Politics & Policy

Rubio’s Weak Ground Game Angers Iowa Republicans

Rubio campaigns in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, November 21, 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Des Moines, Iowa – Everyone here is mad at Marco Rubio.

In a place where retail politicking remains paramount, conservative and evangelical leaders are complaining that the Florida senator hasn’t given them enough attention since launching his White House campaign. While he has begun to attend their events and engage with their constituents, they say his team has not followed up to deepen relationships or organize additional meetings with them.

Establishment Republicans, meanwhile, have the same concerns about Rubio’s organization, but worry that Rubio is flirting too aggressively with Iowa’s social conservatives. They say that, thanks to Scott Walker’s exit and Jeb Bush’s decline, there exists in Iowa an enormous center-right vacuum that Rubio would be ideally positioned to fill, if only his team beefed up its field operation.

In recent conversations with nearly a dozen unaffiliated Iowa GOP veterans, a consensus has emerged across the party’s ideological spectrum: The state’s caucus-goers are interested in Rubio, but his infrequent appearances and paltry field operation leave lingering doubts as to whether he is interested in them.

RELATED: How Rubio Could Foil Cruz’s Plot to Unite Conservatives

“It doesn’t seem like he really wants to win Iowa,” says Craig Robinson, the state party’s former executive director, who is now editor of The Iowa Republican. “Of all the campaigns, he’s probably done the least of getting around the state. There are plenty of people who would love to vote for him. . . . But I hear more excitement on the ground in Iowa about Chris Christie than I do about Marco Rubio. And it shouldn’t be that way.”

On the campaign trail, Marco Rubio is calling for a “new American century.” He’s also running a different type of campaign, one that eschews spending on policy staffers, field operations, and other traditional aspects of a winning bid in favor of television advertising and digital outreach.

The campaign’s light footprint on the ground has increasingly become a source of controversy in Iowa and New Hampshire, where prominent activists and Republican officials believe a robust ground operation is critical to wooing voters who want to interact with their presidential candidates, and who have become accustomed to doing so.

RELATED: Cruz vs. Rubio — A Better GOP Race

Much of the negative attention has focused on New Hampshire, a state whose moderate electorate could be more receptive to the establishment-friendly Rubio. But behind the scenes in Iowa, criticism of Rubio’s operation has deepened. There are whispers here that prominent Republicans have scolded his campaign in recent days for its failure to organize in the Hawkeye State.

Stories abound of Rubio and his team missing easy opportunities to connect with voters: The time a line of people waited for him after an event, while his field staffers ate pizza backstage; the appearance he canceled at a major evangelical gathering for no apparent reason; the Saturday he spent here recently watching football with his state chairman, Jack Whitver, rather than holding public events.

Rubio has risen steadily in the latest Iowa polls thanks to a series of strong debate performances and millions of dollars in slick TV advertising.

Despite these perceived affronts, Rubio has risen steadily in the latest Iowa polls thanks to a series of strong debate performances and millions of dollars in slick TV advertising. He currently sits in fourth place here at 14 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average — high enough for his campaign to dismiss concerns, but low enough for his potential supporters to argue he would be leading the race if his TV presence were paired with a serious ground game.

The frustration is especially palpable among Iowa’s establishment-oriented Republicans, who have watched with concern recently as Rubio courts social conservatives, and who argue that despite the state’s ultra-conservative reputation, some 40 to 50 percent of caucus-goers are looking for an alternative to the likes of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

“He seems to be directing a lot of his time and energy into fighting Cruz and opening up his path on the right with social conservatives. That’s an interesting choice, since that lane seems to be about purity instead of electability,” says John Stineman, who ran Steve Forbes’s 2000 Iowa campaign. “Rubio seems to be the most establishment-friendly candidate with any legs at this point. Yet he seems to be avoiding that lane. I can’t quite figure it out.”

“Not all Iowa Republicans are on the edge of their seats awaiting Bob Vander Plaats’s presidential endorsement,” former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn says, referencing the influential evangelical leader whose forum Rubio recently attended. “Yet that’s where most of the candidates seem focused, which perhaps explains why Iowa’s significant block of center-right economic conservatives remain up for grabs.”

#share#Iowa’s 2012 entry polls pegged 37 percent of caucus-goers as “somewhat conservative” and 15 percent as “moderate.” Mitt Romney won both of those groups, but was crushed by Rick Santorum among the 47 percent of “very conservative” Republicans, and lost Iowa to Santorum by the slimmest of margins because of it.

Rubio officials are wary of running a one-dimensional campaign that narrows their candidate’s appeal to any one segment of voters. They aim instead to emulate Iowa senator Joni Ernst’s successful 2014 campaign, in which she won a competitive four-way primary by appealing simultaneously to different groups — evangelicals, tea partiers, moderates — and securing enough support from each to construct a winning coalition.

“Our campaign is premised on the fact that Marco is a next-generation candidate who is uniquely able to unite conservatives and inspire the country,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant says. “Our challenge is to get him in front of as many Republicans as possible.”

RELATED: Cruz vs. Rubio: An Immigration Confrontation

Iowa Republicans from both wings of the party agree that Rubio is singularly positioned to dominate the right-of-center while winning enough conservative voters to carry Iowa with a winning coalition. The only problem, they say, is that he hasn’t invested in a ground game that identifies, recruits, and retains supporters.

“The Iowa caucuses can only be won by organizational effort. They cannot be won by candidate appeal,” says Jamie Johnson, a longtime Republican national committeeman from Iowa who joined former Texas governor Rick Perry’s ill-fated campaign earlier this year. “There’s an opportunity for Rubio to win Iowa but he has got to pull out all the stops,” Johnson says. “If I were Senator Rubio, I would immediately hire a dozen people full-time in Iowa.”

Not lost on establishment Republicans is the fact that Jeb Bush — once thought to be an electoral steamroller, yet stuck in the single digits in Iowa for the past three months — has a booming field operation, with an army of experienced organizers and full-time staffers. In a display of the exasperation that has taken hold here, three Iowa Republicans offered identical assessments of the Florida senator’s campaign: “If he had Jeb’s organization, he would win Iowa.”

Rubio’s team believes that a sprawling operation weighs down a campaign and wastes precious resources that could be spent on TV ads that reach more voters.

Rubio’s team believes exactly the opposite — that is, that a sprawling operation weighs down a campaign and wastes precious resources that could be spent on TV ads that reach more voters. The senator’s lieutenants have pointed to Bush and Walker — two candidates with beefy operations whose support nevertheless faded quickly — as proof positive that organizational heft is overrated. (And even so, a Rubio official points out that they have representatives in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, and says the campaign will soon roll out a number of state-specific endorsements.)

The nominating process is certainly becoming more nationalized, and Rubio’s team believes television spots, media coverage, and momentum are key. But Eric Woolson, who served as the Iowa state director for Walker’s presidential campaign, says that face time and field work still matter. “There’s certainly more than one way to win Iowa, but for most candidates, the only way is to spend a lot of time here, and I would put Senator Rubio’s campaign squarely in that category.” According to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker, Rubio has spent just 27 days this campaign season on the ground in Iowa, hosting a total of 50 events.

Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s campaign manager, gave a window into his team’s air-heavy strategy — and emboldened its Iowa critics — when he told the New York Times this week: “More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa.”

“That is idiotic,” Robinson says of Sullivan’s remark.

“I had someone from his campaign reach out to me today” to discuss a meeting, Robinson says. “It’s mid-December! This is something they should have done months and months ago. And I think it’s going to catch up with them. He’s always had great potential but he hasn’t been able to spark his candidacy with it. And that’s because not enough time and effort have gone into their relationship-building.”

The brouhaha over Rubio’s relative absence in Iowa comes as his rivalry with Cruz is heating up. On Monday, the Texas senator took the lead in Iowa for the first time: The latest Monmouth University poll shows him leading Trump by five points, 24 percent to 19 percent. Rubio is in third place with 17 percent.

#related#The Cruz campaign has made no secret that it is working from a more traditional playbook than that of Team Rubio, counting on retail politics and large-scale voter-mobilization efforts to turn out caucus-goers and tip the state in their favor. In Iowa, Cruz has vowed to visit all 99 counties, and he has held almost twice as many events as Rubio. A spokesman for Cruz, Rick Tyler, wouldn’t disclose the number of paid staffers the campaign has on the ground in Iowa, but says they now count hundreds of committed volunteers.

And, while the pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions PAC is blanketing the airwaves with television ads, the outside groups supporting Cruz’s campaign have diversified their investments. According to Jeff King, an adviser to a cluster of pro-Cruz super PACs, they have spent on radio ads and direct mail, and have seven paid field operatives on the ground in Iowa. According to Dan Tripp, a strategist for the Cruz PACs in South Carolina, they have another 14 paid field operatives in the Palmetto State.

The Rubio campaign’s attitude is, essentially, that all the outside hand wringing is much ado about nothing — and that massive field operations are no guarantee of success. Bush has an unrivaled ground game in New Hampshire and is still stuck in sixth place in the polls there, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and 2008, respectively, without any ground game whatsoever.

But critics say those two candidates campaigned tirelessly in the months leading up to the caucuses, often straying into far-flung corners of the state and meeting with small audiences on snowy nights. Rubio, by contrast, has rarely left the Des Moines area for campaign events, and Republicans have taken to joking that he is running for mayor of Ankeny, the Des Moines suburb where his state headquarters is located.

With fewer than eight weeks remaining until the caucuses, there is little time for Rubio’s campaign to engineer a dramatic shift in strategy, and doing so would be inconsistent with their theory of the campaign. Which means that in addition to producing a winner, February 1 will validate either Rubio’s strategy or the case his critics are making, with enormous implications for how future presidential campaigns approach Iowa.

— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review. Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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