Is Marco Rubio's Iowa operation strong enough to win?

Story highlights

  • Marco Rubio's ground operation in Iowa has been criticized for being too small
  • "We haven't spent a lot of money on the extra frills of the campaign gear and all that"

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)Donald Trump's West Des Moines office has a room with boxes stacked floor to ceiling, all filled with Trump T-shirts, rolls and rolls of Trump stickers, cardboard Trump posters, and hundreds of Trump yard signs assembled by faithful volunteers.

Meanwhile, in the northern Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio is running a leaner campaign. They don't have Rubio yard signs to hand out.
"We haven't spent a lot of money on the extra frills of the campaign gear and all that," Rubio state chairman and Iowa state Sen. Jack Whitver told CNN.
    "We're running a smaller bones campaign to save money so we can use it later," Rubio volunteer Naomi Leinen said.
    But with the Iowa caucuses less than 90 days away, the time to pull out the stops may be now.
    Rubio takes the stage at Tuesday evening's Fox Business Network debate in Milwaukee with the chance to built on his strong performance at the CNBC debate last month. And there are plenty of Iowans left to persuade. In a CNN-ORC poll released Friday, Rubio holds third place at 13%, and 50% of would-be caucus-goers are still deciding who to support.
    "He's starting to rise in the polls, people are starting to look at him. You need to have that organization that people are able to contact, plus be reaching out to supporters," said former Rick Perry Iowa director Andy Swanson. "I'm not hearing that happening."
    Historically, an Iowa caucus win depends on a ground game bolstered by a committed network of supporters. So when Rubio makes his first post-debate stop at the Jersey Grille in Davenport, Iowa, Wednesday, his team will need to turn those attendees into active Rubio evangelists, and continue to build across the state. Republican insiders argue he isn't in a position to do so.
    Rubio has held 40 Iowa events over 22 days since November 2012, according to the Des Moines Register's candidate tracker, and Swanson says that's not enough. By comparison, Rick Santorum has held 178 events over 65 days in the state. Ted Cruz clocks in at 71 events over 35 days, and Ben Carson, who wasn't even in Iowa in the month of September, has attended 53 events over 24 days, according to the tracker.
    "They need to get him into the state a lot more. More than he is now. He's almost got to live here to capitalize on this momentum building," Swanson said. "I don't know what their overall strategy is. It seems like they really don't have one."
    This sentiment isn't unusual among the activist crowd in Des Moines.
    Sitting on cushioned barstools at southeast Des Moines institution B & B Grocery, Meat, and Deli, a longtime Iowa Republican activist, who spoke on background to preserve professional relationships with the Rubio campaign and other Republican campaigns in Iowa, had some advice for Rubio. "When you asked about Rubio's ground game, my first thought was, there is nothing. And they need to get their act together," he said over pork tenderloin sandwiches.
    "I wonder when some farmer in Cherokee County, Iowa, finally makes his mind up and says 'I'm going Rubio because I heard what he said in that debate,'" the activist said. "How does he turn into a precinct leader and get activated?"

    'We're doing a lot'

    Whitver acknowledged the widespread perception among Iowa activists that the Rubio isn't organized, but pushed back on that notion.
    "I think there's a conception that there's nothing going on in Iowa with the Rubio campaign, but we're doing a lot," Whitver told CNN.
    "It's funny because there are some people who have been here 40, 50, 60 days that aren't polling very well, Ben Carson's been here two in of the last 30 and he's polling at No. 1," Whitver said. "I mean, what our goal is to get around the state enough so that people know Marco. If that's 20 days or 50 days, the goal is to get him introduced to as many Iowans as possible and, you know, we're running a campaign that's focused on different states, too. I'm comfortable with how much he's here."
    Rubio's Iowa team is notoriously tight-lipped on the nuts-and-bolts of its operation. "We do not discuss campaign tactics or strategy," state director Clint Reed told CNN via text message.
    The campaign also doesn't reveal the number of staffers they have in Iowa. "It's more than you think," Whitver said. "I'll tell you on February 1," referring to the day of the caucuses.
    CNN can identify at least four paid staffers: Helming the Iowa ship at its Ankeny headquarters is state director Reed. He joined the campaign in mid-September and has extensive experience in the southeast, but this is his first foray into Iowa politics. Also based in Ankeny are political director Justin Arnold, field director Jordan Wiggins, and regional field director Jared Small. Whitver serves in a volunteer position as state chairman.
    Rubio isn't fazed by the criticism. "Really a campaign is not about how many staffers you have, it's about how many supporters you have. How many people turn out on the night of the caucus to support you, and that's what we're working to cultivate," the senator said after an October appearance in Orange City, Iowa.
    By comparison, an internal slideshow from the Jeb Bush campaign obtained by CNN and other media outlets showed 10 paid staffers at two Iowa offices, including Hispanic engagement staff and faith base staff.
    Hillary Clinton has built a formidable team of nearly 80 organizers, and counting. The campaign also recently put out a call for applications to the unpaid volunteer Caucus Fellowship program, beginning January 4.

    'National team has a plan all along'

    While the Iowa team determines candidate travel within the state, Whitver said campaign strategy is formed at a national level.
    "National team has a plan all along and we just largely stuck to that plan. We try not to get caught up in day-to-day issues or stories or changes. It's like a football team: You go in with a game plan and you just stick to that plan and hope you have the right plan and I think largely, it's worked so far," Whitver said. "We don't want to peak and then valley, we want to continuously build support," he said.
    In this competitive presidential primary race, some of Rubio's competitors are taking new, creative approaches to recruiting and engaging potential caucus-goers. The Trump campaign held "Apprentice"-style competitions this summer to identify caucus leaders. The Carson campaign tailgates after church on Sundays. But Whitver says ultimately, the rules are still the same every year.
    "Obviously campaigns have changed with technology, especially social media, even since '08," Whitver said. "But largely, at least in Iowa from a caucus level, it's still the same as it's always been. You have to identify supporters and turn them out. How you identify those people might change, but that's still the goal. It's not easy to get people to go out on February 1 when it's freezing cold and actually go to the meeting, and in my eyes, it's still the same as it's always been. Identify people and get them to the caucus. Every day we're identifying people, whether they're just ready to commit or will vote for him, or want to be a county leader."
    Long-time Republican activist Naomi Leinen, who lives in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is one such activated volunteer, and she's reaching into her deep network to find more.
    "Initially I make a call and ask just for general volunteer help or for them to identify five friends that might be able to support us, so starting out small," Leinen said. "I actually made 50 on Saturday myself just to donors and to would-be supporters, so each Saturday I'm devoting time to make calls, and during the week, I make emails just to reach out."
    Once she identifies committed volunteers, Leinen puts them to work networking: "I have a little packet I take them with commitment caucus cards, bumper stickers, a clipboard, and then I also have a sign up sheet for them to sign up five friends to start out with," she said.

    'Living off of his current standing in the polls'

    Veteran activist, political observer, and founder of TheIowaRepublican.com blog Craig Robinson said that in conversations with people who have run past presidential caucus campaigns in Iowa, the consensus has been that it's not just Rubio who is taking it slow.
    "Nobody is really organizing for a caucus win," Robinson said. "What's lacking in the state is the campaign that makes no bones about the fact that they are building a grassroots organization that can deliver them a victory. It's almost like everyone believes that lightning with strike and they will catch fire at the end."
    Rubio, he said, is currently "living off of his current standing in the polls."
    "The only route available for Rubio to win is if he becomes the inevitable nominee. ... He has a long ways to go, and he's not doing the things in Iowa he needs to lay the groundwork," Robinson said. "You don't need a strong campaign when things are good, you need them when times are tough."
    Leinen and Whitver both said that their jobs have gotten easier since Rubio's standout performance at the CNBC debate in late October.
    "After the debate, I got a lot of positive response. They texted, emailed, called. Let me know they would support him," Leinen said.
    While many Iowans already knew who Rubio was, Whitver and the team's challenge was to explain his platform and what Rubio stands for. He said the recent CNBC debate in which Rubio gave a commanding performance gave some supporters that extra push to commit.
    "People that we had been working on for a while, trying to get them on board, it started during the debate where people say, alright, I've seen enough, I'm in, ready to commit. It's largely because Marco's a good candidate and it makes our job a lot easier to identify supporters," Whitver said.
    Multiple Iowa Republican activists raised concerns that the Rubio staff isn't actively engaging with potential caucus-goers, and that they can seem standoffish at events representing the senator. One example: Swanson, who is uncommitted but considering Rubio, stopped by the candidate's booth at the Republican Party of Iowa's Halloween-themed cattle call, and wasn't greeted by Rubio staff.
    "It was kind of late, they were probably tired by then, but I went over to check it out. I didn't get any 'Hi' or greeting, which is really, really weird. You'd think that somebody's coming, 'Oh, let's talk up our candidate,' which is what I would always tell my guys to do. Really, I wouldn't have to tell them, they know they've got someone coming up," he said. "This is your chance to sell your guy. But I didn't get any of that."