How Ted Cruz, Donald Trump are trying to dominate Iowa

Latest poll: Trump firmly in lead in Iowa
Latest poll: Trump firmly in lead in Iowa

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    Latest poll: Trump firmly in lead in Iowa

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Latest poll: Trump firmly in lead in Iowa 01:59

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are leading new polls in Iowa
  • Both are spending more time in the Hawkeye State and pouring resources into the ground game ahead of the February 1 caucuses

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)With less than two months until the Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are both ahead in the polls, depending on which survey you read.

But in Iowa, elections aren't won via phone surveys. They're won with a strong ground game and getting voters to caucus sites -- often coaching them through the process. Trump and Cruz are working to expand their advantages, but doing so in slightly different ways.
Trump's strategy relies more on expanding the caucus electorate, while Cruz is taking the more traditional route and rolling up key Iowa endorsers and validators like Rep. Steve King -- not to mention less traditional methods such as mobile apps.
    Thursday, Cruz also won a major endorsement from Family Leader President and CEO Bob Vander Plaats.
    Their sometimes divergent paths could be seen in the polls. Trump has 33% percent support among likely Republican caucus-goers, with Cruz at 20%, according to Monday's CNN/ORC poll. But a Monmouth University survey that relied only on registered voter rolls has Cruz with the lead: 24% to 19%.
    The difference between the polls, Trump State Director Chuck Laudner told CNN, is because the campaign is bringing new voters into the process. Many of their supporters are first-time caucus-goers who aren't necessarily polled. The challenge, of course, is to make sure those would-be voters show up on February 1.
    "They can't find our voters. It's always been the case. They can't find these voters, and you know, that brings up the question, are they really going to vote? Okay, that's our burden. But if they can give up three hours on a Saturday afternoon, I think we can get them to give up 45 minutes on a Monday night," Laudner said.
    There's plenty of convincing to do. Just over 120,000 Republicans participated in the 2012 caucuses, but there are over 600,000 GOP voters registered in the state. And nearly half of respondents in the CNN/ORC poll said they are "still deciding" which candidate to back.

    "Cruz Crew Strike Force"

    Cruz has visited Iowa six out of the last eight weekends. The Texas senator is more than halfway through an Iowa feat called the "Full Grassley," an homage to the state's senior senator which involves visits to all 99 counties in the state. Many of the stops are small scale.
    In a recent visit, the campaign held 14 stops over three days, including a late-night "Taco Pizza with Ted Cruz" stop at a Casey's General Store gas station in Chariton.
    "Traveling around the state and meeting with folks outside the largest cities has value and we're having a lot of fun," said Cruz state director Bryan English. "The more Iowans get to know Ted Cruz, the more they'll like him and the better he'll do."
    In Des Moines last Saturday, Cruz announced the "Cruz Crew Strike Force" and opening of "Camp Cruz," rented apartments to lodge volunteers from across the country coming to campaign for Cruz in Iowa.
    "Because a caucus does not provide for early or absentee voting, it is a true test of a ground game: the ability of campaigns to identify, win over, and deliver voters," Cruz's campaign said in an email to supporters last month. Strike Force participants will make phone calls, knock on doors, and do other direct voter contact to get supporters connected with the campaign from state down to precinct level.
    The Cruz campaign also has a mobile app to connect supporters with one another. The app gives points to Cruz backers based on their participation in activities including donating to the campaign, volunteering, sending friends an invitation to connect on the app, playing "Cruz Crew Trivia," canvassing, and even watching Cruz reenact scenes from "The Princess Bride." Users can move through the leaderboard from Intern (100+ points) to supporter (500+ points) and all the way up to Revolutionary (250,000+ points).
    Kay Quirk, Cruz's Buena Vista county chair, says she is on the app every day, and is one of two people in the country who have reached the "Founder" level, with over 150,000 points. Quirk also edits the "Iowa For Ted Cruz -- 2016" Facebook page. A prolific tweeter, the grandmother and retired registered nurse volunteers her time sharing Cruz's message on social media.
    "I'm not the most savvy social media person. I'm learning," Quirk said. "My intent is to share my message about Sen. Cruz. I just pick different issues. It might be immigration, it might be his five for freedom plan, it might be about the Constitution, and I try to tweet out facts to pull people in. Something that may strike a note with them, whether it be Common Core, abortion rights, you know, just the Constitution, gun rights. I try and get an interest to get people to come and look at Sen. Cruz and see what it is that I'm talking about."
    Pastor Gary Buske, Jr., of Davenport, is a co-chair for the Cruz campaign in Scott County. At a recent town hall in Bettendorf, Buske dressed up his three children in red Dr. Seuss-inspired Cruz Kid #1, Cruz Kid # 2, and Cruz Kid #3 shirts, which the senator admired as he worked the rope line.
    "We're just supposed to contact all of our friends, push it, and then they're making calls and doing door knocking and compiling voter lists and precinct captains and all that," Buske said. "It's all a ground game right now. I'm excited about it. He's right where he wants to be, and he's spending money very carefully and very slowly and very wisely and building the ground game. It's just building."
    Vander Plaats' endorsement should also be a boost.
    "We will be going all in for Senator Ted Cruz," Vander Plaats said Thursday. "We have found him as a man of deep character. A man that we can fully trust, who has a consistency of convictions, who loves his god, loves his spouse, and who loves his family. We also see him to be very, very competent. Not always popular, but very competent. He has challenged both sides of the aisle. He understands what it's going to take to get the country out of the mess that we're currently in. We believe that he is exceptionally competent and that adds to his extraordinary leadership."
    Cruz, whose campaign counts 3,000 volunteers, has also outsourced some of his ground game to a firm called Campaign Headquarters. Based in the small town of Brooklyn, Iowa, Campaign Headquarters is a full-service "Conservative Call Center," with expertise in telephone fundraising, voter identification and advocacy, get out the vote, and telephone town halls, according to its website.

    Trump's barnstorming tour

    While not doing the 99-county tour, Trump has been all around the state as his campaign looks to use the candidate's mass appeal to test and build on its organizing capacity.
    A rally Friday in Des Moines at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, for instance, is another opportunity, Laudner said. "It gives our entire volunteer army a chance to call and make contact with people," he said. "Can you help, will you help, are you voting?"
    Craig Robinson, a Republican activist and editor of TheIowaRepublican.com, said Trump has "built a home-grown grassroots campaign" and has been able to appeal "to a wide swath of voters, even those who have never been politically active before."
    "Trump's field staff makes a difference. They are from the communities that they are responsible for organizing. They lean on their own personal networks to get people to attend and motivate other supporters to do the same. It's really peer-to-peer turnout, and they are probably the best campaign at doing that," Robinson said.
    Just last weekend, Trump turned out thousands at events in Spencer and Davenport. In Spencer, the candidate was clearly enjoying himself, calling the campaign "so much fun." "This is the big potato," he said of the race.
    "In Spencer, we had 1,500 people, and they came from an hour radius. That's probably more people than vote in the caucus in the area," Laudner said. "In Clay County (where Spencer is located), they had 700 people on caucus night. Now what if we only get half of them? We win."
    But Trump stepped in hot water in October, retweeting an insult to Iowa voters just hours after a poll showed him behind retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in the state. "'@mygreenhippo #BenCarson is now leading in the #polls in #Iowa. Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain? #Trump #GOP,'" Trump's retweet stated.
    A few hours after the initial retweet, Trump removed it from his feed and tweeted, "the young intern who accidentally did a Retweet apologizes."
    He came under fire in November at a Fort Dodge rally, further criticizing Iowans supporting Carson: "How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?" Trump asked. "Don't be fools, OK?"
    But the Trump campaign remains committed to the Hawkeye State. Expect to see more of Trump in Iowa next month.
    "We are going to barnstorm the hell out of this state. We're going to get everywhere. He wrote 'Art of the Deal,' he's going to make that close with Iowa voters," Laudner said. "It's going to be something very, very special when he comes out here and makes that close and everybody wakes up from the New Year's Day fog, it's going to be all Trump all the time here."