ROCKFORD, Iowa – In this small town, the population is just 800. There’s no restaurant or diner. It’s 30 minutes removed from the nearest highway.
Rockford, though, is the humble childhood and current home of Chuck Laudner, the man that has turned the Iowa campaign of Donald Trump – the big city developer – into a legitimate grassroots organization with the boots on the ground required to win the Iowa caucuses next February.
“They are doing everything right. I have no doubt that their numbers are there. If they stay solid, they could turn out 23% to 26% of the vote – enough to win,” a longtime GOP operative in the state told NBC News.
“[Chuck Laudner] knows how to build a database. He knows how to organize grassroots. And he talks their language,” the Republican said. “He is a deity among conservative grassroots.”
The day after holding a rally with 1,200 fervent supporters in Waterloo, the 50-year-old Laudner, Trump’s Iowa state director, returned to Rockford to comb through thousands of new names gathered into his database of supporters.
“We were filling bushel baskets of supporter names all summer long,” Laudner said. “That was really the only instruction I had for the [campaign] team–don’t stand still, be somewhere, everywhere, go into restaurants, talk to the person across the counter at the Casey’s [General Store], go to local community events. If you have that Trump shirt or pin, it attracts attention.”
Unlike a traditional primary where voters simply cast a ballot, the caucus is a process that requires supporters to spend several hours on a cold February night publicly siding with his or her chosen candidate at a specific location. Gaining the commitment of Iowans to turn out that night is every campaigns’ challenge.
But what has defined the Iowa campaign of Trump, the untraditional candidate, is its evolution into a diligent, lively, hard-charging, traditional staff—the same group panned over the summer as ragtag and more hype than substance—that has already accumulated a hearty database of thousands of supporters that it believes will caucus and win Iowa for Trump.
“It’s all about who you surround yourself with,” said Cody Hoefert, the co-chair of the Iowa Republican Party. “[Trump] surrounded himself with strong folks in Iowa that know how to be successful in the Iowa caucuses. They’re very passionate, very hardworking and active.”
The campaign has 12 paid staffers, the most of any Republican operation in the state, comprised of an assortment of characters with varying pasts.
“If you’re going to do a different type of campaign, don’t be afraid of trying something,”Laudner said.
At the forefront of that infrastructure is state co-chair Tana Goertz, 48, a former runner-up on Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice”and now a professional speaker and business coach in West Des Moines.
“I thought she was going to play a very important role and named her co-chair because she was going to reach so many people that a normal Republican organization just isn’t going to reach,” Laudner said.
Goertz appears frequently on national television, defending Mr. Trump—as she affectionately refers to the candidate—from his comments about Megyn Kelly to his resistance in pushing back questions about President Obama’s faith. She is also the force behind the acclaimed “Trump Bus,” the campaign’s sponsorship of a Sprint Car in Knoxville, Tennessee in August, and boisterous debate watch parties at a local sports bar.
Laudner first met Goertz at an event attended by Trump for U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa in January.
“She knows it–she got mocked. We got mocked,” Laudner added. “[They said] ‘Aw, she’s from the TV show and this isn’t serious.’ But hell, she’s running laps around these other campaign consultants who wouldn’t know how to fire up a crowd. I can’t imagine doing it without her now. She just went to town. She’s MVP.”
Goertz and the rest of the team are not all flash, though.
The campaign is executing an extensive ground game operation. The next phase—identifying neighborhood leaders who commit to bringing a certain number of Trump supporters to caucus in February—should be in place by Thanksgiving, Laudner said.
“We have the total tonnage of names and support–we’ve got the numbers,” Laudner said. “Now we just have to point everybody in the direction.”
That role lands with Goertz and the other regional advisers.
“I need to get people to go caucus for him,” Goertz said in Waterloo. “It’s called perfecting the pitch. That’s what I want to do with all these people.”
The Ground Game
There are 1,682 precincts in Iowa. Laudner’s team is determining the number of supporters needed in each of those precincts to result in a caucus-day win and then identifying “precinct captains” to help turn out those numbers on caucus day.
“Let’s say we need 40 votes in whatever precinct—[the designated Trump precinct captain] will say, ‘Here’s the 40 people who are going to vote for Trump,’” Laudner said.
The campaign intends to designate their precinct captains—likely more than one captain in most precincts—by Thanksgiving.
Laudner does not dispute that the campaign has taken the untraditional route of doing less retail politics in the state.
“You’re supposed to talk to 35 people–not 3,500. But we got those 35, and then another 35 and another 35 within a matter of hours.
Laudner added: “We’ll do that now and then at the end, we can get comfy and cozy and do the small meetings and seal the deal with the undecided voters.”
The campaign has held events in small towns in the state, like Oskaloosa (10,000 population) and Winterset (5,000 pop.)—but even those turned into rallies unusual for those towns. Ted Cruz stopped in Oskaloosa on Wednesday but went to Smokey Row Coffee, a more modest, normal candidate stop in town with about 150 people—compared to the more than 1,000 that filled an auditorium for the frontrunner.
Trump has also hit the major metropolitan areas of the state in the last six months—Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Waterloo, Davenport and Ames.
The campaign has identified another 33 counties it intends to venture to next.
Pundits and other Republican candidates doubt Trump’s staying power over the next four months. Ted Cruz last week said he would ultimately pull away “the lion’s share” of Trump’s supporters.
But Laudner counters that there is no reason the next four months will be any different than the last four.
“That was the question in June, July and August and same question in September and October. In Waterloo, they’re not saying, ‘Aw, I might caucus. I don’t know.’” Laudner said. “No, they’re saying, ‘I am going to caucus for Donald Trump.’ So we just got to keep those lines of communication open.”
He added: “As long as Trump stays viable, we have a network. We’ve got this foundation laid out there that we can grow from.”
Making the Campaign Local
An Iowa staffer emblematic of Laudner’s grassroots vision is the campaign’s senior advisor for the northeastern part of the state, John Hulsizer—or “Johnny” as Laudner refers to him.
“He’s the face of the campaign there. They’re the ones who are going to deal with him, and he’s going to deal with them,” Laudner said.
Laudner turned the reigns over to Hulsizer, a former U.S. Marine and father of six, this summer to plan one of Trump’s mega-rallies.
“I said it’s your baby. It’s your hometown. It’s your crowd. These are your people,” Laudner said.
In late August, 3,000 people showed up to Trump’s evening stop in the old manufacturing, Democratic-stronghold of Dubuque.
Hulsizer’s efforts are recognized by local party leaders. Jennifer Smith, the Dubuque County Republican Party chair, said Hulsizer’s energy is well-noted and appreciated his offer to the local party to set up its own informational table at the Trump rally—the first campaign to ever do that, Smith recalled.
“John has been very involved in all the events we’ve done locally. He comes to all of our Dubuque County central committee meetings,” Smith said. “[The campaign] is very committed to making sure they get the word out and to know what Mr. Trump is doing and believes.”
Back at home, Laudner prepared to also continue work on a campaign mailer—the first piece of mail the campaign intends to send out in the state. Laudner said it’s in the “design phase” but should be sent out in the next couple of weeks, coinciding with the campaign’s first television ads.
Sam Clovis, Trump’s senior policy adviser and national co-chair, called the campaign’s plan a “methodical” rollout, including Trump’s policy papers.
Clovis is tasked with writing and vetting much of the policy positions for the campaign. The Iowa college economics professor and retired Air Force colonel served as Rick Perry’s Iowa state chair until leaving the former Texas governor’s languishing campaign in late August.
Clovis spoke with NBC News recently while on a four-hour drive from Sioux City to Grinnell for the county GOP’s annual pulled pork, baked beans and pie fall dinner.
“Because of where we sit in the polls and because of the robustness of our organization, I think we’re able to keep the pressure up by pushing our policy agenda in the way we are,” Clovis said. “You’re going to see a steady flow.”
The campaign said those future policy papers will likely include positions on energy, healthcare, veterans affairs, education, trade and “several slices of foreign policy.”
The Old Guard
In a summer where Republicans feared peaking in the polls too early, candidates like Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio kept relatively low profiles in the state until this month. But Trump visited the state more than every other week.
“There’s the idea that you don’t want to peak early, but hey, we strike when the iron is hot. I’m fine being up 28-0 in the first quarter,” Laudner, a big football fan, said. “Some want to keep this close and keep expectations low and then throw some Hail Mary’s at the end and kick a field goal in overtime and say, ‘Hey, we won.’ That can’t be your plan.”
Laudner added: “[Trump] was on fire immediately, and we were there to start signing people up. We were everywhere. And that’s going to pay dividends in January and February. It’s just going to. We have these [caucusgoers] locked in.”
Laudner helped catapult Rick Santorum’s 2012 caucus victory in what is now almost Iowa folklore—he drove the former Pennsylvania senator in his pickup truck across Iowa’s 99 counties before their caucus night victory over Mitt Romney.
Before that, Laudner had served as the state Republican Party’s executive director, U.S. Rep. Steve King’s chief of staff and the Iowa state director in 2000 for business mogul Steve Forbes, who finished second in that caucus.His wife, Stephanie Laudner, a former staffer in George H.W. Bush’s White House, is also a key partner in the Trump campaign endeavors. And while others on the Iowa campaign team excitedly tussle over where they’ll be situated inside the White House after Trump’s inauguration, the pair says they’ll stick right in Rockford.
Laudner first talked with Trump on December 1 about a potential run. By February 1, he was hired and building his operation leading up to the official campaign launch in June.
Other campaign staffers include Chris Hupke, a politico who Laudner says “never stops moving” in the northwest region of the state.
At an August Republican event at Lake Okoboji, Hupke–in the traditional Trump team garb of a suit and tie—abandoned stationing up at a table like the other presidential candidates’ campaigns. Instead, Hupke, or “Hup” to Laudner, whisked around the 400 Republicans, dispersing stickers, yard signs and taking names.
And Ryan Keller, a former executive director of the Polk County Republican Party, is focused on central Iowa, including the populous Des Moines.
“He is Polk County,” Laudner said. “He is connected – knows everything.”
Other staffers include former Navy SEAL Brad Nagle (Iowa City), Col. Brian Miller (Sioux City), Mark Elcock (SW) and Elizabeth Davidson (Quad Cities).
Noticeably absent from Trump rallies in the state are Republican Party officials and officeholders.
“Where is the Republican Party at Donald Trump events? I mean, they still want to keep everything at an arm’s length,” Laudner said. “But I’d do the opposite if I was [Republican National Committee Chairman Reince] Priebus because these are the voters that you need to win. And if you haven’t noticed, we’ve lost a lot of presidential elections the last few years.”
Closing the Sale
Before last month’s Iowa-Iowa State football game in Ames, Hulsizer told NBC News: “It’s over. We’re viewing it as we’re locking this thing up … Just like Mr. Trump said, you may as well go right to the elections in November.”
And Goertz, when asked last week what challenges are ahead for the Iowa Trump operation, said, “Our biggest challenge moving forward? I don’t see a challenge. With Mr. Trump, he does all the–he does most of the work. He does 90% of the work. We’re working our butts off, but I’m an optimist about getting people to come.”
The TV in the Laudners’ home is set to FOX News on this particular afternoon. Host Neil Cavuto cuts away momentarily from coverage of the U.S. House’s efforts to identify its next Speaker. The new subject: Mitt Romney says Trump will not win the Republican nomination.
For Laudner, in what he calls “the greatest anti-establishment campaign of all time,” there’s something beyond all the headlines of surprise and skepticism.
“I think what may surprise people is not that we’re mass communicating and that we’re having success,” Laudner said. “Honest to God, I think what shocks them is that we’re having so damn much fun doing it. We don’t have bad days.”
NBC News’ Ali Vitali contributed to this report.