Youth turnout was the single largest contributor to Obama’s winning coalition in 2008.

In other words, Iowans are so desperate to replace Barack Obama that they turned themselves out in record numbers to cast a vote for “Anybody but Barack.”

Obama’s Chicago spin-machine has attempted to portray Tuesday’s result in Iowa as a win for them. I hope they are foolish enough to actually believe that.

The intensity we saw for “Anybody but Barack” will in fact coalesce around our eventual nominee. Consider the pathway of Tuesday’s winner Mitt Romney. Romney earned just 14% of the evangelical vote in Iowa according to Fox News’s analysis. But a poll of Iowa evangelicals last week indicated that 91% of those evangelical voters would turn out for Romney in a general election matchup against Obama.

CNN’s Erin Burnett reported similar findings Tuesday night for Ron Paul and Rick Santorum among business leaders, even though they went overwhelmingly to Romney as their first choice.

This caucus saw at least two other interesting revelations: negative ads work (even in Iowa), and organization does still matter.

Newt Gingrich’s three-week-long, one-point-per-day implosion from national front-runner to angry also-ran is proof positive of this fact. Many pundits and outside consultants have long said you couldn’t get away with running negative ads in Iowa — especially during the holidays. They have always been wrong on this point, but I suspect they may have just caught on.

Those same ad-makers have an old adage that is spot on: Never take a punch without punching back. It appears Newt learned this one the hard way, having now failed to get a legitimate ticket out of Iowa. One of the major questions going forward is whether he really believes the mission of this campaign must be to defeat Barack Obama as he said last night, or whether his ego requires revenge.

On the organizational front, it is clearly true that this caucus cycle did not see the kind of hyper-developed ground-game organizations that traditionally have been built by successful campaigns in Iowa. But it would be a huge mistake to conclude that organization doesn’t matter.

First, there is substantial reason to believe that some of the fluidity in the race was due to poor organizations on the ground in Iowa. Iowans never fully felt the pressure of their friends and neighbors to support a candidate. There may have been staff-level efforts, but not large-scale neighbor-to-neighbor efforts. Campaign staffers are easy to ignore. They go away at the end of every cycle. Small-town neighbors don’t go away, and they are substantially harder to ignore.

Still, the three tickets that were punched out of Iowa were held by the three campaigns that had the best organizations — even though that is a relative term this cycle.

In first, Mitt Romney had residual benefits from his large organization in 2008. The 25,000 or so identified supporters he earned last time formed the backbone of his late 2012 effort. And you can see a strong correlation between Romney’s 2012 results map and his Iowa bus-tour map. Romney also had nearly all of Iowa’s 1,774 precincts covered with a volunteer speaker from Iowa. In contrast, Rick Perry covered the speaking roles with imported Texans. We Iowans love Texas as much as the next person, but shipping them into our caucus is no substitute for real organization — and it showed in last night’s results.

In second, Rick Santorum ran one of the most intelligent ground campaigns in Iowa this cycle. He had some of the best organizers in the state, made personal connections with his precinct level leaders, visited every county, and hosted some 380 events in his share-a-coffee-with-every-Iowan campaign. Consistently outworking everyone else in the field is a hallmark of campaigns that believe in building authentic grassroots support.

Winning the third ticket out of Iowa was the impressive Ron Paul campaign. No candidate drove more new turnout, more youth turnout, and more volunteerism than Ron Paul. His is a fresh message in a Republican primary to be sure. But whether you support Paul or not, he is an important part of our new winning coalition, and he got that way on a combination of message and ground game.

Paul’s ground game has been years in the making now. Following the 2008 loss, Paul’s supporters were more active than any other candidate in seeking (and winning) seats on county and state Republican committees in Iowa and around the country. In those roles, they were instrumental in the historic Republican gains of 2010. In Iowa, four of 15 state central committee members are committed Ron Paul supporters (to my knowledge, more than any other candidate).

If Paul is not the nominee, his efforts to grow our party will still be invaluable in the effort to put the country back on track. And despite the pundits’ refrain, the supporters he has pulled in over the years have indeed stayed with and worked for the nominees of our party.

One final thought on this year’s caucuses: Chairman Matt Strawn and his team did an outstanding job putting the caucuses on and protecting the integrity of the process in a highly charged and razor-close contest. The Iowa caucuses are one of the proudest traditions in American politics, and leaders in both parties in the state have an obligation to put their own preferences aside and administer the first-in-the-nation vote in a manner that is beyond reproach. Strawn and his team passed that test with flying colors.

Gentry Collins is a partner at Collins Anderson Philp Public Affairs. He is the former political director of the Republican National Committee. He was Mitt Romney’s 2008 Iowa campaign manager.