Jeb Bush’s field campaign in Iowa doesn’t know how to measure its own failure

The Week is reporting that Jeb Bush’s campaign has a big gap to close if it hopes to hit its goals in Iowa:

Here’s the lowdown: The Iowa caucus, on February 1, is 93 days away. Bush’s campaign has set the goal of receiving 18.45 percent of the vote — more than double the 8 percent he’s polling now. About 128,800 Republican voters are expected to turn out, which means Bush needs about 24,000 votes. The catch: His campaign is only confident he has 1,260 voters in the Hawkeye State.

The estimate comes from over 70,000 phone calls made by a 10-person paid staff in Iowa; for all their calls, the team was only able to rope in four volunteers and root up a total of 1,260 Bush supporters statewide.

The figures come from a 112-slide report produced by the campaign, shared with select reporters, which outlines its strategy for making a comeback in the Hawkeye State and beyond. As it turns out, the 70,000 calls and 1,260 supporters are approximations from the more precise 70,381 calls and 1,281 supporters. Absent from the report is any evidence of door-to-door canvassing, a field strategy that is far more effective in securing support from the people you’re contacting, but requires an actual team of volunteers in order to carry out in a meaningful way.

Jeb Bush, screenshot via YouTube

Jeb Bush, screenshot via YouTube

As I’ve written before, Jeb Bush’s field campaign isn’t exactly a juggernaut, but even its meager ten-person staff and two offices in Iowa is a bigger investment than most of his rivals. However, as I’ve also written before, if Republican campaigns are going to get serious about field, they’d do well to stop measuring their success in calls made and start measuring it in conversations they’ve actually had with voters. 1,281 supporters out of 70,381 calls is about what you’d expect given a 20% contact rate if Jeb’s internal polling has him at nine percent among Iowa Republicans. This wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption, especially since 70,000 dials at a 20% contact rate and 9% support would equal 1,260, exactly the number of supporters the campaign says it’s confident it has. But if Jeb’s campaign wants to measure how voters are responding to his campaign’s ground-level messaging, instead of measuring empty dials, they’d do well to report what is likely closer to 14,000 phone conversations.

Furthermore, 70,000 dials in the state that will cast the nation’s first votes isn’t all that much for a campaign that’s existed for 136 days, as Jeb’s has, and it’s even less for a ten person staff. Even assuming that his staff has only been on the ground for 70 days, or just about half that time, that’s only 100 dials per day per staffer (100 x 10 x 70 = 70,000). One good volunteer should be able to knock that out in two hours; a full-time staffer should be able to get through them even more quickly. Which leads to the question of what his staff is doing with the other six hours to ten hours in the campaign workday because, again, it doesn’t appear to be knocking doors or organizing volunteers.

More time has passed since Jeb’s campaign launched than will pass between now and the Iowa caucuses. If Jeb wants to build a ground-level operation that can help him hit his vote goal in February, he and his staff both need to get moving.

Finally, not only does Jeb’s 70,000 calls figure dramatically exaggerate his campaign’s volume of voter contact, in this case it led his campaign to take it on the chin in the media for only rustling up that many supporters for all of their hard work, despite them identifying about as many supporters as one would expect given his current standing in the polls.

As I wrote in 2013, when the Republican National Committee touted the “65 million” voter contacts that Mitt Romney reportedly made in the 2012 election:

65 million voter contacts is a gaudy statistic. It’s also a fantasy, as the RNC is measuring phone numbers dialed and doors knocked on instead of actual conversations resulting from those dials and knocks.

As Americans use their home phone less and caller ID more, phone contact rates have dropped dramatically. Moreover, voters are less likely than ever to pay attention to campaign literature or voicemails. Campaigns have responded by increasingly using telemarketing-style automated dialers, which dial a ton of phone numbers at once and filter out the wrong numbers and answering machines. This connects volunteers with the few people who actually do pick up the phone, allowing them to talk to more voters.

However, in an attempt to make themselves feel better about their ground game, the RNC has continued to count every attempt, included failed ones, as a contact, when in reality only five to ten percent of their attempts actually result in a conversation with a voter. When attempts are emphasized over contacts, field work gets sloppy and success becomes difficult to measure. In short, there is no “A for effort” in voter contact; the fact that you dialed a number doesn’t mean you did anything to win a vote.

If the RNC continues to scratch its head over why, nearly 65 million empty dials later, their ground game was as ineffective in 2012 as it was in 2008, they will never be able to build a field operation that can compete with their Democratic counterparts.

It appears as though they haven’t learned much.

UPDATE: The Bush campaign has clarified that it has actually recruited 123 volunteers, not four, as the figure cited in the slideshow came from the wrong database. As an unnamed Bush official told the New York Times’ Trip Gabriel, “Last Saturday we had the best call day ever: 26 people participated in-state.”

Fine, but that is not a lot of volunteers. The Iowa caucuses are in 93 days. If your campaign can’t find 100 people willing to make some calls for you (since Bush apparently isn’t asking them to knock on doors) on a weekend, you either aren’t trying or the state really just doesn’t like you. Or both.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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10 Responses to “Jeb Bush’s field campaign in Iowa doesn’t know how to measure its own failure”

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  2. Alpha 50327 says:

    He should just forget Iowa entirely. The Republican caucus goes to the shitclown that comes closest to speaking in tongues. Carson will walk away with it and get destroyed everywhere else. Just like Pat Robertson did. Just like Rick Santorum did. If he’d just call bullshit on the whole Iowa thing it would take away the power of the local Christian Taliban and the nation would be better for it.

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  4. olandp says:

    Jeb! does not know how to win a primary. He needs the womanizing, wife beating, drunkard Tom Slade to eliminate the primary field like he did in Florida, but old Tommy is dead. My mother always tole me to say something nice about the dead, he’s dead, how nice!

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  6. mf_roe says:

    I’ll never see W in the Dock at the Hague, watching “Jeb?” laughed out of town will have to do.

  7. 2karmanot says:

    Poor lil’ Jebbya. He’s got all the gravitas of a stale marshmallow.

  8. Indigo says:

    “It’s all so sad.” -Pat Nixon.

  9. BeccaM says:

    Jeb’s still operating under the mistaken presumption that being Dubya’s brother is a net positive in popularity. While it is true that if Jeb’s last name wasn’t Bush, he wouldn’t even be in this race, he still hasn’t accepted or acknowledged the fact his brother still has the opposite of coattails, even among Republicans.

    Personally, I suspect more than a few GOPers blame Dubya’s fuck-ups for making it possible for Obama to win in ’08.

    But yeah… It’s like a few of the Republican king-makers convinced Jeb he should run, but nobody has yet figured out why he should run or be president. Other than name recognition, he’s got nothing. He does adhere to the required GOP conservative orthodoxy, but aside from that, I literally can’t think of any policy or proposal from him which sets him apart from all the others in the Klown Kar.

  10. mf_roe says:

    Can’t curse the ground as infertile other candidates are producing, more of a case of “Bad Seed”.

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