Republican presidential contenders in Iowa: The 2016 GOP field is trying to build a team to win the state’s caucuses.

Republican Presidential Hopefuls Are Trying to Unlock the Secret of Winning in Iowa

Republican Presidential Hopefuls Are Trying to Unlock the Secret of Winning in Iowa

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 23 2015 7:09 PM

Iowa’s Early Birds

Republican presidential candidates are trying to figure out the secret of success in the Hawkeye State.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Davenport, Iowa.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, pictured here in Davenport, Iowa, on July 17, 2014, keeps visiting Iowa to assist other Republicans. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa—There may be some awkward conversations ahead for some influential Iowa Republicans. As I talked to people working for the major GOP presidential candidacies, I asked who had signed up the organizers and super-volunteers crucial to turning out the vote in the first contest in the GOP nominating process. Everyone had a list of commitments. In the Jeb Bush and Chris Christie camps, they think they’re being supported by some of the same people. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.

The 2016 election may seem like a distant prospect for many people. It is, after all, almost two years from now. In Iowa, where the voting takes place in 12 months, activity is already clicking along at a brisk pace. Some Republicans in the state are saying that candidates, like Bush, haven’t started soon enough.

Whether a candidate is actually behind in Iowa must be considered in context. Most people in Iowa’s political class have an interest in getting things started early. They want the state to be the first robust contest of the nominating process. They covet the visits and the personal calls from the candidates. Some want to get paid. The earlier that candidates start, the more they need pricey strategists and paid organizers. So lots of people have an incentive to push a hurry-up message.

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The upside of starting early is obvious. “This isn’t like a normal election, where you convince people,” says Craig Robinson, the founder of the Iowa Republican website. “You have to convince them and keep them convinced.” That takes skill, and that skill is getting snapped up by other campaigns.

The argument for waiting is that you can focus on other elements of your campaign (like raising money) and that a strong message or money (or both) can jump-start a slow organizational pace in the state. Plus, Iowa can be a graveyard for candidates who get in too early. The famous flameouts include Lamar Alexander in 2000, Mitt Romney in 2008, and Tim Pawlenty in 2012. All put considerable energy into the state, and when voters didn’t rally to their banner, their campaigns either ended or were crippled. The message there is don’t put all your chips on Iowa. But the state has also boosted campaigns: See Lamar Alexander 1996, Barack Obama 2008, and Rick Santorum 2012. Those campaigns have followed the old formula: Organize, organize, organize, and get hot at the end. 

Organizations are usually staffed with operatives who have well-established networks from working previous election cycles. Robinson calls them tribes. David Kochel, who oversaw Mitt Romney’s Iowa operation and who helped get Sen. Joni Ernst elected in November, leads one tribe. A.J. Spiker and Steve Grubbs, who are backing Sen. Rand Paul, each represent their own tribes. Christie’s backer Jeff Boeyink represents a tribe, too.* The allegiances to the tribe are sometimes closer than the allegiances to the candidates. This came through clearly in a conversation with one operative who said of a talented volunteer, “He’s not with Bush, he’s with me.

Jeb Bush is setting the pace of the national GOP contest by launching a massive fundraising operation to intimidate his rivals. On the ground in Iowa, though, his footprint is light. Romney has his team from last time, though Kochel has not said if he will support the former Massachusetts governor again. Christie has a gang built up from all his visits to Iowa as head of the Republican Governors Association. Christie visited the state several times, purportedly to help Gov. Terry Branstad’s re-election, despite the fact that Brandstad was one of the least vulnerable incumbents running. 

Paul has his dad’s organization, though for some he is not sufficiently pure. Santorum and Gov. Rick Perry also have roots. Bush doesn’t have any organization from the past, which leads some to wonder if he’ll even try to compete hard in the caucuses. This week he called the Iowa Republican chairman, Jeff Kaufmann, to tamp down any speculation that he will overlook the state. It’s amazing how quickly that message was digested; almost everyone I talked to mentioned that one phone call. What such a call does—or what Bush hopes it does—is keep some slice of organizers from signing up with other campaigns. Apparently, those awkward conversations will come a little later.

*Correction, Jan. 24, 2015, 2:48 p.m.: This article originally misstated that Chuck Larson was backing Chris Christie. Larson has not picked a candidate. (Return.)