For a campaign that’s made a splash in entering the GOP race, it’s no surprise that Donald Trump’s organization in Iowa — home of the first-in-the-nation caucus — is anything but politics as usual.
In a state where the key to a caucus win is to “organize, organize, organize,” the Trump campaign is now tasked with the challenge of turning curious Iowans into volunteers and full-fledged Trump evangelists who will turn out on caucus night in February.
One sign the campaign is serious about their strategy in the Hawkeye State: The Trump campaign hired top Iowa strategist Sam Clovis, once proclaimed as a “conservative icon,” away from the Perry campaign. Clovis, who was Rick Perry’s Iowa co-chairman, will serve as national co-chair and senior policy adviser.
Clovis is a big asset to the Trump team in Iowa. A popular Iowa talk radio host, he previously worked to steer Rick Santorum to slow and steady victory in the 2012 caucuses, and ran in the Republican primary for Senate in 2014.
“What Sam brings to the table is a personality that can talk to the media and travel the state and make the case as to why Trump is the type of nominee Republicans need at this time,” GOP activist and founder of The Iowa Republican blog Craig Robinson said. “He can make a populist pitch to tea party Republicans who want to change the way Washington runs more than any one policy proposal.”
But Clovis has been critical of Trump’s campaign as recently as last month. In emails obtained from Perry backers by the Des Moines Register, Clovis blasted a speech by Trump as a “barking carnival act that can be best described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.”
Many Republican activists in Iowa have privately voiced concerns that Clovis went to the Trump campaign for the money, which could also eat at his credibility.
But Robinson insists Clovis’ hire is “a score for Trump.”
“Plenty of other campaigns were going after him and would have loved to land him,” he said.
Clovis joins Trump’s Iowa state director, well-respected veteran campaign operative Chuck Laudner.
Earlier this month, Laudner told CNN the campaign has garnered the intensity and excitement usually reserved for the election week — still over a year away. Volunteers have been pouring in so fast that the campaign has had trouble tracking them all.
“It’s a very good problem to have,” Laudner said. “People are locked in and excited. I’ve never seen that before.”
Despite the rapid influx of eager Iowans, Laudner said the campaign has been able to identify volunteers all the way down to the precinct level (there are 1,774 precincts in Iowa).
Trump boasts 10 full-time staffers — and growing — in the Hawkeye State, led by Laudner. And now, they are bolstered by numerous volunteers who represent the Trump campaign at county fairs, parades, local Republican Party dinners and meetings, and even RAGBRAI, a week-long bicycle ride across the state attracting over 20,000 riders.
The campaign is set to open its West Des Moines office next month, but in the meantime, it’s taking its show on the road in the #TrumpBus, a tour bus and mobile office wrapped in blue with Trump’s logo and signature “Make America Great Again!” tagline.
The bus is traveling across the state, making stops in small towns, where staffers get out to meet, greet, hand out yard signs and bumper stickers, and most importantly, sign up supporters.
“You’ll see the whole town shut down, and people will come out to see the bus knowing Donald Trump is not on the bus, but to meet a staff person and tell us how much they support Trump,” said Iowa Trump operative John Hulsizer.
It’s that one-on-one interaction that’s so important to building a ground game in Iowa, even if the candidate isn’t there.
The campaign is putting volunteers to work, with at least 70 volunteers on site at Trump’s Tuesday rally in Dubuque, but that’s not their primary focus.
“We’re focusing less on getting people to go out and volunteer by knocking on doors or making phone calls,” said Hulsizer.
For a candidacy that has essentially gone viral over the summer, Trump is on the forefront of conversations in neighborhoods across the country. The campaign is tasked with strategically harnessing those conversations to build a grassroots movement and seal the deal with interested voters. It will require sustaining the energy the campaign has built so early.
At the Dubuque event alone, the campaign said they received almost 2000 completed commit to caucus cards.
A majority of Iowan voters won’t fully commit to a candidate until closer to the caucuses, which take place on February 1, 2016. A CNN/ORC poll earlier this month found that 15% of respondents have definitely decided who to support in the Iowa Republican caucus, 19% are leaning toward someone, and 66% are still trying to decide.
But the Trump campaign said their supporters, a majority of whom have never caucused before, are here to stay.
“Truthfully, when it really comes down to the Republican candidates, we’ve distanced ourselves such that it’s going to be hard for anyone to catch up,” Hulsizer said.
Over the next few months, campaign staffers will continue to ply caucus leaders and precinct chairs across the state with caucus kits, a handbook to prepare them with the basics of campaigning and engaging with voters.
The Trump campaign’s Iowa co-chairwoman, Tana Goertz, is a former “Apprentice” contestant. This is the first foray into politics for the entrepreneur and mother of two and she’s surprising longtime politicos within the campaign by recruiting “caucus leaders” around the state with an “Apprentice”-style competition.
The first competition, complete with a mock-boardroom, found a “super-volunteer” to represent the Trump campaign in Davis County. Goertz placed a Facebook ad for an event called “STUMP 4 TRUMP” at the Davis County Fair in July. The premise was simple: Whoever collected the most names, numbers, and email addresses of Trump supporters, won.
The fact that more than 20 people showed up to compete to volunteer is unheard of in a state where most campaigns are signing up anyone who might be willing to get involved.
“From Day 1, when we started talking about what this campaign is, I said we should try different things. This isn’t politics as usual. We’re open to fresh ideas,” Laudner said. “You can’t create that excitement. It’s helping us identify who we need to be successful on caucus night.”
Winner Dennis Rysdam is now the face of the Trump campaign in Davis County, managing volunteers in the Southeast Iowa county, attending party events, and coordinating yard signs and bumper sticker distribution, and Goertz has held contests to recruit 10 more caucus leaders this month.
Goertz is using business strategies she learned as a project manager and entrepreneur to turn out voters on caucus night.
One viral marketing technique: free t-shirts. She estimates the campaign has given out 10,000 shirts, bankrolled by Trump, to Iowans since Trump declared his candidacy.
Goertz said she’s personally receiving 400-500 emails a day from supporters who want to get involved, and she’s putting them to work networking. She’s encouraging them to find 10 friends and bring them out on caucus night. And she’s going to do everything she can, too.
“If I have to load up the Trump bus and pick up loads of people and get them to their caucus, I’ll do that. I’ve got snow tires for the (Trump) bus and I’m ready to pick them up and get their butts to caucus,” Goertz said.