What does it take to win the Iowa caucuses?

Campaign organizations ready for Iowa's Feb. 1 caucus test

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DES MOINES — The Iowa caucuses are moving into the ground-and-pound stage.

After months of campaigning, advertising and organizing, the final results will come down to pounding home a winning message and having the ground game to ensure hordes of energized Iowa political party activists, independents or newcomers make it to their precincts Feb. 1 and seal the deal.

So what will it take to win in Iowa in 2016?

“The short answer is hard work, great timing and a fair amount of luck,” said Eric Woolson, who worked for past caucus campaigns of Joe Biden, Mike Huckabee, George W. Bush, Michele Bachmann and was involved in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s ill-fated 2016 presidential bid.

“It really is just building brick by brick an organization that has a very strong foundation and then catches fire at the end,” noted Woolson, who added that it doesn’t hurt also to have a huge amount of financial backing and resources to put that infrastructure in place.

Although not a long-range forecaster by trade, Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann has posted an “avalanche” advisory for caucus-night turnout as competing presidential camps prepare to plow their way to victory, or at least a surprise turnout in the nation’s first test of organizational strength.

Unprecedented intensity and a slew of candidates who have been wooing Iowans for months could translate into record participation when Republicans and Democrats assemble at schools, fire stations, libraries and a host of other venues in 1,681 precincts, where campaigns hope to bear the fruits of their organizational labors, according to experts such as Kaufmann, Gov. Terry Branstad and others.

“Do I feel enthusiasm? I really do,” Kaufmann said. “We are prepared for an absolute avalanche of people. Whether that happens, I don’t know.”

Evolve or die

One factor in determining the 2016 caucus outcome most definitely will be the weather. But paramount as always will be the ability of organized armies of trained and tested campaign staffers, precinct captains and loyal volunteers to deliver boots on the ground to caucus sites in numbers that will outpace their rivals.

With this year’s insurgent rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, political experts believe Iowa may be on the verge of again rewriting the political manual on how to win in a state that historically has rewarded retail politicking and organization with 2008’s Obama tidal wave of young and non-traditional Democrats and Republicans’ “Huckaboom” followed by the Santorum surge in 2012.

Yet with the new social media and technology tools, super PAC-fueled advertising and other campaigning advances, it still will come down next Monday to the candidates best able to mobilize supporters at their appointed 7 p.m. rounds to register their support as a worldwide audience and the media looks on.

“If the folks that run political campaigns are trying to refight 2012 or even 2008, they’re guaranteed to lose,” said Mack Shelley, an Iowa State professor who chairs Iowa State University’s political science department. “No election is like another and you’ve got to be able to adapt, otherwise — in evolutionary terms — you either evolve or you die.

“As a political campaign goes, that applies just about as much as it does to species.”

Both Huckabee and Santorum again have done the “full Grassley” of visiting all 99 Iowa counties in working to put the old band back together for 2016.

“We’ve done the grass roots work and I think that’s how you win the caucuses, you do it the old-fashioned way,” Huckabee said. “If there is a shortcut and somebody can figure out that you don’t actually have to go out and meet voters and work that hard in Iowa, I think it could be the end of the Iowa caucuses and that would be detrimental — not for Iowa, but for America.”

But standing in the way of a Huckabee or Santorum repeat is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has Iowa Family Leader Chief Executive Officer Bob Vander Plaats and Iowa U.S. Rep. Steve King among others within his encampment, and is working to coalesce the support of the influential Tea Party, evangelical, constitutional and social conservatives using an impressive network of volunteers to mobilize supporters.

Unlike primaries, Iowa’s caucuses are party-building functions that test presidential candidates’ organizing skills and, in that regard, said Vander Plaats, a successful effort requires both inspiring and uniting the base but also expanding that appeal to new participants.

He said he has been impressed by Cruz’s organization and is committed to making sure there is “no stone unturned” on caucus night.

“Cruz has to be able to expand the numbers of people coming out and, if he does that, he’s going to be very tough to beat,” Vander Plaats said. “This environment is completely different from any environment we’ve ever been in. You have the extraordinary Donald Trump candidacy, and anybody who underestimates Donald Trump’s candidacy only does so at their own peril.

“You have an outsider mentality where people want to shake that system to the core right now,” Vander Plaats noted. And even though Cruz is a sitting first-term senator, he’s only been in Washington for three years and “has proven he’s willing to take on both sides of the aisle and to be that outsider voice to Washington, D.C., and people really appreciate that about him. He is viewed as very much an outsider.”

Trump’s campaign is led by Chuck Laudner, who engineered the 2012 Santorum surprise and now hopes to work that same magic this year by turning large crowds who show up for the New York billionaire’s rallies into caucus attendees Feb. 1.

“I think people underestimate Trump with unlimited resources and Laudner with unlimited caucus knowledge — I just think that’s a dangerous recipe to get beat on caucus night,” Vander Plaats said.

Also, Cruz took a one-two punch last week when Branstad hit him on the renewable fuels issue and Trump landed Tea Party icon Sarah Palin’s endorsement in Ames.

Doing the math

The Republican battle for third place also has become a 2016 intrigue, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio using the airwaves and ground troops to bolster his poll numbers among conservatives and establishment Republicans. But governors such as Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich also have engaged in Iowa’s stretch run, along with outsider/newcomers Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.

For other candidates such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, expanding the base means pulling in thousands of youthful supporters from college campuses who agree with him on privacy and foreign policy positions along with his liberty network that turned out in large numbers to support his dad’s 2012 campaign.

Vermont Sen. Sanders also is relying heavily on young Democrats to bolster his numbers in a hotly contested matchup with Hillary Clinton. But Polk County Democratic Party chairman Tom Henderson said his party’s rules require candidates to have at least 15 percent backing to qualify for delegates, so it’s advantageous to have supporters spread out among precincts rather than concentrated in pockets.

“You not only have to make sure that your folks turn out, they have to turn out in numbers large enough that you can actually get delegates awarded” — which may produce results different from what polling numbers may indicate based upon organizational strength, he said.

“When you start to do caucus math, if you have six delegates available in a precinct and 1,000 people show up, it really doesn’t necessarily reflect your support because you’re only going to get six delegates out of that particular area,” Henderson said. “So that’s why the Obama campaign (in 2008) decided that a delegate vote in south-central Iowa was as valuable as a delegate vote in Polk County, so they decided to put field organizers throughout the entire state and that did have an impact on the actual count.”

The 2008 Democratic outcome was affected when candidate Dennis Kucinich, then a U.S. Representative from Ohio, told his supporters to caucus for John Edwards, which helped propel the North Carolina senator into second place.

A similar reshuffling could occur, Henderson said, if third-place Democrat Martin O’Malley’s campaign makes a deal with one of the other two camps to provide second-choice switch-over help. That could enable a candidate to reach the 15 percent delegate viability threshold if the O’Malley contingent at a caucus site is not viable, with the proviso that the other campaign would do the same if it doesn’t adversely affect that candidate’s delegate count.

“The way you win caucuses doesn’t change as a matter of strategy. But with regard to the political issues that are important right now, there seems to be a lot of frustration in the voter base and that’s being reflected in both the Republican and the Democratic sides of the fence,” Henderson noted.


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