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March 8th, 2010

Bob Vander Plaats: Can he be like Huckabee?

Vander Plaats and HuckabeeFor more than a decade, Bob Vander Plaats has been trying to get himself elected governor of the state of Iowa. In 2002, he finished third in the Republican primary behind Doug Gross and Steve Sukup. In the 2006 gubernatorial primary, he dropped out of the race before the primary election and joined Jim Nussle as his running mate.

This year, Vander Plaats will see the primary through to the end. If he wins, he will have finally secured the Republican nomination. If he loses, his decade-long quest to lead the state of Iowa will be over. 2010 is likely a make or break year for Bob Vander Plaats. It’s either win or go home.

Since he first came on to the political scene ten years ago, Vander Plaats has impressed Republican activists with his speaking abilities. He has also proved himself to be a capable fundraiser. In each of his three gubernatorial campaigns, Vander Plaats has been able to raise a significant amount of money.

While raising money hasn’t been Vander Plaats’ problem, spending it has. In his 2006 campaign, Vander Plaats raised over $800,000, but his off year expenditures totaled almost $600,000. Vander Plaats showed a similar pattern in 2009.

Vander Plaats raised $600,000 last year, but he spent $400,000. That’s almost more than all the other Republican gubernatorial candidates spent combined in 2009. Campaigns need to spend huge amounts of money in the final two to three months on radio and television ads. They need to spend money on direct mail, phone calls, and absentee ballot programs. Yet, Vander Plaats is once again in a familiar position: months away from an election with limited funds. That means he has to bet heavily on his grassroots support.

Even though Vander Plaats finds himself in a familiar position, his 2010 primary campaign is his best campaign to date. Unnoticed by many in the GOP and members of the media is the number of people Vander Plaats is attracting at his events across the state. Branstad is also attracting large crowds at his campaign events, but Vander Plaats seems to have a spring in his step lately.

What’s interesting to note is that, in previous years, Republican candidates didn’t hold a lot of town hall style forums like the events Vander Plaats and Branstad are holding. If they had, not many people would have probably shown up. The 2010 gubernatorial campaign looks more like a presidential caucus campaign than ever before, candidates are drawing respectable crowds as they travel across the state, the campaigns are visiting places on the map that are represented by black dots, not just the yellow hues that indicate an urban area.

With Mike Huckabee’s upset Iowa Caucus victory still fresh in the minds Vander Plaats and his staunch supporters, it’s no wonder that his campaign thinks that they have a shot at a huge upset on June 8th. There are more parallels between Huckabee and Vander Plaats than just the fact that Bob chaired Huckabee’s caucus campaign.

Like Huckabee, Vander Plaats is an impressive communicator. Likewise, his campaign is perceived as being the underdog in the race, which means volunteers and supporter tend to work harder. Vander Plaats is also the social conservative in the race. While many candidates try to woo the GOP base, primary voters usually gravitate to the more authentic pro-life, pro-marriage candidate. In the Republican primary for governor, that’s Vander Plaats. This same factor was in place for Huckabee in the lead-up to the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

Yet, before the Vander Plaats crowd starts predicting that an upset is in the making, they must remember this is a primary, not a caucus. Twice as many people will vote in the Republican primary for Governor as voted in the 2008 Republican presidential caucuses. If Vander Plaats is able to generate the same 40,954 votes that Huckabee received in the caucuses, it will probably only get him 20% of the vote.

Winning a primary and winning a caucus are two different things. In a caucus, a candidate like Huckabee can survive on a shoestring budget, catch fire, and win. That can happen for a number of reasons. First, there is no early voting in a caucus. Not only are you prohibited from submitting an absentee ballot, but you also have to show up for a meeting at a particular time to cast your vote.

Primaries are different animals. You can vote absentee, early in the morning before you go to work, or at night on your way home. It also only takes a few minutes of your time to cast your vote. This is why having the financial resources to run an absentee program and campaign ads is so critical. If you can get someone’s attention for just a moment, you can get them to cast a vote for you.

If the 2010 Republican gubernatorial race were going to be decided at a caucus, I probably would put my money on Bob Vander Plaats. As we all know, this isn’t a caucus, it’s a primary. So while Vander Plaats might look and feel like Huckabee of 2008, he will have to produce at least two times the votes that Huckabee did in the caucuses if he wants to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Photo by Dave Davidson

About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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