SIOUX CITY — The photos on the wall tell the story.
When the 2012 Republican presidential candidates come through Sioux City in advance of the Iowa caucuses, expect many of them to make the traditional trek to Luciano’s restaurant and wine bar.
Owned by former Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Ray Hoffmann, Luciano’s is a frequent campaign gathering place, and the walls bear many photographs of GOP candidates who have stopped by.
“They all have to stop at Luciano’s. That’s the place to be, right?” Sioux City Council member Keith Radig, a former Republican candidate for statewide office, said with chuckle.
Or do they?
Iowa has long been a state that puts a premium on retail politics. Paying homage to traditions and kingmakers in Iowa has become something of a rite of passage for would-be presidents. Whether it’s shaking hands at Luciano’s, politicking at the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City or mounting the soap box at the Iowa State Fair, the conventional wisdom is that rituals and face time matter.
But the proliferation of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter and the increasingly aggressive “netroots” organizational and fundraising efforts employed by most national political campaigns pose significant challenges to the Iowa caucuses’ old guard. So much so that at least one political operative said the old rules may no longer apply.
“Things have changed,” said Steve Salem, former Woodbury County Republican Party chairman. “I don’t think there are any go-to people … People are looking for their information in different ways, technology has changed. The Tea Party has shown things aren’t the way they used to be.”
But not everyone involved with Iowa politics is quick to agree with Salem.
Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt believes retail politics are still important, as is getting to know the Hawkeye State’s key political players.
“The people that you want to lay the groundwork with are party activists and people who are respected in the various counties and precincts, because they are the ones who are going to show up,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt agrees the Internet, Facebook and Twitter allow for new ways to get information to people, “but it is still true that the Iowa caucuses are retail politics and not wholesale politics.”
Schmidt said major party players want to be cultivated, and perhaps “sold” on whether they can support a particular candidate.
“I don’t think that can be done with tweets,” Schmidt said.
Hoffmann, owner of the traditional campaign stop Luciano’s, said he drew more GOP presidential candidates in 2008 than 2000 — both contested races. He expects candidates will continue to flock to Iowa restaurants and coffee shops, as they have since the 1970s when the caucuses first rose to national prominence.
“It is a smaller state and it is relatively inexpensive for them to do so. They can’t afford it in the state of California or in New York or Texas, places like that. Here, they can. The people are interested, the people show up. And as long as people show up, they’ll come,” Hoffmann said.
Eric Woolson, who has served in many roles for various Republican candidates for more than two decades, said despite technological advances, getting to know key Iowa players will help a candidate turn out caucus goers to the 2,100 precincts statewide.
“It’s not the way it used to be, but people are still people,” Woolson said. “Information doesn’t show up on caucus night. People show up on caucus night.”
- By Bret Hayworth, Sioux City Journal