Will 2011 be the Year the Iowa Caucus Game Changed?

Iowa Republicans had fewer chances to meet candidates, but more types of media exposures to evaluate them. More than a dozen televised debates informed many Iowans' decisions, say experts.

With six days left for Iowa Republicans to select their presidential favorite, pop into several of Iowa's 99 counties, and you can see the caucus season has changed this year.

Whether you are on West Des Moines’ 13-mile Grand Avenue corridor or in neighborhoods around Iowa City, Johnston or Cedar Falls, political signs are scarce, (although Ron Paul seems to be an exception) and campaign visits are infrequent. Flick on the radio or television or get on Facebook or YouTube, though, and suddenly the candidates are everywhere. 

"I think my impression is the great deal of the campaign is being done by television ads," said Virginia Soelberg, a Johnston resident, who said she hasn't received any robocalls or political flyers in the mail this year.

Candidates have wooed Iowans differently in 2011 than in the past. They spent less time here chatting us up. Face time over a cup of coffee and a piece of pie at the town cafe was down but televised debate time was up.

“Campaigns always change. It's like any war. There are always losers using tactics from the last war,” said David Yepsen, who covered politics for the Des Moines Register for 34 years.  “My take on that is it’s not any one thing that’s most important.”

Campaign Staff Less of a Presence

Candidates or their political action committees spent more money on television ads this year and less money on Iowa staff and campaign headquarters.

No campaign has more than 20 paid staffers this year, down from 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton together had almost 300 campaign employees, according to the Associated Press.

Reports of diminished staffs seem to match Patch's findings during visits to campaign headquarters, where despite being less than two weeks out from the caucus most were dead last week.

  • At the Gingrich headquarters in Urbandale, Judy Reynolds sat at a reception desk in a large empty room. There was nobody working at tables or making calls except a few paid staffers in private offices.
  • At about 3 p.m. last Wednesday, not much of anything seemed to be happening at Mitt Romney's office in Des Moines. Several card tables were set up one one side of the room, but only two volunteers were at them, both glaring at computer screens.
  • At the Santorum headquarters across the street from Bachmann's digs in Urbandale, the only action of note was one volunteer, college sophomore Ian O’Hagan, fueled by the bag of holiday M&Ms in front of him, calling supporters to invite them to Santorum events this week.
  • Bachmann's office was almost empty on Thursday afternoon.

Eric Woolson, communications director for Bachmann and a veteran caucus campaign worker, said volunteers now can make calls from their homes, using data provided online by campaigns.

“It kind of changes the dynamic at campaign offices," Woolson said last week, from an almost empty Bachmann headquarters in Urbandale.

Paul continues to be the exception to the rule. Despite the close proximity of the holidays, about a dozen volunteers staffed his Ankeny campaign headquarters Thursday afternoon.

Debate Showings Equated to Face Time

In previous election years, Iowans bragged that they met candidates several times before they chose a favorite. Now some in small-town Iowa are saying they haven’t seen some candidates even once.

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

Grassroots networks of precinct volunteers and county chairmen still are touted as essential in Iowa -- Paul leads in both the strength of his Iowa organization and the polls. However, this year Iowans' views of candidates have largely been shaped through media: on 13 televised debates, in social media, and through political ads on TV, said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University.

"We certainly do have the impression of a lot more of this campaign being conducted in electronic media: cable TV, televised debates, through social media. That really is a change,” said Goldford.

Goldford believes the debates became the functional equivalent to Iowans meeting the candidates and narrowing the field.

“Tim Pawlenty dropped out after a poor showing in the straw poll, but that was after two poor debate performances," Goldford said. "Strong performances in the debates this fall made Newt Gingrich a player. His campaign was over in the summer ... And they suggested that Rick Perry was not quite the player that people had hoped, that he really wasn’t a ready-for-prime-time player.” 

Ad Buys Surge

Republican candidates spent more than $10 million in December to air political ads in Iowa, outpacing previous years, reported the Des Moines Register.  

In addition to ads from the candidates themselves, many of the most negative ads have been from super PACs. Individuals and corporations, under last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, are not subject to the same compaign contribution limits if they give to a political action committee than they are if they give to the candidates. 

Iowans can expect to see those attack ads continue for one very good reason: they work, Kraig Paulsen, speaker of the Iowa House and a Gingrich supporter told The New York Times. 

Social Media Supplants Traditional Outreach

The impact of social media tools is yet to be seen, but candidates all have added those tools.  Ron Paul raised more than $1 million through a Dec. 7  email blast to supporters, then followed it with a Dec. 16 plea for another $4 million.

Many Iowans are up on the latest political ads -- or spoofs of them -- because they see them on YouTube or their Facebook pages.

It's a good question if social media will displace other, more traditional outreach tools, such as yard signs, phone calls and mailed campaign literature. There is some evidence that is happening this year, as fewer yard signs have appeared in front of Iowa homes this year, yet computer inboxes are filling up with political emails.

Iowans say they’re still receiving phone calls with pre-recorded campaign messages, so-called robo-calls. They seem to be just as unpopular as they have been in previous campaigns.

Sharon Mattson, 63, of Dike, said Tuesday the political calls were too much.

"I got rid of my land line because of it," she said. 

Paul is Evidence Face Time Still Matters

Candidates spent fewer days campaigning in Iowa in 2011 than in previous election cycles. Democracy in Action's candidate tracker tallies just 458 days between all 10 candidates. The organization counts 551 days in Iowa for GOP candidates or prospects in the 2008 cycle.

This week, most of the candidates are making a final push through personal appearances in Iowa, even as they are expected to continue and increase television ads.

Bachmann, Perry and Gingrich are spending much of the final week before the Jan. 3 caucuses on bus tours across Iowa, as polls show that many Republicans still are undecided. Paul, Romney and  Santorum also will be spending much of the week here. 

Steffen Schmidt, Iowa State University political science professor, said candidates must reach the majority of Iowans in smaller precincts across the state, not just in Des Moines.

"Iowans love face time," he said. "Ron Paul has given a lot of face time and it seems to be paying off. He's first now with Newt (who gave almost no face time) down to third," he said.

Joseph Dobrian December 28, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Wha... why, that's my house! I'm much flattered!
Anne Carothers-Kay December 28, 2011 at 06:52 PM
Cool Joseph! Thanks to our intrepid West Des Moines Patch editor Beth Dalbey for the photos.
B.A. Morelli December 28, 2011 at 07:40 PM
Actually, Joseph, that was from me in Iowa City. I guess that is one of the many perks of having a Patch editor living in your neighborhood :)
Joseph Dobrian December 28, 2011 at 07:53 PM
If you're in my neighborhood, stop by and interview me about my book! I need to create some buzz.
B.A. Morelli December 28, 2011 at 10:27 PM
Joseph, have you ever tried blogging? You could apply to join our panel of local voices. http://iowacity.patch.com/blog/apply


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