DES MOINES, Iowa — Walk into businessman Donald Trump’s campaign office in West Des Moines, and there’s usually an Iowan there asking for one of the presidential candidate’s famous hats, or hoping to score enough T-shirts to outfit the whole family with “Make America Great Again” slogans.
Campaign aides for Trump, the front-runner in the GOP race in Iowa, have a stack of thousands of “caucus cards” with names and addresses of Iowa voters that they’re typing into a database to use for their get-out-the-vote push for the first-in-the-nation presidential vote on Feb. 1.
In some Iowans’ eyes, businesswoman Carly Fiorina bested Trump in the recent prime-time GOP debate. But when they try to leverage their excitement for her into helping her cause in the caucuses, they find she has no Iowa office and a skeleton campaign operation here.
“I don’t know if she can maximize the positive feedback she’s getting,” said Dallas County Republican Bev McLinden, a passionate Fiorina fan who has not yet been able to find a place to plug in to volunteer for her campaign.
“I’m a little bit confounded. I don’t see the activity out there, so that’s a little bit frustrating,” McLinden told The Des Moines Register.
Whether Fiorina can capitalize on her higher polling in Iowa and climb to greater heights here hinges on a strategy that no other GOP candidate is attempting: She’s leaving the nitty-gritty work of organizing for the Iowa caucuses to her super PAC.
Fiorina and aides for her campaign can by law raise money only in small doses. They’re using it to handle her travel in Iowa and her message.
Out on the front lines, the organization that’s recruiting Iowans to commit to support her and managing volunteer activity is her super PAC. It can more easily raise money because it can accept checks of, say, $1 million or more.
“What we’re seeing is campaigns experimenting with new techniques. Some will work. Others will not,” said campaign finance analyst Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s almost a legal fiction that they are separate from the campaign, but as long as that distinction is permitted, campaigns will leverage that.”
Fiorina returns to Iowa on Friday and Saturday for a two-day swing, her first visit to the state since last week’s breakout debate performance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
FIORINA SUPER PAC BULKS UP STAFFING
Federal law prohibits campaigns and super PACs from making decisions together, so aides make a point to keep a distance from each other in public.
Sarah Isgur Flores, deputy campaign manager for Carly for President, said that when Fiorina campaign aides see what the super PAC is up to, based on news reports, “we’re very grateful for their support.”
“We’ll change our allocation of resources if we see that they’re allocating resources,” Flores said.
“We are working hard to match Carly’s surge,”
In a separate interview, Leslie Shedd, a spokeswoman for Fiorina’s super PAC, told the Register, “We are working hard to match Carly’s surge.”
The Fiorina PAC is increasing its presence in Iowa and the other early states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, as well as in Vermont and Massachusetts, Shedd said.
In Iowa, the PAC has added three staffers since the debate and is working on hiring three more, she said.
“We are absolutely prepared to capture Carly’s current momentum,” Shedd said. “We will make sure that we grow as we see a need to, but it will be a calculated decision and not a knee-jerk reaction to polls.”
State Sen. David Johnson backed Rick Perry for president until the former Texas governor dropped out of the race earlier this month. When he told Fiorina aides he now wants to volunteer for her, he discovered a fledgling campaign.
“I don’t sense any completed network right now,” Johnson said. “But perhaps it’s a good idea to be a little conservative right now, in terms of not getting ahead of ourselves.”
The Fiorina campaign is experiencing some growing pains, aides acknowledged.
One challenge is that Iowans are requesting Fiorina’s presence at more events than she can possibly attend, said Sioux City Republican Christopher Rants, senior adviser to Fiorina’s campaign. “It’s a good challenge to have. Better than having half-empty rooms,” he said.
In a race that’s still wildly fluid, organizing is crucial, strategists said.
Brad Todd, a senior adviser for a super PAC that supports Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, said he has learned that when likely GOP caucusgoers tell pollsters the candidate they like best for president, “that’s just their grade for the candidates over the last seven days.”
It doesn’t mean they intend to caucus for them, said Todd, whose PAC organizes town halls for Jindal.
“They all like more than one person,” he said. “They want to vote for someone who can win. They want to make sure their vote makes a difference.”
It’s risky for a campaign to outsource the person-to-person relationship building that is Iowa caucus organizing, strategists said. Months of work culminate with the one night that matters, Feb. 1, and the most important factor in doing well is ensuring that a candidate’s supporters show up to the caucuses.
CARSON IS A LEADER IN RACE TO ORGANIZE
Which candidates have the most organization in Iowa? Some candidates, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, are keeping as a tightly held secret the amount of work they’re doing in Iowa’s 1,682 caucus precincts.
But according to Republican activists and campaign strategists, retired doctor Ben Carson is clearly one of the most organized, followed by Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul used to have an organizational edge here, but that seems to have dissipated, they said.
One show of Carson strength: His PAC has 32 staff in its Iowa office, which is in Johnston. Crews of loyal activists fan out to knock on doors in Iowa, and have already handed out 180,000 copies of a 199-page booklet about Carson, Rx for America, said Tina Goff, an Iowa-based organizer for Win Ben Win.
Carson’s presidential campaign itself has two offices — in Urbandale and Cedar Rapids — and is building its own list of county leaders that’s entirely different from the PAC’s, said Ryan Rhodes, the campaign’s state director. Campaign aides hunt for backers at farmers markets, festivals and in church parking lots, he said. They gave away free hot dogs and chips at Living Word Outreach in Spencer earlier this month, and signed up 70 new supporters, Rhodes said.
Others who are lower in the polls, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, say they have great organizational strength. Huckabee, going partly off lists from his winning 2008 caucus campaign, has already signed up 174 county leaders and 250 volunteers, spokeswoman Alice Stewart told the Register. Some of the most passionate backers this weekend will start the nitty-gritty work of “phone banking,” where they telephone their peers to try to persuade them to get on board. Huckabee himself has notched visits to 53 of Iowa’s 99 counties.
McLinden, the Fiorina backer from Dallas County, said that while she hasn’t found an avenue for getting involved with the campaign, she encountered a Fiorina super PAC aide who invited her to help with the PAC.
“It’s a new model,” McLinden said. “People are out there organizing, but what’s the thread that ties everything together? Usually the thread is the campaign staff. I’m not sure how it’s going to work.”
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