Iowa Republican Caucus: The Myth of Organization

So the new Des Moines Register Poll is out concerning the Republican Caucus set for Jan. 3 and, as many of us suspected, Newt Gingrich has both the momentum and a significant lead, while Mitt Romney has fallen to third.

It is now apparent exactly why Romney has begun a concerted attack by his campaign and with surrogates on the former speaker. The Romney folks know the latest developments are very problematic in their pursuit of the Republican nomination.  And with Herman Cain dropping out of the race and most of his support likely going to Gingrich, the Romney folks should be nervous. The halo of inevitability now has some serious cracks and tarnish.

Many political campaign folks and prognosticators have long pointed out that what is needed in Iowa is organization, and if one doesn’t have this the candidate will not do well no matter what the poll numbers say. Hmmmm. Let’s take a look at this and see if it is just one more myth we can blow up.

As I have said in previous columns, there are many myths in politics that get repeated over and over. For instance, the idea that paid advertising is absolutely key in these presidential races is one I have tried to bury, but it keeps rising from the grave. That is because many media consultants and folks tied to the old way have a vested interest in keeping the myth going.

Similar is the myth that a Republican running in Iowa has to have an extensive organization composed of staff with years of political experience in order to succeed in the caucuses. This myth is not only pushed by many in the media, but by many Republican consultants who specialize in organization and field operations related to Iowa. Let’s pause for a moment and see about the truth of this.

One reason this myth gets repeated is that there is confusion over the Democratic process in the Iowa caucus and the Republican process. The Democratic caucus is much more complicated. It involves meeting certain mandated thresholds, convening in groups at each caucus, reconvening, and using various mathematical equations that are instrumental to choosing a winner. In that process, an organization is a huge advantage, helping lead each individual precinct caucus and having many folks that understand the byzantine Democratic rules.

For Republicans, this isn’t true. The Republican caucus is very simple and is much like the Ames Straw vote held last summer. Folks show up at a meeting place, you count their votes, and you know who won or lost by adding the votes up from around the state. An organization is not a necessity if you have enthusiastic supporters.

This leads us to a point I have made numerous times. What is needed in the Iowa Republican Caucus is energized voters and momentum going into that day. If you have those things, an organization is not a real necessity.

For example, by nearly every account, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had the best organization around going into the Ames Straw vote, but he didn’t have momentum or energy. So he finished third, and dropped out of the race the next day.

And let’s take a look back at history. In 2000, George W. Bush had the best organization in Iowa, tons of endorsements, spent gobs of money and led Steve Forbes in the polls by more than 20 points. If organization matters that much, then the one holding that hand should exceed their poll numbers at the caucus and those without staff and resources should underperform their poll numbers. Bush ended up beating Forbes by only 11 points. And Alan Keyes, who had zero organization, more than doubled his polling numbers going into Caucus night.

In 2008, Romney had spent the most money in Iowa and had an extensive and experienced political organization. He led nearly every poll going into the Caucus. He ended up equalling his polling numbers but lost the Caucus to Mike Huckabee, who had energy and momentum behind his candidacy, by nearly 10 points.

In 1996, the same was true of Pat Buchanan, who had very limited organization and staff, but who ended up nearly beating Bob Dole in the caucus because of his momentum and the energy of his voters.

In nearly every Iowa Republican caucus in recent memory, it wasn’t the candidate with extensive and experienced organization who exceeded their poll numbers but the candidate with the energy and momentum going into the Caucus.

And this is what keeps the Romney staff up at night and why Romney himself has become testy in recent interviews. While having the best organization to date, at present he lacks the momentum and energy in Iowa. Right now, Gingrich has that, and the question is not whether he needs to hire 1oo staffers but whether he can keep the trajectory going for another four weeks. He should worry more about that, and how he comes across in debates and media appearances, than about opening 30 county offices in the next 10 days.

If your watching  football games headed into the playoffs, it’s always better to bet on the team with momentum, as opposed to the team with the better overall record or better player personnel. Politics, like sports and life in general, is about momentum and the energy level of the team. I would take a ragtag group of ragamuffins who believe, are passionate and love what they are doing, and who are moving in the right direction, over seasoned vets who are just trying to run out the clock.

So in the next 30 days, don’t watch the organization. Watch for the outward signs of momentum, energy and passion for a candidate. Whichever candidate has got that spirit over the Christmas holidays is the bright star real political magi need to follow to figure out the winner in little towns throughout Iowa.