That tweet expresses the conventional wisdom of smart political analysts and has held true since the advent of the modern presidential primary system in 1972. How Joe Lieberman polled nationally in July 2003 was meaningless compared to what was happening on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the candidates relying on something other than vague name ID were running sophisticated, staff-heavy ground operations to supplement massive air wars on TV and radio. But I’m not sure that conventional wisdom holds true anymore. We may be watching something new, a more nationalized presidential nominating campaign.
The reason national polls weren’t helpful in the past is they missed the intense campaigning and organizing going on in the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Someone sitting in Manchester, CT didn’t see the same newspaper articles or have the same opportunities to meet a candidate as did someone in Manchester, NH. But this cycle what’s happening is visible on TV and online to everyone, but the candidates aren’t as accessible to people who live in the early states. This is from an excellent article by the Washington Post’s Dan Balz:
Four years ago, between July 1 and Nov. 1, Huckabee, Romney and McCain spent a combined 48 days in New Hampshire and 66 days in Iowa. This year, Romney, Perry and Cain collectively have spent 37 days in New Hampshire and 23 days in Iowa. Cain has spent just six days in New Hampshire and 11 days in Iowa since July 1.
To be fair, some candidates are spending oodles of time in some of the early states. Rick Santorum has been all over Iowa. Huntsman is hunkered down in New Hampshire. But neither state has yet to become the scene of a truly engaged battle (with the exception of the brief but intense competition in Iowa last summer between Bachmann and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty).
Republicans don’t always organize the early states with the depth and intensity of the Democrats, but this is another area where the thinness of state operations is telling. Four years ago, Obama had more than 30 offices in Iowa. John Edwards, who finished second in the caucuses, had 20 or more by this time, with more than 100 paid staffers, and had county chairs in all 99 counties and precinct leaders in roughly 80 percent of the 1,800 precincts.
By comparison, Romney has one office, in Des Moines, with four paid staffers, according to one of his advisers. Perry has five offices. His Des Moines headquarters has four paid staffers. He has one each in four other cities. Cain has one office and four paid staffers. As of a couple weeks ago, no one had announced county chairs in all 99 counties, according to one Iowa strategist. One caveat: Officials with the current campaigns note that Huckabee had only one office four years ago and still won the caucuses.
Huckabee may have only had one office and a tiny staff, but he was strongly supported by evangelical political activists, who are highly organized in Iowa, which made up for his own lack of field organization. This cycle evangelicals haven’t coalesced around a single candidate, at least not yet, and there’s no evidence they will embrace Romney.
As I pointed out a few weeks back, one of the core problems for the Republicans is lack of money, which results in less paid communication with voters. By this point in 2007 Obama had been advertising in Iowa for 5 months, Clinton had engaged at a similar intensity, Dodd and Richardson were on TV and Edwards had begun the air campaign to supplement his vigorous ground effort. This year’s Republican field has spent under $1 million on advertising, compared to tens of millions by the Democrats at this point in the last campaign. Whether by design or out of necessity, this cycle the Republican campaigns do not appear to be running sequential state campaigns with local operations and TV and radio advertising in local media markets. Instead, as Balz explains, they are conducting a simultaneous national campaign with little local focus, no paid advertising and a reliance on the internet and conservative media to communicate with voters:
Republicans are engaged in a national campaign, one that has played out less in living rooms in Iowa or town halls in New Hampshire and more on debate stages in those and other states, on prime time and Sunday morning shows on Fox News and through cable commentary, blog posts and tweets. Debates have shaped and reshaped the field and are likely to produce more changes before the New Year arrives and the primaries and caucuses begin. GOP candidates can get their message out to activists by appearing on Fox as often as they’re welcome. (Note that Romney has been the least visible here.) Social media may be playing more of a role than anyone knows in organizing efforts, but no one can tell that yet.
One important caveat is that this is the first post-Citizens United campaign. Each of the major Republican candidates will be supported by SuperPAC’s that will run ads on their behalf (most likely doing the attacks so the meager resources of the campaigns can be put entirely toward administration, field and a bit of paid positive messaging closer to the elections). But that hasn’t yet happened, and unless it does, and only then if it’s significant and focused in the early states rather than on national cable broadcasting, the national polls, this year at least, actually are meaningful. The cash-strapped Republican campaigns have not been able to afford to narrowcast paid messages to potential caucus goers in Iowa or primary voters in New Hampshire, so the voters in those states have little more to shape their choices than do Republicans across the rest of the country.