Consultants from both sides of the aisle are scratching their heads over the Republican presidential contenders’ field operations in Iowa.
Field organizing in the lead off caucuses is the industry’s gold standard, but Republicans this cycle are putting GRPs ahead of phone banks and canvassing. Some GOP consultants shrugged this off as a continuing trend while their Democratic counterparts believe it could be another edge they have in the race for the White House.
By stymying the development of well-rounded campaign staffers, the eventual nominee could be shorthanded when it comes to the general, argues Jeremy Bird, co-founder of 270 Strategies.
“The fact that none of them are serious about running a field organizing program in a race that’s wide open is very surprising to those of us who’ve seen how important that is — especially in a caucus state,” said Bird, who was the national field director for President Obama’s reelection campaign.
“You get a long-term reward from that early investment. But they’re not focused on building leadership, developing relationships and doing the hard, nitty-gritty work.”
Republican campaigns neglecting field in favor of TV is nothing new, according to Chris Turner, CEO of Stampede Consulting.
“Emphasis on television, it’s like, is the sky blue?,” said Turner. “A lot of consultants are good at television; they know television. They’re going to default to that business. There’s a lot of pain in our business for taking risks.”
Turner, who runs one of the few field strategy shops on the right, said there’s been some increased awareness of the rewards of a strong field program, but change is slow. Moreover, he said it was challenging for a campaign to build a staggered field program when they’re focused on battling frontrunner Donald Trump in the media with day-to-day messaging.
“I understand what they’re dealing with,” he said. “I think every single campaign manager would like to have a fully tested out ground game, but it’s just not possible.”
Rival campaigns also watched what happened to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who staffed up in Iowa but didn’t have the fundraising to sustain the payroll. With the donor base spread thin across a wide field, the argument goes, no single candidate has pockets deep enough to do TV and field well.
As a result, campaigns this cycle are either placing the emphasis on TV while getting their candidate in front of as many voters in the early states for personal exchanges as possible, or leaving a field program to be run by their allied Super PAC. That’s reflected in their staffing priorities.
In 2012, for instance, Mitt Romney had at least four top staff, including state director Sara Craig. All had significant campaign experience. In 2015, Ted Cruz’s campaign has only two senior staff in Iowa — senior field director Jake Dagel and Bryan English, the state director, according to the campaign tracking site p2016.org.
Trump is the candidate most in need of a ground game so that he could change the Iowa caucus electorate by bringing in many of the first-time voters he’s excited with his rhetoric. But a report from the Trump campaign’s recent precinct caucus training indicated enthusiasm for the horse trading of caucus night is low. "I was thinking, 'Uh-oh, what did I get myself into?,’” attendee Juanita Gallardo told the Des Moines Register.
Now, Jeb Bush’s campaign has a somewhat robust organization under state director Annie Kelly, but it’s also fallen short of past efforts, according to Matt Strawn, a former state GOP chairman.
“The size of the staff that I had in the McCain campaign in spring of 2007 and what Mitt Romney had in the state in place [that year] — those staffs were larger than the majority of the campaign staffs currently and we’re five-six weeks from caucus night,” said Strawn.
Staffing decisions are also being driven by the campaigns having a more national focus due to the compressed primary schedule, said Strawn, now a public affairs consultant. “They’re taking a much broader view toward the primary than being topically focused on the first three states.”
When the eventual nominee emerges, he or she will likely have to turn to the GOP’s national committee for help.
“It puts even more pressure on the RNC,” said Strawn. “The political operation there will have to do the heavy lifting once we have the nominee because logic would dictate that they won’t have a massive political organization of their own and they won’t have time to ramp one up.”