Why potential presidential candidates come early – and often – to Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa – Like it or not, the 2016 presidential election is already underway.

For a presidential candidate to be successful in the Iowa caucuses, candidates must visit early and often. More so than either of the other two early nominating states -- New Hampshire and South Carolina -- contenders need a well-organized ground game and to make strong bonds across the Hawkeye State.

President Barack Obama began his launch to the White House after finishing first in the Democratic caucuses, beating frontrunner Hillary Clinton and ultimately launching him as a serious contender. The ground game he was able to develop delivered the decisive victory.

“Obama's campaign organization was the best I've ever seen,” longtime Des Moines Register reporter David Yepsen said. “Not only were they able to turn out people on caucus night, but at the site they were able to peel off enough supporters and send them to John Edwards to prevent Clinton from finishing second in the final tally. I hadn't seen that trick before.”

Through his coalition work and on-the-ground dedication, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came from nowhere to win the Republican caucuses in 2012. He visited every one of Iowa’s 99 counties and essentially moved his family to the state in the final weeks of the campaign.

Similar strategies are essential moving into 2016.

“Iowa matters because you can't simply swoop in here and buy a victory with TV and radio ads. It takes visits, meeting personally with thousands of Iowans to be successful,” caucus veteran Tim Albrecht, who serves as Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s spokesman, said. “Early travels here are important, because a candidate can seal the deal with activists and rely on them to volunteer their hearts out for the next two years.

With Election Day 2016 still more than 1,000 days away, there has already been a flurry of visitors to the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

“The frequency of visits to Iowa shows once again the caucuses will matter and Iowans continue to take their role as first-in-that-nation very seriously,” Albrecht points out.

Texas Gov. and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Perry made his first appearance in Iowa Thursday since finishing fifth in the caucus nearly two years ago. Perry, who is not running for re-election as governor, tried to tamper speculation of his future ambitious but made it clear Iowa would be crucial in another bid.

“If I was making a plan for 2016, coming to Iowa early and often would be part of it,” Gov. Perry said. “But as I shared, that is a bit premature.”

“Rick Perry is in a unique position, because he's run before and has a base of support already located in Iowa,” Albrecht said.

But other potential Republican contenders have been trying to make a name for themselves throughout the state as well.

Ted Cruz, the first term Republican senator from Texas, also has been wooing Iowans often nearly three years before the next presidential election. Cruz has already visited the state three times in as many months and has been meeting with crucial donors along the way -- even though he’s served in the U.S. Senate for less than a year.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has already made two trips to Iowa, and he has the added benefit that his father, Ron Paul, ran for president in the last two cycles and built a strong base in Iowa.

“Rand has a head start given the level of organization his dad had here in '08 and '12,” David Kochel, who served as Mitt Romney’s senior Iowa adviser, said.

The Republican Party of Iowa’s current chairman, A.J. Spiker, also headed Ron Paul’s longshot presidential campaign in the state and many establishment Republicans think Spiker’s position could aid Rand Paul if he decides to run.

Even Santorum has kept up appearances in Iowa this year and reiterated the importance to be visible in the state.

During the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa at the start of August Santorum said: “I have a lot of faith still in the people of Iowa in 2016 and beyond to use their good judgment and do what no other state has the opportunity to do which is to know the candidates.”

Paul Ryan, the former Republican vice-presidential nominee, will appear next Saturday in Altoona where he will keynote Gov. Terry Branstad’s annual birthday bash.

The Democratic side has been slightly less busy with visits from potential candidates as the country waits to see if Hillary Clinton will once again vie for the nomination.

Vice President Joe Biden came to the Hawkeye State in recent weeks, fueling speculation for a possible candidacy. In mid-September, Biden spoke at the annual Harkin Steak Fry -- an event that has become an essential box to check for Democrats considering a presidential run.

“It’s amazing, when you come to speak at the steak fry, a whole lot of people seem to take notice. I don't know why the hell that is. You’ve attracted the entire national press corps. I’ve never quite understood it but I am learning,” Biden joked.

And while Hillary Clinton has not visited the state personally, there is no shortage of her supporters making their voices heard. Just last week, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer addressed the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner with one key message: Hillary should run for president.

“Run, Hillary, Run,” Schumer proclaimed. “If you run, you’ll win, and we’ll all win.

In late August at an event hosted by EMILY’s List -- an influential Democratic group that works to elect women who support abortion rights -- panelist Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., looked ahead to "that moment in 2017 when we can say 'Madam President' to Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Yepsen says its normal to see so many candidates rushing to the state this far out, because 2016 will be an open-seat election. He cautions, though, coming this early has its benefits but it won’t necessarily guarantee a win three years from now.

“It sends a signal to the activists, donors, media that you are serious and so you get taken seriously. It's hard to raise money without an early start and it sends a signal to donors if you are seen in the early states,” he added.

“But....a candidate also has to have a message - something to sell - to succeed.”