Iowa ground game under way for GOP prize

Iowa ground game under way for GOP prize
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The stage is set in Iowa for a chaotic and potentially surprising photo finish in which the candidates will rely heavily on ground strength as they seek any edge in the huge and fractured field. 

Less than three months before the caucuses, political insiders in the Hawkeye State say they have no idea how the race will shake out, but see structural advantages and windows of opportunity for a handful of GOP candidates in the race.

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Despite heavy skepticism from party elites, outsiders Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE and Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonBen Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh, accuser say they’re prepared to testify Report: A third of Ben Carson’s appointees have no housing experience MORE appear to have the organizations in place to capitalize on their polling strength.

Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the fast-rising freshman senators in the race, are drafting behind the front-runners with designs on peaking as voting begins on Feb. 1. 

And political watchers warn not to underestimate Jeb Bush, whose embattled candidacy has offered little along the lines of optimism recently. Bush possesses what many believe is the strongest and deepest team in a state with a large but overlooked block of mainstream conservative voters that nearly delivered a victory for Mitt Romney at the 2012 caucuses.

Several other low-polling candidates will hope to catch the lighting in a bottle that propelled former Sen. Rick Santorum to a win in 2012.

“The polls don’t tell the whole story right now,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. “Three months will be a lifetime in this race, so someone who doesn’t look strong on paper right now could easily come out of nowhere to pull it off.”

Trump and Carson are the front-runners. One of the two has been atop the polls in Iowa since late July, and both presently hold double-digit leads over the next closest contenders in the field, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

However, as newcomers, neither has been able to shake the conventional wisdom among Washington insiders that their lack of political experience will finally be exposed when the high-octane organizations of the experienced political candidates flex their muscle on caucus night.

But insiders in Iowa say it would be a mistake to underestimate either candidate.

“The expectations for both are high right now and they’re both are in a position to deliver,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Hill. “The question isn’t whether they have the organization, because both do. The question is whether the candidates themselves can continue to perform.”

When Trump shows up to campaign in the state, thousands come to hear him speak, and political watchers say he’s well-positioned to mimic that turnout on Election Day, even if he’s overly reliant on a base of voters that have never before participated in the GOP primary process.

Trump has 12 paid staffers on the ground in Iowa, more than anyone running except for Jeb Bush. It’s an eclectic group that includes Tana Goertz, a participant from Trump’s “The Apprentice” show, and is led by heralded political operative Chuck Laudner, who engineered Santorum’s surprise victory in the state in 2012.

“More than any other candidate, we’ll learn on Feb. 1 whether his supporters show up,” said former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn. “But there is no doubt in my mind that his team on the ground is doing everything they’re supposed to be doing to organize and sign people up for caucus training. They’re as technically proficient as you can be.”

Carson’s team, meanwhile, is smaller, with seven paid staffers working out of two offices.

But the team has its act together, and earlier this year became the first to announce chairmen and women in each of the state’s 99 counties.

“We’ve been laying the ground work throughout Dr. Carson’s entire rise,” said Carson’s Iowa state director Ryan Rhodes. “Our campaign has built a massive network across the state and we’re going into the places that Republicans traditionally haven’t gone.”

Additionally, Republicans on the ground say Carson’s under-funded but plucky supporting super-PAC will give him a significant boost.

The 2016 Committee, which raised $3 million in the third quarter and ended with only about $1 million cash on hand, is focusing on grassroots organizing, rather than expensive media buys.

The group’s leader, John Philip Sousa IV, says he has several dozen people working for him, with volunteers who show up at forums and fairs across the state to hand out copies of Carson’s book, collect voter data, and solicit support for caucus night.

“Carson’s campaign apparatus isn’t as large as some of these others, but his super-PAC has a very big footprint,” said former Iowa Republican Party political director Craig Robinson. “They’ve been up and running on the ground here for about a year and a half just organizing and finding people. It’s given him a jump on some of these other candidates.”

Rubio, meanwhile, has been on a roll, attracting endorsements and buzz after a spate of strong debate performances that have some arguing he’s best-positioned to carry the party’s establishment mantle.

Rubio’s team has made a point of running a “lean” operation and they don’t discuss strategy, leaving political watchers on the ground in Iowa with little insight into the campaign’s infrastructure.

But in private conversations, the campaign expresses confidence that they have the team in place to deliver on the buzz surrounding the candidate.

Rubio has an estimated half-dozen on the ground in Iowa. He’s had success picking off former supporters of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the state, like the mayor of Urbandale, and has begun attracting hundreds the trail in the state.

“The question here is whether his organizational momentum can match the momentum from his debate performances,” said Strawn.

Cruz is aggressively courting evangelicals in the state, and his campaign has had success in going after specific blocks of voters – pastors, Libertarians and others – as he waits out the shocking rise of Carson, who is cutting deeply into his base of support among evangelicals.

“It’s fine to be in fourth place right now,” King said. “It’s hard for the guys up top to stay there. There’s so much attrition involved with being in the lead. I’d be content with a position in the second tier right now because it will be hard for those candidates up top to hold that.”

Bush leads a pack of third tier candidates, sitting in fifth place in the polls. But some political watchers say he has the best organization of any.

Bush has 12 paid staffers working out of offices in the state’s two biggest cities, top-echelon endorsements from business leaders in the state, and millions of dollars in media buys between his campaign and supporting super-PAC.

Meanwhile, a host of lower-polling candidates will hope to follow in the footsteps of Santorum, who came out of nowhere in 2012, surging in the weeks ahead of the caucuses to claim victory.

“A lot of these campaigns will be relying on momentum more than organization,” said Robinson. “That’s a scary thing to bet on, but we very well could be headed to a finish led by the right candidate getting the wind behind them at just the right time.”