Ranking the first-in-the-nation ground games
Originally published in The Lobby on January 2, 2011.
There’s an old joke in the Granite State, often repeated during Primary time, that a New Hampshire voter asked if he was planning to support a certain candidate in the Primary responded, “I don’t know yet, I’ve only met him three times.” Slight exaggeration? Perhaps. But the message is clear: Granite Staters not only value, but also expect, candidates seeking their vote to earn it on the ground.
For the purposes of this piece, “ground game” comprises NH-based staff, offices, and volunteers; field activities like phone banking, door knocking and sign disbursement; recruitment and organization of high-profile state supporters and endorsements; and events held in the state by the candidate and/or high-profile surrogates.
So here’s a look at how the campaigns stack up:
1. Mitt Romney – The 2011 Romney operation is a leaner, meaner, less arrogant one than its 2007 iteration, and has aggressively sought to counter the narrative that they are taking a First-in-the-Nation Primary win for granted. They’ve rolled out a steady drumbeat of both big-name and locally targeted endorsements and held a series of packed events. Their voter-ID system is unparalleled, and they have the volunteer manpower to get the job done, efforts that should culminate in a nearly flawless ‘Get Out the Vote’ operation on Primary Day.
Devils Advocate – Perhaps to counter their candidate’s legendary awkwardness, the Romney camp has placed strict limits on ‘unscripted moments’ – too strict by many calculations.
2. Ron Paul – On a recent drive along Route 302 through Crawford Notch, into North Conway, and on to Mount Washington, I saw three solitary campaign signs at various intervals along the snowy road. All three were for Ron Paul, and two (in separate locations) were homemade. That’s Ron Paul for you; no other campaign can come close to matching the passion of his supporters. Add a sophisticated micro-targeting operation that takes full advantage of volunteers’ boundless energy, and you have a formidable grassroots presence that bears little resemblance to the cowboy-style free-for-all of four years ago. Whether it results in a top finish or not, 2011 is the year that Paul’s virulent fan base actually helped, rather than hurt, the candidate’s credibility.
Devil’s Advocate – Not all Texas Longhorns can be corralled; Paul’s supporters’ devotion can border on pigheadedness, which is a turn-off to new recruits.
3. Jon Huntsman – While he’s got a bit of an unfair advantage over some of the other candidates thanks to his sole focus in the state, that doesn’t mean that Team Huntsman shouldn’t be credited with running the most traditional New Hampshire Primary campaign this cycle. Huntsman has appeared at more than 100 events, including numerous town halls and traditional-style house parties. His hard work is backed by a staff-heavy but competent operation that is here, there, and everywhere in the state, door-to-door canvassing, churning out voter IDs, and placing a confusing array of signs on the roadsides.
Devil’s Advocate – Huntsman’s campaign ‘look’ has too-often veered toward the trendy – think those black ‘Jon2012′ signs and his daughters’ often-incomprehensible YouTube videos – in an effort to attract a youth vote that I suspect doesn’t exist.
4. Rick Santorum – The former Pennsylvania Senator had a good thing going in the Granite State before he left to become Iowa’s Jon Huntsman. Santorum was among the earliest to start his campaign, which meant he snapped up a lot of support, endorsements, and staff talent. He was ubiquitous in the state for months, keeping a breakneck campaign trail schedule of retail-style events that would exhaust the Energizer bunny. Team Santorum’s decision to put all their eggs in Iowa’s basket has surely disenfranchised some of his early supporters, but I suspect if Santorum pulls off a surprise finish in Iowa, he still has a decent N.H. organization that could make good use of the seven days leading up to January 10.
Devil’s Advocate – Santorum may have a campaign-in-waiting in N.H., but with little-to-no resources devoted to ID-ing voters, his team could be shooting blanks on Primary Day.
5. Rick Perry – Never has so much potential been so wasted. Team Perry came out of the gate with flying colors – top-flight endorsements, solid staff talent, standing-room-only events – and had nowhere to go but down. And boy did they go down. A lot of the blame rests with the candidate’s enthusiasm-deflating debate performances. Perry’s challenges as a candidate, coupled with a green operation and limited focus in the state, has led to an inconsistent grassroots presence.
Devil’s Advocate – A campaign, especially in New Hampshire, is only as strong as its candidate and the Perry folks have done what they could with limited material. They have run a professional operation and likely have a more sophisticated GOTV operation than all but Romney and Huntsman.
5. Newt Gingrich – Newt and Perry have equal but opposite problems, and thus tie for 5th place. While Perry started on top and quickly fell, leaving a strong operation twiddling their thumbs, Newt’s meteoric rise from the dead has left a jury-rigged campaign struggling to play catch up. The Granite State has been full of folks looking to join up with Team Newt, but an inexperienced and disjointed staff has had trouble turning that goodwill into grassroots activism. Lack of direction from the national team has led to a series of odd choices in ‘Newt Hampshire.’ Case in point: the campaign posted a Christmas-themed video on YouTube featuring N.H. staffers in Santa hats singing re-worked carols. Cute, but hardly a good use of time for a time-challenged operation.
Devil’s Advocate – A campaign as late coming out of the gate as this one faces nearly insurmountable challenges on the ground, so perhaps the campaign’s multimedia focus is the result of a strategic decision. And if green operatives should have the chance to prove themselves anywhere, it should be in New Hampshire.
1,000. Michele Bachmann – Bachmann isn’t the only candidate to pull resources from N.H. in favor of Iowa, but she is the only one to seemingly go out of her way to snub Granite Staters. Whether the blame lies with her or with her national staff is moot – the tone and tenor of a campaign comes from the top.
Devil’s Advocate – If someone can think of a pro-Bachmann argument, please email it to me.
Amelia Chassé is a Republican political operative who has staffed campaigns at the state and national levels, including John McCain’s 2008 primary and general election campaigns. She advises candidates, corporations, and trade associations on new media strategy at Hynes Communications, where she is based out of the firm’s Portsmouth, NH office.