For five days, the royal-blue bus rumbled through miles of cornfields alongside a popular annual bicycle trek across Iowa. It showed up at a country music concert in Cherokee and at a bacon festival in Ottumwa.
And when the hulking vehicle with thick white block letters that spell “TRUMP” pulled into a Wal-Mart car park in Fort Dodge, people flocked to see to it. It didn’t matter that Donald Trump wasn’t on board. The bus alone, with its Make America Great Again! slogan, created an irresistible oasis of celebrity politics drew a crowd amid a desert of mini-vans and shopping trollies. “A hundred people people showing up for a staffer? I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Chuck Laudner, a longtime Iowa organiser who oversees Mr Trump’s efforts here. “They kept saying the same thing: they want something different.”
For many Americans, the Trump presidential campaign amounts to a billionaire talking endlessly on television. But here in Iowa, it’s another story. Mr Trump is trying to beat the politicians on their turf, building one of the most extensive organisations in the Republican field.
The groundwork laid by Mr Trump’s sizeable Iowa staff, with 10 paid operatives workers and growing, is the clearest sign yet that the unconventional candidate is looking beyond his summer media surge and trying to win February’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. This is becoming a cause of concern for rival campaigns. “I see them as a major threat to all the other campaigns because of the aggressiveness of their ground game,” said Sam Clovis, an Iowa conservative who leads former Texas governor Rick Perry’s campaign.
“You cannot swing a dead cat in Iowa and not hit a Trump person,” Mr Clovis continued. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen ... Every event we go to ... the Trump people are everywhere with literature and T-shirts and signing people up.” Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, said of Mr Trump: “I think he’s got a real campaign here. Whether he’s willing to devote the time to go to as many places as some of the other candidates are going is the question.”
Mr Trump made a suitably theatrical visit to the Iowa State Fair yesterday [SAT], touching down in Des Moines by private helicopter, and then sought to offer local children a free ride in the chopper. Typically, he was also sure to talk down his potential rival’s chances, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and even Democrat contender Hillary Clinton.
Mr Trump’s assault on the political establishment has propelled his candidacy to the lead here and nationally. A CNN-ORC poll on Wednesday showed him in first place in Iowa with 22 per cent, followed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in second with 14 per cent. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker fell to third at 9 per cent.
Other candidates are building solid networks here as well. Mr Bush, whose Iowa operation has nine paid staffers workers, has announced campaign chairs in 22 of Iowa’s 99 counties, with more to come. Mr Walker, who has four staffers and two consultants here, unveiled a 65-member Iowa leadership team this month. But Mr Trump is taking a different approach. His state director is Mr Laudner, a highly regarded grass-roots tactician. This time four years ago, Mr Laudner drove Rick Santorum around the state in his pick-up truck, guiding the former senator from Pennsylvania to a come-from-behind victory in the 2012 caucuses.
It is an open question, however, whether Mr Trump’s singular brand of politics will stay in vogue until the February caucuses. It has become a punch line among party insiders that Mr Trump’s Iowa co-chair is Tana Goertz, a political neophyte newcomer best known for being a runner-up on Trump’s show The Apprentice.
But others on the Trumph is team are experienced old political hands. Co-chair Richard Thornton is a lawyer plugged into state legislative politics. Another top aide is Ryan Keller, who ran congressional campaigns and the Republican Party in Polk County, Iowa’s largest.
Up to this weekend, Mr Trump has made only occasional campaign stops in Iowa, but making up for his absence is the “TRUMP” emblazonedbus. The campaign advertises online the internet when the bus will be in a town. Residents turn out to get Trump signs, Trump pins badges and Trump T-shirts. More importantly, they leave their names and contact details, and take home kits explaining how to become caucus captains in their precincts areas distribute bumper stickers and write letters to the editors of local newspapers.
Political organising in Iowa requires sophistication because of the state’s unique system. Voters gather at a designated time with their neighbours and advocate for their preferred candidates before ballots are cast. Turnout in Iowa caucuses is historically low. In 2012, only 121,000 of the state’s roughly 600,000 registered Republican voters participated. In 2016, strategists expect turnout to increase to 140,000 or higher.
The Trump campaign is targeting voters who may not have participated in a caucus before before, modelling its strategy on Barack Obama’s 2008 Iowa campaign, which mobilised tens of thousands of new caucus-goers. “We’re reaching people the Republican apparatus doesn’t even know exist,” Mr Laudner said. “The other day, a woman came up to say, ‘Hello, a lifelong Iowan.’ Her first question to us was ‘What’s a caucus?’ After we told her, she wanted to help. Politics has not been the biggest thing in a lot of these people’s lives. But they feel Donald Trump is what this country needs.”
© The Washington Post
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