December 17, 2014

Around the state in nine days & other tales of the bus tour

Two presidential candidates are embarking on statewide bus tours this week, part of the final push before the Iowa Caucuses on January 3.

Rick Perry plans to visit 44 cities. Michele Bachmann aims to stop in each of Iowa’s 99 counties in 10 days. Matt Whitaker, a Des Moines lawyer, made it in nine.

“I had a campaign advisor that had read a book about a statewide candidate in Kansas that had done, I think they have 77 counties in Kansas, and he had done them in seven days,” Whitaker said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “I figured as a campaign stunt, if you will, that I would visit all 99 counties in nine days, leading up to the election in ’02.”

Whitaker was the Republican candidate for state treasurer that year. He wound up losing to the Democratic incumbent, but the memories of that epic expedition are still fresh as the plans for each day were tight.

“Logistically it was hard because we had to put together 11 events,” Whitaker said, “whether it was walking along Main Street or putting together a meeting, you know, it was 11 events.”

Whitaker is backing Texas Governor Rick Perry’s bid for the White House and his advice to Perry was to “get as many places as possible” in the days leading up to the Caucuses.

Rick Santorum reached the milestone of visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties in November, and he’s making return trips now — by car and minivan, rather than bus. Chuck Laudner, a Santorum backer, has been involved in many Iowa campaigns. Laudner suggests Santorum is a bit like the underestimated quarterback of the Denver Broncos who has led the team to a string of surprising victories.

“They’re watching the Tim Tebow of the Republican process out there, working all the way through the 4th quarter,” Laudner told Radio Iowa this morning.

With just 20 days left in the Iowa Caucus campaign season, Rick Perry is kicking off his 44-city trek today in western Iowa. Michele Bachmann starts her 99-county tour Friday. Tim Albrecht, Governor Branstad’s communications director, traveled with Branstad in 2010 when Branstad did the 99-county circuit. The bus itself can be a campaign tool, according to Albrecht.

“It really builds buzz and excitement as it rolls into town,” Albrecht told Radio Iowa. “Buses are wrapped with the candidate’s log, the candidate’s website, a lot of times even the candidate’s face splattered across and as that comes through town it is unmistakable that the candidate is visiting and he’s in your town.”

The bus also gives the candidate a mobile office — a place to hold face-to-face meetings with staff, potential supporters and reporters. Family members often travel along, too.

“A bus is a much more comfortable way for a candidate to travel across this state,” Albrecht said. “People have to remember that Iowa is a very big state and it takes a lot of time to traverse through all of Iowa’s 99 counties.”

Former Iowa Republican Party chairman Steve Grubbs helped orchestrate presidential candidate bus tours through Iowa in 2000 for Steve Forbes and in the summer of 2008 for Tommy Thompson. Grubbs considers the bus tour a great organizational tool.

“My belief is you get two things out of them. The people who show up to your event are either undecided or willing to be supporters,” Grubbs said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “If they’re undecided, we get their vote. If they’re supporters, we leverage that support to have them reach out and bring other people to the caucuses.”

Bus tours can “mobilize and energize” voters, according to Grubbs, but he warns the strategy can’t be all the candidate focuses upon.

“The key to a bus tour is to combine the grassroots element with some media,” Grubbs said. “You can’t stay outside the eye of the media and reaching people via their television for 10, 15 days.”

This year, Grubbs had been working for Herman Cain, another candidate who employed the campaign-by-bus strategy. Just before Cain made the announcement that he was dropping out of the race, Cain emerged from his campaign bus with his wife at his side.