Campaign rules for the Iowa caucuses have evolved but not changed

July 19, 2023 12:56 pm

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shown here speaking to Iowa voters in 2016, was "probably the first presidential contender to take the caucus to a higher level of organization." (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

There are three well-known rules to find success in the Iowa Caucus, also known as the Nagle Rule, since I first proscribed them: Rule No. 1 is Organize; Rule Number Two is Organize and Rule No. 3 is Get Hot at the End.

In the 40-plus years we have held this event, time and time again, this has proven to be the road to victory. However, how a candidate and his or her campaign surmounts the challenge of organizing the 100,000-plus Iowans who will attend and caucus for their candidate has clearly evolved.

Gone are the days when the names and phone numbers of the individual participants were kept on index cards in shoe boxes. In those years, volunteers called, then pleaded and, finally, begged the recipient to please, please go to the site and stand up for the caller’s choice of contestant.

The process has clearly evolved. Probably the first presidential contender to take the caucus to a higher level of organization was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. He mined the individual’s preferences on issues and interests (like hunting and fishing license, church attendance, profession), which clearly enabled him to overcome in 2016 the large crowds that gathered to hear then-candidate Donald Trump.

In 2016, late in the campaign, a friend of mine, close to the Clinton campaign, asked me to speak to Secretary Hillary Clinton about the status of the campaign. We met in the kitchen of the community hall in Toledo. It was late, she was tired from another long day on the trail, and I was about to give her advice, she with a bankroll of consultants, advisers, and politicians.

I simply said to her, as she autographed books, that I would not give her advice, she had more than enough of it. I suggested that what I would like to do was share local knowledge. She kept signing, I kept talking until, as I neared the finish, she said, “This is very good.” The message ended up being her last campaign ad.

So, I offer our guests, those who are seeking the most powerful position as head of the most powerful nation, the following suggestions, based on local knowledge. It is very important to me and should be to all Iowans that each of those who campaign here, individually, and collectively, feel that they were treated fairly and whether they win or lose, they leave the state feeling that they got a fair shot.

First, you cannot win this race in July, or August or even November. In Iowa, it is always early until the last week of the campaign. I remember when Sen. Clinton brought in to campaign for her the “big dog,” President Bill Clinton on July 4, 2007. OK, the next day, the question to the campaign was “What are you going to do to match that event?” The answer was nothing.

Further, it violated a sub-rule to “get hot at the end,” which is “do not get hot early.” That’s because the contender then becomes the target of all the other candidates. Doubters of this admonition should remember two words:  Howard Dean. Save the big ploys and announcements for the finish.

Second, get off the stage. From what I have observed to date, I am not sure whether I am watching a revival meeting, only lacking a large tent, torchlights, and a bible thumper; or a traveling minstrel show with a pre-perfected oration by the chosen one.

Iowans like to develop a feeling of a common bond with the candidate. It is a fact that an Iowan speaking to another about their support for a person is more persuasive than 100 texts and phone calls from a paid bank. We expect to see you sweat, lose your train of thought and stumble. Iowa and New Hampshire want to measure the fiber and mettle of the candidate and that cannot be done with a choreographed delivery.

This personal identity with the candidate is far better accomplished with answering direct questions. A good politician not only talks but listens to how the voter expresses their feelings and perception of the issues and, when this is learned, it greatly increases the ability to connect with that individual and the state.

A case in point on how to do this wrong: former President Donald Trump came to Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, loaded up an auditorium for an event billed as a televised “town hall” and took a total of zero questions from the audience of Iowans. The host and moderator, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, was running the show but Trump could have insisted ahead of time that there would be some questions from the crowd.

Iowans have a great opportunity and a greater responsibility to the rest of the nation.  We, and New Hampshire, are the only time in the road to the nomination of a major party leader when the temperature and skill of potential next President of the United States will be measured by their character, not the  campaign ad.

This column was originally published by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

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Dave Nagle
Dave Nagle

Dave Nagle, of Cedar Falls, is a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from Iowa.