Republicans Seek Uber-Volunteers To Woo Voters

Aug 4, 2011

In Iowa, the Ames straw poll is just over a week away, which means the Republican presidential candidates are spending as much time there as they can.

But when they're off wooing voters in other states, it's up to their staffs to generate buzz in their absence.

So attracting the best talent could make a difference in turnout next week. But it's not just who they hire — it's also who they recruit as volunteers.

The Uber-Volunteer

When Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty picked up Des Moines strategist Eric Woolson, the news landed on every political blog in the nation. In 2008, Woolson had managed the caucus campaign of another unknown governor — surprise winner Mike Huckabee.

But despite hiring some of the best known political names in Iowa, Pawlenty is still struggling in the polls.

Doug Gross, a Des Moines attorney and former GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2002, says more important than who they hire is who they attract as their volunteers.

He says to win the primary back then, he knew he needed Joni Scotter.

"If you go to these events and you hear somebody doing a war whoop — that's Joni Scotter," Gross says. "And she has a following of volunteers that will go with her anywhere. Those are the people you want and you don't pay Joni, you make Joni believe in you. When I ran for governor, she was one of the first people I called. I remember I was a basketball game for one of our kids and I spent like a half hour talking to Joni underneath the bleachers. That's how important Joni is."

Scotter is an uber-volunteer for the GOP. It appears that she's never met a person she hasn't hugged and her enthusiasm for the party is unmatched. At a recent meeting in Cedar Rapids, she introduced a former Congressional candidate with a "woo-hoo!"

That kind of introduction can go a long way for a presidential candidate. And if Scotter is on a candidate's team, she'll make thousands of phone calls asking people to put up yards signs, give money, or show up at an event. Her hard work and reputation now precede her. When Pawlenty failed to make time for a picture with her at the fairgrounds last year, the story wound up in the Los Angeles Times.

Now every candidate wants to meet her, but Scotter says she remains undecided.

"Because I've had all this publicity and all of this attention — if I said I was for one candidate, it would blow the others away, kind of," she says. "They would lose that edge that they have, that excitement that they have, and being a presidential candidate — I'm sorry but it's hell."

Scotter is both flattered and embarrassed by the attention, but she's one of a handful of volunteers who Republicans say can make a big impact.

The Power Of Unknowns

Eric Woolson, the Huckabee campaign manager who now works for Pawlenty, says sometimes having unknown volunteers can be even better.

"You may have somebody who'd been say a county chair for 15 or 20 years and they may say, 'Oh, that's Buffalo Township — we'll never get more than 20 votes out of Buffalo Township,'" he says. "So you've got some new fresh volunteer that comes in and takes over Buffalo Township and they don't know they can only get 20 votes out of Buffalo Township. And they get 75 votes."

Woolson says you can't buy that kind of loyalty, which may also be the downside. He says the volunteer who worked so hard in the past election cycle may sit out the next if they don't feel the same kind of kinship with the new crop of candidates.

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