We’re a long way from ballots being cast, but most New Hampshire political observers agree which Republican presidential candidate has the strongest grassroots organization here and which campaign has the weakest ground game.
Mitt Romney’s the leader in the Granite State. Michele Bachmann is pulling .
“You can measure endorsements, you can measure finances, you can measure number of employees, but I don’t think that means anything,” said Chris Buck, former New Hampshire state director for Thad McCotter. “What you want is effective people, and being effective is a lot harder to measure.”
Perhaps the best way to gauge it is the eyeball test. Who consistently has a presence at political events across the state? Who can fill a room for a town hall meeting? And who has the most supporters waving signs and doing visibility events?
Mitt Romney scores high in all of those categories, and that’s no accident. It’s a direct result of the team he’s assembled here, local political analysts and campaign workers say.
“I think Romney’s organization is still the one to beat,” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. “It’s kind of like a heavyweight champion – until someone can knock him off, you’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to him.”
By contrast, after a brief spike following her strong showing in the June 13 GOP debate in Manchester, Michele Bachmann’s poll numbers here have been on the decline due in large part to her absence from the state and her lack of a strong campaign organization.
“If we go much longer without seeing her, she’s going to turn up on milk cartons,” said Pat Griffin, a senior fellow at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute for Politics who has worked on campaigns for both George H.W. and George W. Bush.
One thing Romney has been careful not to do is to spend too much of his political capital too soon.
“At the end of the day, the Romney people understand this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Griffin said. “It’s really about reaching out to grassroots activists, getting people involved, getting the message out in as many platforms as you can. They’ve done it by mail, traditional media and digitally, and by hosting town hall meetings and going into homes.”
What’s been really impressive about Romney’s organization is its ability to be everywhere, said Fran Wendelboe, a Republican activist and former state representative.
“When the Belknap County Republicans made a booth available at the Belknap County 4H Fair to presidential candidates, only Romney sent someone to man the booth,” she said. “The others didn’t even send literature.
“Another indication was that only the Romney campaign had an outdoor sign effort at the Grappone Center (Sept. 26) for the big GOP gala,” she added.
Buck agreed that Romney has shown the most consistently strong ground game.
“I know many of his field reps are up-and-comer young Republicans,” he said. “He’s got some good names, big money names. You need grassroots activists and you need a lot of money, and I think he has both.”
After Romney, most local political observers agree that Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman have assembled what appear to be the strongest ground games in New Hampshire.
“I think two is interesting,” Scala said. “If you had asked me a month ago, I would’ve said two is Ron Paul. I guess I’d still give the nod to Paul, though I think I’d put Huntsman third and maybe closing in on Paul, just in terms of number of events in the state. There’s just no substitute for someone who’s basically putting all of his chips on one state. Maybe Paul is still second, but Huntsman’s a relatively strong third and probably moving in on Paul. I’d probably put Perry number four, just because of the late start.”
But with Paul, Scala said, “it’s the same old thing. He’s got a devoted band of followers, but I wonder how much he’s been able to expand his network to reach more activists who didn’t really know about Ron Paul. With Huntsman, the core might be weaker right now, but the ceiling might be higher.”
Griffin said he’s been impressed not only by the amount of time Huntsman has spent in the state, but also by how many times he’s seen the candidate’s supporters holding signs along the streets.
“I haven’t seen that from anybody,” he said.
Griffin said Perry also appears to have a pretty solid ground game in New Hampshire, having picked up a number of big endorsements from local politicians, and having a New Hampshire native like Dave Carney running his campaign.
Buck said Perry’s “got some work to do,” but he’s got a very good political operative in Carney, a lot of local people on the ground, and he’s picked up some big endorsements, including former gubernatorial candidate John Stephen.
Buck also said he’s been impressed with Herman Cain’s New Hampshire operation.
“He hasn’t been here a lot,” he said. “He seems to understand that it is a national contest. But he has enough surrogates on the ground and people who will contribute time and money and attend GOP meetings.”
Pressed to name a candidate with little to no ground game in New Hampshire, everyone mentioned Bachmann’s name.
Griffin said Bachmann’s ground game in New Hampshire is almost nonexistent, despite the fact that she has local conservative talk radio host Jeff Chidester on board. It hasn’t helped that she hasn’t been here in more than three months.
“I’ve had not a single email from her campaign in over two months,” said Wendelboe. “Prior to that there were frequent ones. Very strange and disappointing. I really was impressed by her in the early days of her campaign, but she has been in a downward spiral in so many ways since.”
Another candidate who has shown no signs of establishing a ground game in New Hampshire is Newt Gingrich.
“He’s absentee, and has been for a while,” Buck said. Fringe candidates Buddy Roemer and Fred Karger, he added, “have more sophisticated ground games right now than Newt Gingrich.”
Scala said Gary Johnson has spent a lot of time here, but “Ron Paul just sucks up all the oxygen in the room. If you’re a Liberty Republican, you’re sort of bound to Paul, so Johnson’s left on the outside looking in. Other than on college campuses, it’s hard to find a Johnson organization.”
"You cannot win New Hampshire without a strong ground game,” said former Republican Congressional candidate Jennifer Horn of Nashua. “While endorsements and money are important, they are not measures of a strong ground game. You can see which campaigns have a strong grassroots effort in place when you attend county committee meetings and Lincoln Day dinners and just about any other party event; these campaigns have staffers and volunteers spreading out at every event, wearing their candidate’s stickers, and actively engaging voters everywhere they go.”
To find out which candidates have the strongest ground games in Iowa and South Carolina, click here.