Driving Trump to victory in Iowa, without a truck

Story highlights

  • Trump is largely eschewing the classic retail politicking that has defined presidential campaigns in Iowa for decades
  • Trump's strategy has drawn skeptical glances from other veteran Iowa operatives

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)Veteran Iowa political operative Chuck Laudner spent the last presidential election crisscrossing the state in his own pickup truck with Rick Santorum at his side, driving the former Pennsylvania senator to a surprise victory in the crucial Iowa Republican caucus in 2012.

This time around, Laudner is running Donald Trump's Iowa campaign. But don't expect Trump to hop in the passenger seat of Laudner's "Chuck Truck" anytime soon.
"No, no, not gonna happen," Laudner said in an interview Friday at the Iowa State Fair.
    That's because Trump is largely eschewing the classic retail politicking that has defined presidential campaigns in Iowa for decades, and much of Laudner's own career as a political operative.
    Trump's jaunts to Iowa start and end with a flight on his private plane, and his travel to events involves a fleet of black SUVs, not an operative's pickup truck. Even as he heads to the fair on Saturday for the most conventional stop in Iowa politics, Trump will whirr above the crowds and land in his Trump-emblazoned helicopter.

    A new approach to Iowa politics

    But Laudner sees no reason to bring Trump's campaign in line with the old mold -- a whirlwind of small stops over several days that involves a lot of handshaking and personalized pitches to small crowds.
    "I don't want to do the Chuck Truck bouncing around in small groups. We've got to reach all of these people, and he can reach all those people. I don't want to go to an event that has 20-30 people at it when you can be talking to thousands," he said. "It's different. But isn't the difference because our crowds here are 10 times the size?"
    At a typical campaign event, Trump meets privately with a handful of local leaders before or after a speech to a crowd of several hundred, and sometimes several thousand, potential supporters.
    "This isn't the campaign Chuck ran for Rick," said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, a Republican who is staying neutral in the GOP primary, after warmly bumping into Laudner at the fair.
    Trump's ability to draw large crowds might be at odds with the classic model of Iowa politics, but for Laudner it offers the surest path to victory for a non-establishment candidate to secure the party's presidential nomination.
    Laudner, who has a strong anti-establishment bent, said his pitch to potential caucus goers hasn't changed in his 30 years in the business -- and it's still the same as he pushes Trump's candidacy.
    The difference, he said, is that Trump has the resources to take the same conservative message of a candidate like Santorum and actually produce results.
    "I wanted to speak to 800, not eight, people," Laudner said of his decision to join Trump back when he was still considering a run in February. "We're casting such a wide net."
    The strategy appears to be working. Trump claimed the top spot in the latest CNN/ORC poll of likely Iowa Republican voters with 22%, and Laudner said he and his staff are constantly besieged by Iowans who notice the blue TRUMP buttons always pinned to their chests.
    The new strategy has drawn skeptical glances from other veteran Iowa operatives who doubt that Trump can maintain his front-runner status in Iowa without getting out and covering more ground in the crucial primary state.
    Iowa state GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who is also remaining neutral in the race, said he believes "it's less likely they (the Trump campaign) can be successful" without drawing from the retail politics playbook.
    "But I don't know if the maxim holds when you're getting as much press coverage as he's getting," Kaufmann said, suggesting the lines were getting blurred between Trump's constant appearance in the news media and his visits to the state.
    "The 99-county tour, the meeting people up close and personal ... I still believe that works and that's going to speak to the success of the candidate," he said.
    But Craig Robinson, an influential GOP activist who runs The Iowa Republican political blog, said he believes "the worst thing a candidate like Donald Trump could do is to stop being who he is."
    "When Donald Trump comes to town, we want him to bring the entire circus with him because we want to see it," Robinson said. "It's important for Trump to make himself available to Iowans, but I don't think it's required of him to have to go to the 900 town hall meetings and make himself available that way."
    And Robinson said Trump is bolstered by his front-runner status, allowing him to bypass the get-to-know-you stage and skip to firing up large crowds during brief jaunts to the state.

    Trump's presence felt

    That's not to say Trump's ground game is weak.
    Four years after Laudner led one of the most successful efforts in modern-day retail politics, the Iowa operative hasn't ditched the model altogether. He and his staff are just carrying it out without their candidate -- going to small events and garnering pledges of support from voters enthused by Trump's nonconformist candidacy.
    And at the state fair, Trump's Iowa staff took turns at the Iowa Republican Party booth and stomped through the fairgrounds with pledge cards in hand.
    Laudner's team is also careening into local events with a TRUMP-branded bus that draws crowds even though the candidate is nowhere near it.
    And Laudner is still driving through Iowa fields in his Dodge Ram, which now has nearly 250,000 miles on the odometer.
    Santorum, for his part, is sitting low in the polls despite winning the caucus last cycle. And he's chasing the old model, hoping for a repeat of his surprise 2012 win -- meeting with small crowds of voters throughout the state where he's heavily invested his time.
    One Iowan he crossed paths with Friday as he romped through the state fair was Laudner, who was wearing his blue Trump button.
    But as the old pals caught up, an enthusiastic supporter walked up to the pair to ask about the Republican running for president.
    About Trump, that is.