Technological change makes for quiet campaigns in Iowa
DES MOINES, Iowa - It's been a different presidential race in Iowa this year - quieter. Campaign headquarters have hardly been buzzing with activity, unlike the around-the-clock nature of past contests. Candidates have barely visited the state, compared with years when most all but moved here. And they have largely refrained from building the grassroots armies of yesteryear, in favor of more modest on-the-ground teams of paid staffers and volunteers.
DES MOINES, Iowa - It's been a different presidential race in Iowa this year - quieter.
Campaign headquarters have hardly been buzzing with activity, unlike the around-the-clock nature of past contests. Candidates have barely visited the state, compared with years when most all but moved here. And they have largely refrained from building the grassroots armies of yesteryear, in favor of more modest on-the-ground teams of paid staffers and volunteers.
The final rush of campaigning here gets under way Monday, just eight days before the Jan. 3 caucuses, and, to be sure, there will be a flurry of candidate appearances and get-out-the-vote efforts all week.
But that will belie the reality of much of 2011, a year marked by a less aggressive personal courtship of Iowans in a campaign that, instead, has largely gravitated around 13 nationally televised debates, a crush of TV ads, and interviews on media outlets watched by many Republican primary voters, such as Fox News Channel.
"We just haven't had as much face time," Republican chairwoman Trudy Caviness in Wapello County said. "That's why we're so undecided."
People here simply do not know the Republican candidates that well. It's a big reason the contest in Iowa is so volatile and why the caucus outcome could end up being more representative of the mood of national Republicans than in past years.
With a week to go, the state of the race in Iowa generally mirrors the race from coast to coast. Polls show former House Speaker Newt Gingrich having lost ground and Texas Rep. Ron Paul having risen, with both still in contention and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the head of the pack. The others competing in Iowa - Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania - are trailing.
But, in a sign that the contest is anyone's to win, most polls have shown that most Republican caucusgoers are willing to change their minds before the contest.
There are a slew of reasons the Iowa campaign is much more muted than it was in 2008. This year, there is no contested Democratic primary. Only Republicans are competing, and they are approaching the state differently, both visiting and hiring less. Also, as it did everywhere else, the race here started slowly - months later than usual - as a slew of GOP politicians weighed candidacies, only to decide against running.
Longtime Republican activists here, who often joke that they like to meet the candidates several times before deciding, have barely seen them once, if at all, and no campaign has more than 20 paid staff in the state.
All that is partly a consequence of how technology has changed politics and media in recent years. Campaigns now can more precisely - and cheaply - target their pitches to voters from afar, sending personalized e-mails and YouTube video messages from the candidates to voters directly, and more campaign outreach is being handled by volunteers and through central national websites. And voters can go online and find information about the candidates without having to wait for them to show up in the town square.
"Caucuses don't exist in a vacuum. They're not the same every time," said John Stineman, a West Des Moines Republican activist who ran Steve Forbes' 2000 Iowa campaign. "But everything else has changed. Why wouldn't the caucuses change?"
Part of the change has been driven by Romney's approach to the state. The nominal GOP front-runner for most of the year, Romney has been far less aggressive in cultivating support in Iowa than in his failed bid of 2008. He has spent only 10 days here this year, compared with 77 four years ago, in an effort to lower expectations in the leadoff state, where evangelical conservatives have harbored doubts about Romney in light of his Mormon faith and changed positions on some social issues.
Paul has been focused more on building a national following than being a one-state candidate.
Gingrich became a serious contender in the state only a few weeks ago. And, until recently, he lacked the money or manpower to launch a full-scale Iowa campaign, meaning more sporadic visits and a smaller team.