Presidential Race in Iowa Quieter Than in Years Past

Iowa campaigningIt’s been a different presidential race in Iowa this year – quieter.

Pictured: Republican
presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., signs an
autograph during a campaign stop at at Tangleberries in Centerville,
Iowa, Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)


Campaign headquarters
have hardly been buzzing with activity, unlike the around-the-clock
nature of past contests. Candidates have barely visited the state,
compared with years when most all but moved here. And they have largely
refrained from building the grass-roots armies of yesteryear, in favor
of more modest on-the-ground teams of paid staffers and volunteers.

The
final rush of campaigning here gets under way Monday, just a week
before the Jan. 3 caucuses, and, to be sure, there will be a flurry of
candidate appearances and get-out-the-vote efforts all week.

But
that will belie the reality of much of 2011, a year marked by a less
aggressive personal courtship of Iowans in a campaign that, instead, has
largely gravitated around a series of 13 nationally televised debates, a
crush of television ads and interviews on media outlets watched by many
Republican primary voters, like Fox News Channel.

“We
just haven’t had as much face time,” Republican chairwoman Trudy
Caviness in Wapello County said. “That’s why we’re so undecided.”

Indeed,
people here simply don’t know the Republican presidential candidates
that well. And it’s a big reason why the contest in Iowa is so volatile
and why the caucus outcome could end up being more representative of the
mood of national Republicans than in past years when GOP activists here
have gone it alone by launching an unlikely front-runner to the top of
the field.

With a week to go, the state of the race in Iowa generally mirrors the race from coast to coast.

Polls
show Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, having lost ground and
Texas Rep. Ron Paul having risen, with both still in contention with
former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the head of the pack. All the
others competing in Iowa – Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele
Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – are trailing.

But,
in a sign that the contest is anyone’s to win, most polls have shown
most Republican caucusgoers undecided and willing to change their minds
before the contest in a state where the vote typically breaks late in
the campaign year.

There are a slew of reasons
why the Iowa campaign is a much more muted affair than in 2008 – marked
by the iconic clash of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who
together employed almost 300 staff in Iowa and held blockbuster rallies.
This year, there is no contested Democratic primary, given that
President Barack Obama has no serious challenger. Only Republicans are
competing, and those candidates are approaching the state differently,
both visiting and hiring less. Also, like it did everywhere else, the
race here started slowly – months later than usual – as a slew of GOP
politicians weighed candidacies, only to abort White House bids.

Long-time
Republican activists here, who often joke that they like to meet the
candidates several times before deciding, have barely seen the
candidates once, much less at all, and no campaign has more than 20 paid
staff in the state.

All that’s partly a
consequence of how technology has changed both the political and media
environments in recent years. Campaigns now can more precisely – and
cheaply – target their pitches to voters from afar, sending personalized
e-mails and YouTube video messages from the candidates to voters
directly, and more campaign outreach is being handled by volunteers and
through central national websites. And voters, themselves, now can go
online and find information about the candidates without having to wait
for the White House hopeful to show up in the town square.

“Caucuses
don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re not the same every time,” said John
Stineman, a West Des Moines Republican activist who ran Steve Forbes
2000 Iowa campaign. “But everything else has changed. Why wouldn’t the
caucuses change?”

Part of the change has been driven by Romney’s approach to the state.

The
nominal GOP front-runner for most of the year, Romney has been far less
aggressive in cultivating support in Iowa than in his failed bid of
2008. He’s only spent 10 days in the state this year, compared to 77
days four years ago, in an attempt to lower expectations in the leadoff
state where evangelical conservatives have harbored doubts about Romney
in light of his Mormon faith and changed positions on some social
issues.

Paul, the Texas congressman, has been focused more on building a national following than being a one-state candidate.

Gingrich
only became a serious contender in the state a few weeks ago. And,
until recently, he didn’t have the money or manpower to launch a
full-scale Iowa campaign, meaning more sporadic visits and a smaller
team. He’s struggled to reach all parts of the state more than once; it
was just last week that he visited Ottumwa, seat of the county Caviness
represents and a medium-size Iowa city uniquely situated in the
southeast with its own small media market.

Likewise,
Perry has not been to Marshalltown, a central Iowa GOP hub about the
same size as Ottumwa and home of the state-run veterans home. It would
seem like a natural spot for Perry, a former Air Force officer who has
sought veterans support. But he also hasn’t visited Fort Dodge, also
another mid-size Iowa city in north-central Iowa on the way to heavily
Republican northwest Iowa.

Those who have been
struggling to gain traction – and who lack the money of better-funded,
better-known rivals – are turning to old-fashioned retail campaigning in
hopes of wooing voters the traditional way.

Bachmann
is in the midst of a bus tour that has her crisscrossing the state. And
Santorum, who never has broken out of the back of the pack, is betting
that a year of one-on-one campaigning will pay off in the end.

Barb
Livingston is proof that, for all the changes, there’s still something
to be said for the personal approach. She has struggled all year to find
a candidate to back and is basing her decision on a personal impression
she had – except that impression was established four years ago, riding
around Marshall County with Romney.

“When
push comes to shove, I had a chance to meet him and travel around with,”
said Livingston, a former Marshall County GOP chairwoman. “He’s someone
personally I connected with.”

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