As Iowa looms, GOP wonders if Trump has fans or voters
West Des Moines, Iowa — It’s the No. 1 question headed into the primary season: Does Donald Trump merely have fans, or does the national front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination have voters who will mobilize come caucus day?
The definitive answer won’t arrive until first-to-vote Iowa heads to the polls on Feb. 1, but interviews with dozens of voters, political operatives, party leaders and campaign volunteers in the past week paint a mixed picture of Trump’s efforts to make sure they do.
Even some of the billionaire real-estate mogul’s most ardent backers wonder whether the political novice has the kind of ground game needed to ensure supporters — especially those new to taking part in a caucus — can navigate a process that isn’t as easy as casting a ballot.
But many believe that even if Trump is falling short when it comes to building a get-out-the-vote effort, his supporters are so enthusiastic it won’t much matter.
“I have a feeling we’re going to actually do better than the polls are saying because there’s a movement,” Trump told supporters in suburban Des Moines last week, dismissing suggestions the thousands who pack his rallies won’t make it out on caucus night.
Questions about Trump’s turnout effort are magnified by his place alongside Texas Sen. Ted Cruz atop preference polls in Iowa. Republican leaders in the state largely agree that Cruz has the most powerful get-out-the-vote operation among the GOP candidates for president — complete with an army of out-of-state volunteers housed in dormitories.
Those same observers were mixed when describing what Trump has put together.
“Normally, I at least know the country chairs and I see some organization,” said Gwen Ecklund, chair of the Republican Party in Crawford County, who said Trump staffers weren’t doing as much as other campaigns.
Dozens of people interviewed by The Associated Press at Trump rallies across the state say that while his team is active online, they have had relatively little personal contact from the campaign. Many said they had yet to receive a phone call or a campaign mailing. None reported a knock on the door.
“That’s a precarious model,” Paul Tewes, who organized then-Sen. Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign in Iowa, said of a campaign that relies on emails and phone calls alone.
The issue, Tewes explained, is that Iowa doesn’t make its presidential choice with a primary. Ballots aren’t cast at polling stations open from dawn to dusk. Instead, a caucus requires voters to show up at a designated place at a designated hour, at night in winter, to listen to speeches and eventually express support for their favored candidate in a Byzantine voting process.
“It’s a much higher hurdle than voting in a (traditional) election,” Tewes said.
Yet Trump’s campaign has, so far, defied all those who doubt it.
His team in Iowa is led by Chuck Laudner, a highly respected political operative who ran 2012 caucus winner Rick Santorum’s Iowa operation. They have diligently built a voter database using the information entered when fans sign up online to attend his events, where Trump staffers canvass the crowd seeking commitments and answering questions.
“I believe that the Trump campaign is one of the best staffed organizations in the state,” said Jamie Johnson, a GOP strategist who also worked for Santorum in 2012. “Anyone that thinks Donald Trump is just winging it in Iowa is dead wrong.”
Laudner declined to discuss the campaign’s efforts at length, but said at a pre-Christmas rally, “We have counties where we have more committed caucus goers than total turnout four years ago.”
Trump’s campaign is holding unadvertised caucus training sessions, including one last week at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in outside Des Moines, which drew about a dozen people for a two-hour long presentation on how to use the campaign’s “Ground Game 2” smartphone app.
Larry Weigel, an accountant who attended the session, said he’d already called 60 people and lined up commitments from seven of the 25 people he was aiming to get to caucus for Trump. “You feel it,” he said of the campaign’s momentum.
Still, others aren’t quite sure.
Derrell Peters drove about 50 miles from Eldora to Cedar Falls last week to see Trump in person, stood in line outside of a college gymnasium in the cold more than three hours before Trump took the stage, and even attended a caucus training session organized by his local Republican Party.
But despite the time he’s already invested, he said he was having second thoughts spending any more on Trump.
“I thought, if this is what it is, I really ain’t too sure about it,” said Peters, 65. “I might stay home.”