Ever since the Des Moines Register published its list of the state’s 50 “Most Wanted” politicos who can make or break a GOP presidential candidate, the blogosphere has been abuzz with talk about deserving people who were excluded and questions about others the Register did include on its list.
Lists such as the Register’s 50 Most Wanted are interesting to read, but in reality, whether these politicos support or end up working for a candidate will not make or break any particular presidential campaign. While a number of Iowans will play critical roles in the upcoming caucuses, simply accumulating a majority of these so-called power brokers does not guarantee success.
To prove that point, ten people on the Register’s list backed Mitt Romney in the last caucus cycle. John McCain had nine people on the list. Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, had only had four or five people on the Register’s list. As we all know, Huckabee was the candidate who eventually won the caucuses in 2008.
Just like in any other political campaign, what matters the most are the candidates themselves, not who they have working for them. The candidate is the product that the campaigns must sell. In the end, each candidate must appeal to the electorate if he or she wants to have any shot of winning.
When you take a 30,000-foot view of the Iowa caucuses, you don’t see certain influential people making a difference for candidates in Iowa. What you will see are various groups of people who make a tremendous difference for the candidates they support.
These groups of people can best be described as a tribe. These tribes usually have a leader who brings with him several key operatives. These tribes provide the candidates they support with instant credibility, institutional knowledge about how the caucuses operate, and most importantly, instant infrastructure. Not all tribes are alike. Some tribes are better at some things than others, but they all make a significant difference for the candidates that they support.
There are also a limited number of tribes. While most of them would prefer to support their own candidate, in some instances various tribes will end up working and supporting the same candidate. The following are the tribes that are likely to play a major role in the upcoming caucus campaign.
Ed Failor, Jr.: Failor, the President of Iowans for Tax Relief, typically plays a major role for a caucus campaign. In early 2006, Failor threw his support behind former New York Governor George Pataki, who many thought would ultimately run for president.
With the support of Failor, Pataki was able to assemble a formable group of Iowans, most of who could be described as members of his tribe. It included Noreen Bush-Otto, Loras Schulte, and Erik Helland. After the 2006 elections, Failor pulled his support from Pataki. When Failor left, most of the team disbanded. Falior and number of people that he brought to Pataki’s group found a home with John McCain’s campaign.
Steve King: King didn’t engage in the 2008 contests until the very late in the caucus process. King ended up backing Fred Thompson and, in doing so, gave a sputtering campaign new life. King’s endorsement re-energized the Fred Thompson campaign. With out King’s support, it is likely that Fred Thompson would not have finished in third place. It is likely that King will play a much greater roll in the upcoming caucuses than he did in 2008. While his endorsement will be heavily sought after, the people with which he surrounds himself are equally valuable.
Bob Vander Plaats: Vander Plaats didn’t necessarily give Mike Huckabee instant credibility and an instant infrastructure back in 2008, but his support of Huckabee did open some doors for the future caucus winner. Vander Plaats will bring more to the candidate he supports in the 2012 caucuses than he brought to Huckabee. That said, he will have to balance his new responsibilities as the leader of an organization with the time he is able to pledge to help a campaign.
Doug Gross: Gross has been a GOP power broker for years. In 2008, he backed Romney’s campaign and played an active roll in that campaign. Like the others, Gross provides his candidate with immense knowledge of Iowa politics, the caucuses, and can help quickly build a campaign infrastructure.
Steve Grubbs: Grubbs, the President and CEO of Victory Enterprises in Davenport, is another leader of a caucus tribe. Grubbs is a caucus veteran. He played a pivotal role in the success that Steve Forbes had in the 2000 caucuses. In the last election cycle, Grubbs was the point man for Tommy Thompson. Thompson’s campaign didn’t make it past the Straw Poll, but his campaign was well run and internally organized. Without Grubbs and the infrastructure he provided, Tommy Thompson would have struggled to become relevant.
Chuck Larson, Jr./Karen Slifka: Larson and Slifka are partners in Larson Shannahan Slifka Group, an Iowa based public affairs group. Slifka has worked on a number of caucus campaigns and served as Midwest Regional Political Director for the Republican National Committee. Larson, a former Republican Party of Iowa Chairman, has also been involved in a number of Iowa campaigns. Slifka and Larson played major roles on John McCain’s 2008 campaign and are now advising Tim Pawlenty.
Drew Ivers: Ivers has been involved in Iowa politics for a long time. Ivers, who managed Ron Paul’s Iowa caucus campaign in 2008, has continued his reemergence into party politics by becoming a member of the Republican Party of Iowa’s Central Committee and the head of the Campaign for Liberty group here in Iowa. Paul didn’t have a tribe to back him in 2008. Now with people like Ivers, Paul will have an Iowa infrastructure to lean upon.
The candidates that don’t have the support of a tribe typically have struggled in Iowa. Looking ahead to the 2012 caucuses, potential candidates like Huckabee, Pawlenty, Paul, and Romney all have tribes that are ready to back them. Candidates like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin don’t appear to have that level of support yet. Neither Gingrich nor Palin need a team of Iowans to become credible candidates, but both will need to build a campaign infrastructure if they run.
Even when candidates have one of these tribes to help guide them through the caucus process, there is still another variable that comes into play. To be successful in the Iowa caucuses, the candidates themselves have to have a willingness to invest in the Iowa process.
While there are individuals associated with each of these tribes, a tribe’s value isn’t in any one person’s name or even what that individual can bring to a campaign. It is the networks and institutional knowledge of the caucuses that make these tribes valuable.
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