The political ground game begins in Iowa

Campaign managers get organized, prepare strategies to woo state's 1.9 million active voters

DES MOINES — Only one of the five items on Troy Price’s wipe board “To Do” list at the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters is crossed out.

But that will change soon.

Last week saw a flurry of activity on the political front in Iowa with candidate announcements for major offices, new polling data measuring the strength of those candidates and the launch of campaign teams whose goal is to get those candidates into office.

Over the next several months, those teams will pinpoint supporters and get them to the polls with, they promise, the most sophisticated tools used yet in Iowa electoral politics. It’s a lesson both parties learned from the 2012 election when President Barack Obama’s superior get-out-the-vote effort outmaneuvered Mitt Romney’s campaign.

And as it stands today, one could hardly ask for a more even starting point. There are 1.9 million active voters in Iowa, according to the most recent figures available through the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

Independent voters make up the largest chunk of the group at 703,932 people. Registered active Democrats are the next largest group at 617,736, then Republicans at 617,091, a difference of 645 voters. That’s less than one-half of 1 percent of the total active registered voters in the state.

The key for both parties then is to get as many of the independent voters into their column while making sure they don’t lose any of the ones they already have as well as making sure those people vote.

“As far as what we’re doing, we’re going to go out and register voters. That’s the bottom line,” said Price, who served as political director for the Obama campaign before being hired as executive director for the state Democratic Party. “When turnout is up, we win.”


Higher turnout historically favors Democrats, said Drake University Political Scientist Dennis Goldford. But, he said, midterm elections present specific problems for Democrats, who tend to vote less consistently than Republicans. Independents are even less consistent than Democrats.

“Clearly, the parties believe that higher turnout favors Democrats,” Goldford said.

Party electoral platforms reflect that, he said.

Republicans, for instance, tend to focus on “ballot integrity” issues and push voter identification laws and other such measures. Democrats, in turn, focus on “ballot access” issues and push policies such as same-day registration. The policies are couched in politically correct terms, but they effectually decrease or increase the potential voter pool, and Republicans, generally, want the former, while Democrats, generally, want the latter.

“Who can argue with ballot integrity? Who can argue against access?” Goldford said. “It goes back to this idea that the higher the turnout, the more it favors Democrats.”


There’s not much to see inside Gov. Terry Branstad’s re-election headquarters in Urbandale. The walls are mostly bare save for a few maps showing Iowa media markets and roads. Décor consists of folding chairs and tables, a few desks and a couple of computers.

Branstad hasn’t officially announced that he’s running for an unprecedented sixth term, but he did announce last week that he hired four campaign staff — Jake Ketzner as campaign director, Jimmy Centers as communications director, Phil Valenziano as political director and Vonna Hall as office manager.

Valenziano actually joined the campaign in May as a field organizer. It was the earliest the Branstad team brought on a field organizer, just as last week — 11 months before the 2014 primary and 16 months before the general election — is the earliest Branstad has activated an organization, Ketzner said.

“We’re going to be going county-to-county, neighborhood-to-neighborhood organizing in a way that no other Republican in the state of Iowa has done before,” Centers said.

But Republicans have a lot more geography to cover to turn out the base, said Chris Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, who studies turnout and occasionally blogs on the topic.

It’s true that a map of Iowa colored in Republican red or Democratic blue based on which party has more registered voters in each county leaves the impression that Iowa is a red state. But that’s only because the state’s population centers tend toward blue.

For example, Larimer said the top 10 most-Republican counties in the state based on registration provided just less than 7 percent of the overall vote for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, according to his work. The top 10 most-Democratic counties in the state based on registration provided a bit more than 31 percent of the vote for Barack Obama.

“I think it explains why you have Republicans showing up in eastern Iowa,” Larimer said. “They’ll win counties like Sioux County and Cass County in the west, but the vote share is not that big. That’s why they need to go to the population centers in the east.”

The reality of the map also has given birth to some ambitious plans.“We want to create an organization and mechanics for the entire Republican Party,” Ketzner said. “When the primary is over, we want to coordinate with the candidates on a level that’s never been done before.”

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