Why you should care
Iowa may not decide who wins the Republican presidential primary, but it will certainly shape the field.
The Iowa presidential caucuses are a rather unconventional affair, an hours-long voting process in the darkest depths of the Midwestern winter. The results carry outsize influence, especially when you consider that Iowa delivers only six electoral votes, and that, over the past 40 years, only three nonincumbents who won caucuses went on to be president. Perhaps that makes Rand Paul, just-announced Republican candidate, a good horse to bet on. With his libertarian stance on social issues and effort to appeal to nontraditional GOP voting blocs, Paul is a bit quirky himself.
So is his man in Iowa, Steve Grubbs. The Davenport-based political operative has a penchant for signing onto the campaigns of unusual Republicans, from Steve Forbes, in 2000, to Herman Cain (the Godfather’s Pizza mogul) in 2012. The last time he scored a caucus win for his candidate was 1996, for Bob Dole, who went on to win the nomination … and then become a spokesperson for Viagra.
But Grubbs, 50, is a well-known and well-liked figure in the Iowa GOP — the Iowa Republican, an influential political blog, described Paul’s hiring of Grubbs last July as “a big get” — and while he might not win the caucuses for Paul, he’ll open the doors to the Republican establishment there. That’s something Paul desperately needs: The latest polling in Iowa has him placing second, trailing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in a crowded field. To make it to the top, Paul will have to rally the activist base that loves his father, a libertarian icon, while making those establishment inroads.
OZY caught up with Grubbs by phone last month, as Grubbs was heading home from Dubuque. We spoke about the groundwork he’s trying to lay for a likely Paul presidential run. An edited version of our conversation is below.
You’ve worked for a lot of idiosyncratic politicians over the course of your career. How do you decide whose campaign to sign onto?
First of all, somebody has to want you. If they don’t want me, that part is an issue [laughs]. Generally, over the years, I’ve had good opportunities. Each time it came down to different factors. Tommy Thompson, he was a personal friend of mine. Steve Forbes was someone I admired in business. Bob Dole was through my dad’s influence — he taught [junior high school] in Kansas [where Dole was a senator] before he taught in Iowa. Herman Cain was a candidate that I thought could grow the Republican party and match up well with Barack Obama in a general election. So the short of it is, I have to be comfortable with their positions and views, and then after that, it comes down to different factors.
What about Paul appealed to you?
He’s not Bill Clinton, he’s not Joe Biden. Rand Paul is the thoughtful candidate, and he’s a little bit more like Steve Forbes in that way. I like that about him — he’s very substantive. And when he speaks, people appreciate it.
How do you build the kind of coalition Paul needs — activists and establishment voters alike — in Iowa, where a large pool of Republican candidates are competing for a small number of hard-core GOP voters?
Politics is the art of the possible. There’s certainly people out there, if given 10 candidates, they would not pick Rand Paul. I just left Dubuque, where I met with a group of potential Rand Paul supporters. The one-on-one builds the ground game. In Iowa, you have the air war and you have the ground war. The air war is your radio, your television, maybe your mail and social media. And then your ground game is traveling like I did tonight, talking individually and in small groups.
Any favorite memories of your time campaigning in Iowa?
I was campaigning for the U.S. Senate [Grubbs lost in the GOP primary, in 1996] and my staff called this little radio station in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and said I’d be stopping by and could they do an interview with me. We had my driver pull up, and they were waiting for me; they were very excited. The reporter got her little notebook out and looked at me and said, “So, you’re running for president.” I replied, “No, I’m running for the U.S. Senate.” And she said, “Well, you’re Steve Forbes, aren’t you?”
Steve Forbes was getting into his first presidential campaign, of 1996. The rest of the interview went sort of downhill from there.
Based on your campaigning over the years, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about winning in Iowa?
Rule No. 1: Take the long view. John McCain taught everybody in 2007 and 2008, when you think you’re dead in the water, you’re not. Rick Santorum [who won the 2012 Iowa caucus] taught us the same lesson.
Rule No. 2: Conserve your resources. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve got to have enough juice in the tank to get you to the end.
Rule No. 3: Live to fight another day. As Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and John McCain and Mitt Romney found out, it may not always happen on your first try, but live to fight another day. Don’t burn your bridges.