On a cold Tuesday evening four years ago, I drove to West Des Moines, Iowa and entered a high school gymnasium. Wearing my Rick Perry for President t-shirt, I greeted the Perry precinct captain and asked if I could speak on behalf of the Texas Governor. He graciously agreed to my request. It was the culmination of a long multi-state journey.
I waited to speak, and then I addressed the ~200 Iowans that had come out to make their choices for President. I explained that I was a Tennessean and an Iraq War veteran. I wanted them to know that the reason I had left my family in Tennessee to come all the way to Iowa was that I cared deeply about the fighting men and women of our country and wanted them to have a conservative and prepared Commander-in-Chief whom they deserved.
During my 5-10 minute speech, I took some shots at Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney and talked up Perry. A few more precinct captains spoke for their candidate, and then the Iowans voted. After the ballots were counted, Rick Santorum had edged out Rick Perry by fewer than 10 votes at my precinct. I was disappointed, but I thought Perry made a respectable showing. The evening ended dismally as Perry finished a distant fifth with about 10% of the vote.
I campaigned a week in Iowa prior to the caucus, and many conservatives expressed genuine affection for Perry. But they candidly explained they believed Santorum had the momentum. And they wanted to defeat Romney. Unlike Perry, Santorum had shined in the debates and had landed some highly coveted endorsements from conservative Iowan leaders such as Bob Vander Plaats. Santorum had developed a real ground effort also. Santorum’s team organized an impressive 1,000 precinct captains which meant about 60% of the caucus locations had a trained Santorum volunteer ready to speak for the Pennsylvanian.
Four days prior to the Caucus in 2012, Rasmussen reported Santorum had climbed into third place with 16% of the vote. Romney led with 23% support and Ron Paul polled just behind with 22%. Gingrich and Perry were tied with 13% each. On Caucus night, Santorum edged Romney 24.6% to 24.5%. Ron Paul finished with 21.4%, Gingrich 13% and Perry 10%.
Interestingly, Perry and Paul underperformed from polling expectations. My conclusion is that some supporters defected to Santorum to coalesce behind the conservative alternative to the moderate Romney. But where does the rest of Santorum’s 8.6% surge come from? The answer is Santorum’s superior ground game.
Why does all this matter in 2016? As Shakespeare said, “what’s past is prologue.” Iowa is not a primary state. It’s a caucus state. Winning methods of retail politics and volunteers ground pounding still apply. Yes, turnout will probably be higher than 2012 but not at the ridiculous levels some pollsters are predicting. Voting in a primary is a task on a to-do list. Voting in a caucus is an event. It takes serious commitment to sit through an hour of speeches. That’s why the ground game matters.
Earlier today, the Cruz campaign announced they had recruited 1,573 precinct captains. No other campaign has released their precinct captain total besides Rand Paul (who announced roughly 1,000 captains). Cruz has 93% coverage of Iowa’s caucus locations compared to Santorum’s 58% in 2012.
What does Cruz have that Santorum didn’t in 2012? An air attack and a better ground game. Cruz also has arguably more and better quality surrogates (Rick Perry who earned the vote of 10% of 2012 GOP caucus goers, Glenn Beck, Bob Vander Plaats, Dana Loesch, Steve Deace and Steve King) than Santorum had. There are some other dynamics working for Cruz. Ben Carson’s campaign is in free fall. Some of his supporters will defect to Cruz to block Trump. Conventional wisdom says Rubio and Rand are out of striking distance to challenge Trump or Cruz. Look for Rand and Rubio supporters, who are principled conservatives and libertarians first and foremost, to coalesce behind Cruz to head off Trump. Cruz is consistently the clear second choice option for all voters not currently supporting him. This reality means huge upside potential for Cruz. Cruz’s trained precinct captains will pull many voters off the undecided fence to the Cruz camp.
Significantly, Cruz has more volunteers to get pro-Cruz voters to the caucus. Cruz has over twelve THOUSAND volunteers from across the country that are knocking on doors, making phone calls, sign waving and planning to mobilize conservatives to the caucus on Monday night. Monday’s Iowa forecast is 3-5 inches of snow caucus afternoon and evening. The weather may depress turnout somewhat. But it won’t affect the most committed voters or the eventual outcome.
Ted Cruz isn’t just going to win the Iowa Caucus. He’s going to win it going away.
Full disclosure: The author is a Cruz supporter but not affiliated with any candidate or campaign.