The Campaign Tapes

Eric Woolson

Eric Woolsen

As the field of Republican Presidential hopefuls prepares to line up to take on Barack Obama in 2012, here’s an insight into the role of the crucial first-to-vote state of Iowa - where much of the campaigning will take place in 2011.

There are few political operatives with the specialist knowledge and multiple perspectives of Eric Woolson. In 1987 he quit working at the Iowa newspaper “The Waterloo Courier” to become Delaware Democratic Senator Joe Biden’s press secretary during his ill-fated Presidential campaign which ended amid claims Biden plagiarised a speech from UK labour leader Neil Kinnock.

In 1999/2000 Woolson was advisor and communications director for Republican Texas Governor George W Bush’s winning Iowa campaign, and in 2007/2008 campaign manager for Republican Mike Huckabee’s Iowa caucus victory over better-known and better-financed rivals including John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

At the same time, Democrat Barack Obama was winning the state which set him on his road to the White House. For Republicans, that road back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2012 begins again in Iowa. Here Woolson discusses Iowa’s significance, the importance of “expectations” and the influence of the small mid-western state’s media on US Presidential politics.



John Barron: Eric, you are in the fairly unique position of having worked on both sides of a Presidential campaign – from the inside and also from the outside reporting in Iowa... given the role Iowa plays in the Presidential process, how important is the media here in determining success and failure of a Presidential candidate?

Eric Woolson: I think the media here in Iowa just has an exceptional role, and I always tell young reporters actually they have an exceptional opportunity – because my interest always was in politics when I was very young, I started reporting when I was 17, and I was the editor of the paper in Keokuk at the age of 23 – and where else can a 23 year old editor of a 9-thousand circulation, six day a week newspaper get to spend time with Presidential candidates except Iowa? Maybe New Hampshire, maybe they do that there.

I had the opportunity during the 1984 campaign, I could call Gary Hart or Alan Cranston or whoever the candidates were in the race and say I’d like to travel with you for a few days’ and just get in the car and go with them. And there were a number of times when I’d be the only reporter in the car with them and so in a lot of respects, especially early on when you’ve got a lot of candidates two or three years in advance of caucus night when the entire world is watching them and we have international media, hundreds and hundreds of reporters from all around the world here – early on in that process it’s a one-on-one relationship with the press. The candidates are trying very, very hard to ingratiate themselves with the reporters – they know it’s a pretty small universe – we have the regulars who cover the political beat, there’s maybe a half dozen or so who are very influential state-wide, but you’ve got a lot of people at newspapers around the state – so here you have people running for President of the United States and they are trying to impress the editor of a two thousand circulation weekly newspaper, and they come in and make calls to those editors and really try to win them over.

Eric WoolsenOn the Republican side we have 100,000 people participating in our caucuses, so if third place in the caucus is say 15,000, 16,000 votes and you can impress an editor who is writing for a small daily you can create these little pockets of support where you can pick up 500,600 votes here or there and all of a sudden you go from being an unknown to being a guy who finishes third in Iowa or second in Iowa and really vaults to national prominence.

In 1984 Walter Mondale, the former Vice President of the United States, here’s Gary Hart, he’s expected to finish seventh or eighth – all the stories are about how he’s changed campaign managers and his campaign can’t gain any traction and he’s campaign started to click in the final weeks and he ended up with about 16% of the vote, and who is on the cover of TIME magazine and Newsweek and all the national coverage the following week? – it’s the Gary Hart surprise, he finished second in Iowa and he darned near nearly defeated the former Vice President. And it’s because he was able to go around the state campaigning like you’re running for mayor or governor or running for the state senate – just meeting little groups of ten people or six people at a time and end up building this coalition. It was very much like that with Mike Huckabee – early on he’d say “where are all the people? We only have sic people, we only have ten people here at this meeting” and you’d say “that’s the way it goes traditionally.”

Barack Obama was really an anomaly with crowds of 5,000 or 10,000 people, that’s usually the way it works. In Iowa, when you are running for President early on you are usually talking to six people or a dozen people – it’s very much a retail personal politics sort of things.

Barron: I’m interested to get your thoughts on the Obama campaign because some have said that in a way the size of the crowds, the secret service protection that he had really meant the end of retail politics in Iowa – and that he won the Democratic caucus even though he wasn’t able to be as hands-on – what do you read into the success of that campaign?

Woolson: You know I think that the beginning of the end of the retail politics for the caucuses probably began in the 2000 campaign – my old boss George W. Bush had seen his father run for President, was used to the Presidential rallies – he wasn’t used to the ten and twelve and fifteen people in a crowd. So when he got into the race in 2000 he had a staff of White House advance people around him who knew how to put together a big event and draw a crowd and make him look Presidential with all of the proper backdrops and everything that goes with it. So here he was with crowds of 500, 600 or 1000 people in 2000 which was really unusual back then when we typically didn’t have that sort of thing going on then.

George W/ BushIn 2004 again you had George Bush was the sitting President so we didn’t really have a caucus on our [Republican] side that year but it signalled more of a move to TV commercials and big crowds and less and less of the people sitting around the table at the coffee shop.

With Senator Obama in 2008 and the popularity he had, he held his rallies at Hilton Coliseum up at Iowa State [University} where you can hold 13,000 people and he was in gymnasiums with 7-thousand, 8-thousand people. The secret service creates the aura of the incumbent, of the President perhaps and it did take Iowa to that next step away from that very personalised one-on-one style.

But it’s a pendulum – the reason the caucuses became important in the first place was because somebody saw this opportunity where Iowa was being ignored – it was the first at the head of the process but nobody really recognised the value of it then along comes George McGovern’s people and they said ‘well we can really focus on Iowa a little bit’ and Jimmy Carter in 1976 takes a look at that and says ‘well if I campaign more one-on-one and I’ll end up doing well in Iowa too’.

So we’ve gone through that stage where every small candidate with a small budget can come through here and really get recognised and known because it’s not like running in 50 states, you are really able to just focus on a small rural state with a homogenous population, with a limited number of activists and a limited universe of probably about 100,000 and you can go in here and you pretty much known everybody who is going to be supporting you in the end. We’ve seen the move to the retail, but I don’t know if that trend continues – at some point somebody else is going to come in and have that breakthrough moment like Mike Huckabee did where it’s small crowds and small budgets and he ends up finishing first – and that’s the beauty of the caucuses and when it works so well.

Mike HuckabeeBarron: So in 2008 there was an interesting inversion in a way – in that the Huckabee campaign was more typical of the [Democrat] McGovern model and the Obama campaign more typical of a cashed-up Republican.

Woolson: That’s an excellent point – here we had the two ends of the spectrum; Senator Obama wins because he had 200 paid staff people on the ground and he’s drawing thousands of people at an event and it’s very much like a wholesale political operation like California or New York, and here’s Mike Huckabee with these smaller crowds and after the [Ames] Straw Poll in August started to draw crowds of 50 people and 100 people, and we’d say “boy, aren’t these crowds terrific” because we had 150 people and I would constantly say to our people “don’t worry about what Obama’s doing, you don’t have to focus on that, what we need to do is focus on the Republican side”.

And early on, when Governor Huckabee got into the race, he began his exploratory committee the last day of January ’07 and in February and March I’d talk to a lot of my friends in the media and they’d say “Mike Huckabee, gosh how is this going to work out?” And I’d say all we have to do is finish in the top three – that’s always been the rule in Iowa – there are three tickets out of Iowa they say, it’s first class, business and coach – first second and third.

Mike HuckabeeAnd Iowa’s all about the expectations, if you are expected to finish sixth and you finish third you can end up being the story – if you are expect to finish first and you finish second your campaign may be over before it’s even started. So I told my friends all along that we just need to be in the top three, and they’d laugh at me because at the time Mike Huckabee was at less than 1% – he was at zero in the polls in March [2007] and they’d say “how are you going to get to third place” and then comes November and he’s in first place and they’d say “oh, you’ve got to win now”- and I’d say I’ve always said we’ve got to finish in the top three – they’d say “oh you’re managing expectations, you’re trying to lower expectations, if Mike Huckabee doesn’t finish first in Iowa now he’s finished!” And I’d day “how can he go from ninth place, zero percent, and nobody thought he’d get into the top three to now he’s got to win?”

But that’s how Iowa works, that’s the beauty of it. He was able to get a lot of attention and if you can build on that going into New Hampshire – we saw George Bush stumble from Iowa going into New Hampshire [won by McCain] and rebounded in South Carolina – but if you are the top three in Iowa you will be one of the ones getting the coverage and the other guys are pretty much finished already.

So we may not pick the winner but we certainly pick the losers – who is not going to get the attention and who is not going to go on.

Barron: What does it way about Iowa that Senator Obama won here and he says it was the key to his winning the nomination – first, do you agree with that assessment?

Woolson: I think it’s true that had Senator [Hillary] Clinton or Senator [John] Edwards finished ahead of Senator Obama in Iowa it would have started the unravelling of his campaign. What made Iowa’s support of Senator Obama so important and so powerful was always that nagging question of race – I mean Iowa is 96% white, 90% northern European people that look a lot like I do, so gosh there’s not a lot of natural constituency for him. So for him to win in a state that is mainly Caucasian was tremendous, it broke down and eliminated that question from early on. And it also surprised the Clinton campaign – it had the Clinton campaign on their heels from that point forward. And with Senator Edwards, his expectation was that as he had finished second in Iowa in 2004 [behind eventual nominee Senator John Kerry] and everyone’s expectations were that he had to win here or else he really didn’t have any place to go from there, and in the end it was true and his campaign unravelled because people expected him to do better than he did here.

Barron: On your side, Governor Huckabee won here, won strongly, but ultimately the nomination [in 2008] fell to somebody [John McCain] who didn’t take first-business or coach – for the first time – so what should we read into that?

Woolson: Well he [McCain] ended up tied for third so maybe he got out in one of two coach seats – to some people it does raise questions about the future of the caucuses, but I think that chapter is not written yet. We’ll see what Governor Huckabee’s staying power is as a national candidate... I think the caucuses are secure for 2012, obviously President Obama loves Iowa and the Democrats are going to keep their caucuses, we Republicans lock caucuses in four years in advance, but I think the Iowa Caucuses selecting Mike Huckabee first [in 2008] have made him a national figure so I think, again, that is going to justify keeping Iowa first.

Barron: Some people were saying snidely early on that he wasn’t running for the Presidency he was running for a show on Fox – funnily enough... [Huckabee has been hosting a weekly talk show on Fox since early 2009].

Mike HuckabeeWoolson: I was the first person Mike Huckabee employed for his presidential campaign, the first person anywhere, and we had met back in December of 2005 about getting started and I started working for him really in January 2006 and he always had this confidence that he was going to win Iowa and win the nomination... that was the talk. He was more confident that he was going to wiin Iowa that I was. I was always confident he’d finish in the top three but he had always had the belief that he would win – and in fact the night before the straw poll [a non-binding measure of Republican candidate support held in Ames, Iowa five months before the caucuses] and he asked me jhow he was going to do and I said I would expect fourth place – because everyone knew Governor [Mitt] Romney had spent several million dollars and he was going to win, there was no question about that. And I expected Senator {Sam} Brownback’s campaign – I knew they were putting in almost a million dollars into their campaign and I expected them to finish second – and the wildcard to me at that point was Congressman {Tom} Tancredo’s campaign because we had seen so much of heat and energy and passion behind the [anti] immigration message that Congressman Tancredo had that I though there was probably a stealth network of just an underlying network that was going to turn out on straw poll day and that they would probably edge us out – I really expected that to happen.

So, when Governor Huckabee finished second he said “I’m not going to listen to you anymore about predictions about where I’m going to finish” – and so as we went along, the other thing that happened on caucus night was; was it going to be Governor Huckabee or Governor Romney? We knew it was going to be very close and I knew he didn’t want to ask me whether I thought first or second, but we had gotten to the point where I thought, back in March he’s at zero and nobody expects him in the top three and now they expect him to win or else... and it really took all of the fun out of it at that point.

You’d think you’d enjoy winning the caucuses but instead it was “thank goodness, what a relief we didn’t screw that up”.

If it had been second place, again, all of the stories coming out of Iowa wouldn’t have been about Mitt Romney spending $20-million and should have beaten everybody three-to-one, instead it would be “Mike Huckabee’s organization collapsed in Iowa, he didn’t win and he’s finished”- and again, it’s always about the expectations.

Barron: To what extent are those expectations the creation of the senior journalists in the state... they seem to have quite an influence?

Woolson: That’s true. I think the expectations are set on a number of levels, to a certain extent by some of the senior journalists in the state – they are set too by national journalists who maybe don’t have as good a pulse of Iowa as maybe they should – a lot of people sit in Washington and talk to people out in Washington... people in the national press look at what’s happening nationally and overlay that into Iowa. That’s why everybody early on was saying Rudy Giuliani is going to win Iowa, Rudy should do well out in Iowa because people in my line of work with relationships with the journalists are telling them “we’re going to win, we’re going to do really well here” [Giuliani came sixth with less than 3.5% of the Iowa caucus vote].

That’s the final part of the equation, it’s the job of the campaign people to get out there and lower your own expectations and raise the expectations of someone else. In my case when we were at zero in the polls you don’t have to work too hard to lower expectations – so we were out there saying we are going to finish third. On the other side of the equation – Senator McCain was at 40% in the national polls and they were saying “well you know he doesn’t support ethanol subsidies so we don’t expect to do well in Iowa, don’t surprised when we don’t do well in Iowa”- and over the years you’ll see any number of combinations where a candidate may literally know they aren’t going to look well and so they are legitimately trying to lower expectations and the press doesn’t recognise that they don’t have a good organization in place, they don’t have a message that connects well with Iowans, they may not have the money – there are any number of reasons why they may not do well in Iowa.

On the other hands we’ll be playing possum, we’ll feign that we’re no good “oh, we’re going to be lucky if we finish in the top three” – knowing full well after having done polling that we’re going to finish second, we may say we’re going to be fourth and everyone says “wow1 what a shocker!” So it’s like a chess game where you’re going back and forth trying to work out how to get an advantage out of working the expectations.

Barron: With Governor Huckabee, you managed to do what most second and third tier candidates failed to do – beat the cycle of having a low profile and poll numbers so you don’t raise money so you can’t buy airtime to raise your profile and the press doesn’t cover you – how did you break out of that catch-22?

Woolson: I encouraged people all along not to worry about the coverage – that even if we got up to election day and we didn’t have coverage it was all about building an organization that was going to turn out – if you’ve got those voters who are going to turn out in the end you’ll be okay.

Barron: Did you ever get on the phone to a journalist and say to them you should talk to our candidate?

Woolson: Early on I would call and say “you’ve got to meet this guy he’s going places, he’s wonderful”- and there are a number of reporters who I’ve run into since who say “Eric called us up and said ‘I’ve got Mike Huckabee with me do you want to do an interview’ and we all said ummmm... gee I’m really busy right now, some other time...’ and yet you never know who is going to come out of Iowa in first so you do the interview sort of an insurance policy just so you can say okay we did a Mike Huckabee interview.”

Barron: You also worked with Joe Biden – he seemed someone who was very comfortable with hands-on retail politics – tell me about working on his campaign in 1988.

Woolson: He has changed in the 20 years since we worked together, a) by virtue of being 20 years older, I think we’ve all changed a bit, but he had the aneurism, the health scare which really convinced him that you live day-to-day and that family is important and faith is important and if you don’t get to be president of the United States well it just wasn’t meant to be. Twenty years ago he was much more driven – as you know he is a very intense, passionate person, but I think even more so twenty years ago – an incredible orator, and absolutely remarkable ability to give a speech with energy and passion, and just a tremendously loyal person as well.

Joe BidenOne of the things I found when I had worked for him – first off I didn’t want to work for him, my family is a Republican family, I’ve always been a Republican, I was a print journalist at the time of the 1988 caucuses – and the candidate that I liked the best was another candidate from Delaware Pete Dupont – he was governor of Delaware at the time, very conservative, and Biden of course on the Democrats side very liberal. And it was two Democrat friends of mine who had said “Joe needs help... you’ve covered him, you liked him, you ought to go to work for him.” And what I learned about Biden at the time was that he wants to close the deal and he wants people to like him and he sort of has a propensity at certain times to be like a salesman trying to close the sale – he knows what you want to hear.

My first day at the [Biden ‘88] campaign I remember... the whole day there were a couple of people giving me the eye [because he was a Republican] and didn’t know what to make of me and at the end of the day this guy comes over to me and says “what exactly are doing here?” and I figured that he was some volunteer who had never even met Biden and as a reporter I had really spent a lot of time one-on-one with him. So I said to this guy, “Senator Biden assures me that he’s a lot more conservative than people thinks he is.” This guy looks at me and says “that son of a bitch told me he’s a lot more liberal that people think he is.”We looked at each other and said “we’re in trouble, aren’t we?”And that’s how Senator Biden could be - he wants people to like him so he finds those common connections.

But that aside, when that campaign was over I was out of work, and out of work within five weeks – within five weeks the campaign was over – and I had said all along as a condition for taking the job I know after the caucuses all bets are off because nobody knows how it will go but I hear you may drop out before the caucuses because he was on the Senate judiciary committee and the hearing into the [Robert] Bork [Supreme Court] nomination were going on, and he said “well I tell you if i drop out before I’ll take care of you”. And the day he dropped out we drove to the airport and I said “I’ve been abandoned, I’m out of luck here”, and as he boarded the plane he grabbed me around the neck and said “You are my new Senate Press Secretary, you start on Monday” – and this was five o’clock on a Thursday night and he says “I’ll see you in Washington on Monday.” And he was true to his word and he’s always got that kind of common touch and loyalty that makes him very special.

And early on when he [Biden] was campaigning out here [in 2007 for the Democratic Presidential nomination] he’d run into reporters and ask them if they knew me, and I’d get these phone calls saying “Joe Biden says to say hello” and I said “tell Joe Biden to knock it off...I’m over on this side, that’s our little secret”. But there were a couple of times when Senator Biden was in Des Moines when people said he wanted to see me but I thought about the picture in the Des Moines Register of Eric Woolson and Joe Biden and that Mike Huckabee would wring my neck! But I watched from this side... and as Senator Obama made his choice [of Biden as his Vice Presidential running mate] with all of Biden’s experience and ability I think he went in the right direction.

Barron: As for 2012, when the phone rings and someone asks you “Eric what do I need to know to win Iowa?” - what do you tell them?

Woolson: I always tell them that you need to spend a lot of time here, it’s not necessarily about money - it’s about relationships. Look at how people have won in the past if they don’t have money – it’s the personal touches. You better be ready to call that country chairperson in Henry County ten times to see how she’s doing, you’d better remember the birthday of the wife of the state representative from Sioux centre and send her a birthday card. And when you write that new book that I know you’re going to write because everybody writes a book when they run for President, you’d better make sure you send an autographed copy to the former state chair who now lives in Waterloo and you’d better call the former Governor and tell him you’d like to have dinner when you’re coming to the city, and you’d better call Dave Yepsen [former Des Moines Register political columnist] before you call anybody else, and if you don’t call Dave you’d better have a good reason. And so I’d tell them that it’s about a lot of personal relationships and about devoting a lot of time to this process, but if they are willing to do that they can win here.

Eric Woolson is currently running Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley's 2010 US Senate re-election campaign. He says he's yet to sign up to any 2012 Presidential campaigns.

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