Modern Campaigning At Odds With Iowa Tradition

Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is a fierce advocate for the Iowa caucuses. At times over the past four months, he’s seemed frustrated that candidates were not in the state as much as in past years.

Branstad’s message over and over to the candidates was not to ignore the voters of Iowa, because they take it personally.

“They want to see the candidates and they take their responsibility very seriously,” Branstad says.

While Rick Santorum has spent a great deal of time in the Iowa, bragging that he’d visited all 99 counties months ago, candidates like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were pretty hard to find in the state until recent weeks.

As far as the ad war, there’s been something new to the mix this year with the advent of the SuperPAC.

“You have an outside entity that’s independent of a campaign that can pour huge amounts of dollars into television ads, radio ads and mail,” says Iowa Republican strategist John Stineman.

One example is a recent ad that popped up on TVs in Iowa households shortly after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rose to the top of the polls. The anti-Gingrich ad was part of a barrage that helped drive his poll numbers down as fast as they’d risen. It was paid for by a group called Restore Our Future, which is supportive of but legally and officially not affiliated with Mitt Romney.

“Attack ads aren’t new. Negative mail isn’t new. But having them done by a third party and at the volume that they’re being done is a new concept for the caucuses,” Stineman says.

Add in social media campaigns and the time the candidates spent prepping for and appearing in a lengthy series of debates, and it felt a lot less like traditional Iowa retail campaigning. Though as caucus day drew nearer, the in-person appearances by candidates did increase to the point that it did start to feel more like caucus campaigns of years past.

Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford says Iowa’s place as the first official contest of the nominating season has always been about candidates spending time in a small state making their pitch up close and in person.

“We always, in our nomination system, have to have some state start first,” Goldford says. “But Iowa’s role that it’s taken on — to justify its starting position — has been to say that Iowa allows candidates, and forces candidates, to meet individuals on a one-to-one and small group basis rather than treating them simply as a mass of campaign props.”

But Goldford says that with the overlay of social media and more on-air and nationally-televised debates, that distinctive element of Iowa does tend to diminish.

But also remember that Rick Santorum has put in more time here than anyone else this cycle, and he suddenly in the top tier of candidates. If he finishes well Tuesday, then Goldford says it would be a victory for an old-style Iowa campaign.

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