12/13/2011 02:29 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Iowa Caucus Organization May Matter Less In 2012, Experts Say

WASHINGTON -- For decades, conventional wisdom has held that winning the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses requires a strong, grassroots campaign organization. Yet Newt Gingrich, the current Iowa front-runner, lacks an extensive ground game in Iowa. Can Gingrich win without it?

He just might. Iowa's Republican caucuses are far simpler and more straightforward than their Democratic counterparts and require less organizational savvy. And campaign veterans believe that a candidate with a surge of enthusiastic, highly-motivated supporters need not have an have an extensive get-out-the-vote effort to prevail.

Grassroots organization has gained mythical status in Iowa largely because of the complex, two-round system used by the Democrats. In the Democratic caucuses, voters must stand up to join a candidate preference group, openly expressing their vote. Supporters of a candidate who receives less than 15 percent of the precincts' vote must join the group of another viable candidate (or remain officially "uncommitted"), often after prodding and lobbying from backers of the other candidates. The second round of voting elects delegates to county conventions, and that delegate count is what determines the winner.

That process used by the Democrats puts a premium on campaigns having experienced local precinct leaders who know the rules and can guide their supporters though the complex process.

Iowa Republicans, on the other hand, use a far simpler process. Upon arrival, after showing their voter credentials, Iowa Republicans cast their votes on a paper ballot, and their choices remain confidential. Their votes are counted and reported statewide.

Iowa Republicans do hold precinct meetings but they "tend to be tame affairs," according to Bradley Dyke, a political science professor at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny.

"Candidates will have tables set up and they will try to win your vote," Dyke said, but Republicans don't want voters to feel "pressured" at their caucus. Republicans want "a quick, streamlined process."

Many Iowa campaigns are still touting their organizational prowess as essential to ensuring their supporters make it to one of the state's 1,784 caucus sites.

Michele Bachmann is among them. In a "Path to Victory Strategy Memo" released last week, staff for the Minnesota congresswoman said she will have chairpersons in each of Iowa's 99 counties and 1,000 precinct captains scattered amongst caucus sites.

"We are picking up support on the ground that is lifting us daily toward victory," campaign manager Keith Nahigian said in the video.

But some political veterans question whether Gingrich needs that sort of get-out-the-vote effort to win. Peter Giangreco, a Democratic strategist who served as senior advisor and direct mail consultant to the campaigns of Barack Obama in 2008 and John Edwards in 2004, believes that if Gingrich is "doing well among traditional caucus goers, which all the polling seems to indicate that he is, [field organization] is less of an issue for him."

He points to the example of John Edwards in 2004, when he received only single-digit support in polls conducted in December, but ultimately finished second with 32 percent of the state delegates. According to Giangreco, the Edwards campaign had only identified 18,000 to 19,000 supporters -- nowhere near the number that ultimately supported Edwards on caucus night.

Matthew Dowd, the chief campaign strategist for President George W. Bush in 2004, agrees.

"What is needed in the Iowa Republican caucuses," Dowd wrote in a recent National Journal column, "is energized voters and momentum going into that day. If you have those things, an organization is not a real necessity."

Some argue that traditional field organizations remain critical. Tim Hagle, political science professor at the University of Iowa, argues that having organizers on the ground is essential.

"You have to have those people who are making personal phone calls and asking if supporters will be coming to the caucus," Hagle said. "It's about making connections, getting a little peer pressure to come out and vote."

The Gingrich campaign is "trying to ramp up very quickly," he says, "but they're still behind the curve."

Hagle notes that while a recent Des Moines Register poll shows Gingrich does better among older voters who tend to be traditional caucus goers, their voting habits can be hard to predict. "If the weather is bad, they may be reluctant to go out on a snowy night," Hagle says. "They also may have health issues and other factors to consider which can keep them from the caucus."

Ensuring the turnout of senior voters on caucus night goes back to campaign ground organization in Iowa, Hagle says.

But according to Giangreco, those traditional campaign voting reminders have become less important. He says the "secret sauce" of traditional field organization was the ability to provide voters with information about how and where to participate that was otherwise hard to find. The advent of the internet and social media makes it "pretty easy to go find the information now about how to participate and where to go." It also makes it easier for campaigns to push that information out to their supporters.

Those changes can help Gingrich, Giangreco adds, but they may aid Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) even more. Paul could "change the math," he says, like Barack Obama, who turned out thousands of younger and independent voters to participate in their first caucus. "Paul is going to bring [out] people who are on nobody's list."

Iowa Patch editor Megan VerHelst contributed to this report.