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Democrats Outnumber Republicans in Iowa Ground Game Race

Pressure looms over Hillary Clinton ahead of Saturday’s debate 1:37

DES MOINES, Iowa — Democrats have only three presidential candidates traversing Iowa this winter, but compared to their Republican counterparts, they have nearly triple the number of ground organizers knocking on doors and stumping through small-town coffee shops.

There are more than 180 paid Democratic organizers in the state, heavily outnumbering the Republican coalition’s 74.

The Iowa arms race on the Democratic side breaks down like this: Hillary Clinton has more than 78 paid staffers to Bernie Sander’s 71 and Martin O’Malley’s 34 organizers.

The Clinton campaign also runs a program with more than 100 unpaid fellows who are stationed in towns, from Independence to Dubuque, leading up to the caucus. Sanders’ campaign touts its coalition of more than 1,000 volunteers.

In stark contrast on the Republican side, Donald Trump’s Iowa team — the largest of any GOP candidate — consists of just a dozen staffers — though for its size, it covers a great deal of ground and is widely touted in the state for its very-evident presence. Jeb Bush also has a solid staff for a Republican operation, consisting of 11 full-time organizers plus a unit of interns. Cruz’s staff now totals nine and says it will continue to hire through the winter.

Marco Rubio’s campaign has four staffers on the ground – though it’s coy about its operations and intentions in the state. The local campaign has consistently considered itself as “lean.”

And the official campaigns of Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal are aided at a grassroots level by super PACs supporting their bids. Carson’s official campaign has a six-member Iowa team and Fiorina employs two, but the supporting super PACs add a good deal of manpower. The super PAC backing Carson has 2 full-time and 23 part-time staffers. The pro-Fiorina organization has at least six on-the-ground aides.

Other campaigns employ the following in Iowa: Rand Paul (9), Santorum (9), Graham (5), Christie (4), Jindal (4) and Kasich (2).

Longtime Iowa campaign operatives attribute the wide gap in staffing figures between the two parties to many factors, including, at the forefront, money.

“The pie if you will—Republican versus Democrat money—is divided more in the Republican field than the Democratic field,” said Ryan Williams, the former spokesman for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.

With the GOP field so wide, donors’ money is naturally thinner among the candidates. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, alone, has raised more money than Carson, Rubio and Cruz combined.

Another reason for the gap: With recent GOP caucus winners not having gone on to win the party’s nomination, there’s a dwindling perception that a Republican candidate’s fate is dependent on a top finish in Iowa.

“Republicans aren’t just looking at Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” Williams added. “They’re conserving resources for a longer and more competitive period.”

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Tim Albrecht, a native Iowan and Republican strategist now working with the Bush campaign in Iowa, said GOP politicos changed course in Iowa strategy after 2008 when Mike Huckabee, on a limited budget, squared off with Mitt Romney’s impressive 20-full-time and 60-part-time Iowa organization.

“But on election night, there wasn’t any correlation between staffers and votes,” Albrecht said. “[Mike] Huckabee caught fire late on shoestring budget and caught fire later and won.”

And in that caucus, McCain, the eventual nominee, came in fourth after exerting marginal effort in the state. Albrecht noted that four years later, the Romney campaign trimmed its state operation and still placed well on caucus night.

Democrats, comparatively, still treat sophisticated grassroots organizing in Iowa as fundamental to winning the nomination, notably after the rise of Barack Obama in 2007, said Emily Parcell, Barack Obama’s political director in Iowa in 2007 and 2008.

“There were probably some lessons taken away from [2008],” Parcell said. “If you put the boots on the ground and invest the time and resources to find your own supporters, it can pay off huge and make all the difference in the nomination. I assume that’s part of what we’re seeing here today.”

Hillary Clinton’s perceived missteps in Iowa in her first presidential campaign are now well-documented. And as was the case for Obama, and now Sanders, the caucus can be a necessity for underdog candidates to gain credibility in the race, meaning an investment of ground staff is worthwhile.

“From day one, we knew that we had to win Iowa to have a chance at the nomination,” Parcell said, recalling Obama’s 2007 bid. “It’s win or go home for us.”

In 2000, Al Gore employed a staff of more than 100, and Obama exceeded any campaign ever with reportedly more than 160 on-the-ground staffers by the end of the caucus in 2008.

Another reason that Republicans run smaller shops – as suggested by several knowledgeable about the Iowa electorate – is the calculation that GOP candidates are able to effectively garner chunks of the party’s electorate, like social-conservative voters or members of agricultural and business groups, through already-established formal and informal communities.

“A lot of these Republican candidates are hoping to rely on previous infrastructures,” said David Redlawsk, a professor at Drake University and author of Why Iowa. “They have preexisting groups in the state and can convince each other and communicate.”

Also, the differing formats in which the Democratic and Republican parties run their caucuses is also viewed as a key reason that Democrats hire on more staffers.

Republicans run each of their caucus sites by secret ballots where caucusgoers gather for a brief period of time to cast their vote on Feb. 1. But for Democrats, the process is a public proceeding that can last several hours and take extra persuasion for potential caucusgoers to partake in.

But Sam Roecker, an Iowa Democratic strategist, noted the advantage to a more robust Democratic operation. Roecker said the Democratic candidates are aiding their party’s cause, regardless of its ultimate nominee, a year from now in the general election, as well, by mobilizing.

“They’re doing this right and creating supporters that will be here through 2016,” Roecker said.

NBC News' Danny Freeman contributed to this report.