But Iowa political experts say a hybrid mix of networking old and new will be key in mobilizing the foot soldiers that candidates will need to perform well in the Jan. 3 GOP caucuses and beyond.
Cutting-edge tools like smart phones, electronic tablets, laptops, Twitter, blogs, YouTube and Facebook used to communicate campaign messages, raise money, deliver mass-blast emails, deploy damage control, and conduct organizational operations in the trenches are dramatically reshaping the way “real time” political races are being run in Iowa. And they are leveling the playing field for candidates with limited financial resources.
“It’s completely rewriting the playbook,” said Steve Grubbs, a Davenport political consultant who managed Republican Herman Cain’s presidential campaign in Iowa up until the Georgia businessman suspended his 2012 bid Saturday afternoon. “I would say that a combination of the social media world and the debates have changed the way voters choose their candidates.”
Anyone who signs up as a Facebook friend with a political campaign is likely to receive three or four messages a day, said West Des Moines Republican Mary Kramer, a former Iowa Senate president and U.S. ambassador to Barbados who is backing Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid.
“Suffice to say we can stipulate that social media has become an absolutely essential part of many campaigns,” said Butch Ward of the Poynter Institute. Ward cited data that 132 million Americans will use Facebook this year and that an average of 190 million daily “tweets” were shipped on Twitter last May. Pew Project for the States research found that 35 percent of social networking platform users (21 percent of online adults) used the sites for political reasons in 2010.
While the organizational power of social networking in targeting a message and raising campaign money became painfully evident to Iowa Republicans during Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential bid, they also saw the value of going old school during Mike Huckabee’s ascent in the state’s lead-off precinct caucuses four years ago. Huckabee scored a come-from-nowhere victory that was fueled by little-noticed networks of church Bible groups, home-schooling parents, anti-abortion and single-issue activists, constitutionalists, and evangelical conservatives who united under his presidential banner.
“The Huckabee people – it was all networking and it wasn’t necessarily social networking,” said Tim Albrecht, a GOP activist currently serving as Gov. Terry Branstad’s press secretary who worked for Romney’s Iowa campaign four years ago. “Romney ran the traditional campaign with the phone banking and the ads and the mailers, but ultimately it was the networking of the Huckabee supporters that proved successful on caucus night. They organized themselves.
“They are work horses. Home-school groups helped propel George W. Bush in 2004. They packed phone banks to help get him elected. They did the same thing on behalf of Mike Huckabee, really kind of organically and on their own,” Albrecht added. “Like-minded people tend to flock together and they all got behind Mike Huckabee. Without those networks, the nation would never have been introduced to Mike Huckabee.”
Those are the networks – along with Tea Party activists – that GOP candidates like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and, to some degree, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich hope to tap.
Uncommitted still out there
But so far Iowa conservatives in the Republican camp have not unified behind one candidate with one month remaining until they travel to their 1,784 local precincts to start the process of selecting their 2012 presidential nominee to face Obama.
“There are so many of us, and I include myself in that, there are so many of us who are still authentically undecided,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a three-time gubernatorial candidate who led Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign and now serves as chief of the Pleasant Hill-based Family Leader organization. “If those of us who live and breathe this every day are still authentically undecided amongst what I would consider four really good candidates, maybe more, I’ve got to believe 80-plus percent of Iowans are still fluid. This is very, very unusual.”
Eric Woolson, who currently manages Bachmann’s Iowa campaign and held a similar post for Huckabee four years ago, said he believes Iowans won’t make their final choices until the final week leading up to the caucuses. The closing month includes televised debates in Des Moines on Saturday and Sioux City on Dec. 15.
“We’ve seen more up and down moves in the polls this year I think than any year that I can remember and I think it’s going to be a case where we’re going to see four or five more twists and turns between now and Jan. 3,” he said.
Vander Plaats said the other “networking” that has and will continue to influence the political process this election cycle is the network-televised candidate debates and the role that Fox News network in particular has played in covering presidential candidates. Those forums have aided Gingrich, Romney and Bachmann, while hurting Perry and others who have stumbled in the camera’s glare. Public-opinion polls have captured snapshots of the race, but often the picture is blurred and several candidates have suffered from over-exposure as media, bloggers and others drill down into their positions and pasts.
Combination of outreach efforts still necessary
Given the interactive nature of campaigning, real-time tweeting during live debates and the volume of information moving in the “blogosphere,” political candidates have technology advisors and social media coordinators to constantly monitor the Internet to identify and correct whatever negative or misinformation emerges.
“It’s gotten to the point where campaigns have multiple people monitoring the situation so they can quickly correct it,” Albrecht said. “It’s not enough to just put up a web site any more because you’re engaging in hand-to-hand combat in real time now via Twitter and Facebook. Whereas 20, 30 years ago, you had a 24-hour news cycle, but now it’s a 140-character news cycle and you’d better be ready and you’d better have your people on Twitter sharing the views that you need to get out there.
“But, ultimately, nothing beats a good candidate,” he added. “You can have all the networks in the world, but if you’re not a good candidate, then it’s not going to matter on caucus night.”
Also, Albrecht said the most effective campaign tool remains personal contact, noting that he got involved in politics due to the impression he got as an elementary school student when candidates like presidential Pat Robertson, Bob Dole and Vice President George Bush visited his western Iowa hometown of Ida Grove during the 1988 caucus race.
“I still get that thrill when a candidate comes through,” he said. “When you have that kind of exposure in a tiny town of 2,400, you don’t forget that.”
Woolson agreed that a personal appearance by a candidate or having someone you know from your church, a social or civic organization, a friend or a relative at a holiday event make a pitch for support trumps social media messaging.
“That’s what closes the deal,” he said. “Not a lot of voters are going to say ‘I’m going to support candidate A or candidate B because I received a mass-blast email from them.’”
Albrecht said campaigning in Iowa is still about the traditional network of phone banks, mailers, paid media advertising and having precinct captains selling their candidate to other caucus participants on Jan. 3, and the test of the new evolving social media and electronic tools is scored by the campaigns that utilize them most effectively.
“A lot of the social media is talked about and it’s kind of the shiny new toy in the room,” he said. “However, if you have a shiny, brand new car but it doesn’t have a good engine underneath the hood, all you have is a good-looking car but it doesn’t do you much good.”
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