Newt Gingrich listens to remarks at the an Iowa Republican Party dinner… (Jim Young, Reuters )
Reporting from Ames, Iowa — Iowa State junior Jeremy Freeman is juggling final exams in ecology and invertebrate biology along with a tough assignment from a presidential campaign: find supporters willing to stand up and deliver a persuasive pitch for Newt Gingrich at the caucuses next month.
Recruiting "somebody who can get up there in front of people and speak will be very difficult," said Freeman, the Gingrich campaign chairman in Story County, one of the most populous in the state. At the moment, he has enlisted a Gingrich backer in about a dozen of the county's 43 caucus sites, mainly churches, schools and other public buildings, and he hopes to locate about a dozen more in coming days.
The secret to success in Iowa, a party official once said, is to "organize, organize, organize, then get hot at the end." Now, for the first time, a leading presidential contender is attempting to win the caucuses by turning that formula on its head.
Narrowly ahead in the polls, Gingrich is racing to cobble together, virtually overnight, at least the semblance of an effective organization in Iowa. Already he is under siege from opponents — in advertising and in Thursday night's debate. Without a sharp team on the ground, he risks falling short in a contest widely seen as crucial to his nomination chances.
Some Republicans, in Iowa and nationally, have argued that traditional grass-roots organizing is a thing of the past. They've noted that Mike Huckabee won the caucuses four years ago with a shoestring operation, largely on excitement generated by his compelling speaking style and by plugging into existing networks of home-schoolers, Christian evangelicals and their pastors. Mitt Romney, who at that time spent $10 million, had a large paid staff and built an extensive organization across the state, ran a disappointing second.
But Huckabee veterans say those who use their 2008 campaign to argue that organization is overrated in the digital age are rewriting history.
"Did we have the best organization Iowa had ever seen? No," said Chip Saltsman, who was Huckabee's national campaign manager. "But we had a great grass-roots organization of volunteers in all 99 counties."
Eric Woolson, who ran the statewide effort, said Huckabee built his operation over a period of many months.
"It was a heck of a lot longer than three weeks," said Woolson, who is now working for Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign. "Organization is important. It's extremely important to have a strong ground game."
That's one reason Ron Paul, perhaps the best-organized Republican candidate, is likely to perform well, especially if the weather persuades some less-enthusiastic caucusgoers to stay home. Another factor is the arcane caucus process itself.
At 1,774 sites across the state, a representative from each campaign will be invited to make a short speech to caucus gatherings that can range from a handful of people to 500 or more. It is a job with much influence, Gingrich said during a recent visit to his lone Iowa campaign office — as one-third of Republican voters will walk into their caucus meeting Jan. 3 either undecided or open to changing their mind. The representatives have the final word before Iowans mark their ballots in a preference poll that is the first official contest of the 2012 election.
At Gingrich's campaign office, opened only this month, charts taped to the walls hint at the magnitude of the task facing his skeleton staff. As of last weekend, Gingrich leaders had been identified in fewer than 25 of the more than 100 precincts in the vote-rich Des Moines area.
Getting a designated spokesman at half of the meetings statewide would be a good start, but it is only part of a winning effort. Among the others: letting supporters know where they must go on caucus night — in many cases it is different from their polling place in a regular election — and when to get there. Those arriving after the 7 p.m. start time are likely to be turned away, under party rules.
First-time caucusgoers, in particular, may need special reassurance. The campaign of George H.W. Bush engineered a successful upset over Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Iowa caucuses in part by mailing postcards to supporters telling them where their caucus would meet and the names of neighbors who would be there.
Voters "want to be walked through the process," Woolson said. "If they are newcomers, they want to know, 'Am I going to be asked to get up and talk?' You have to explain things to them in detail."
Gingrich, who has had neither the time nor the financial resources to identify many of his potential supporters, is largely depending on enthusiasm generated by his surging popularity and a recent TV ad campaign to get his Iowa vote out. Social networking and news media exposure, including on cable TV outlets such as Fox News Channel, which once employed him as a commentator and is heavily covering the GOP presidential contest, are important components.