DES MOINES — When suburban mom Traci Lust answered her door the other day, there stood Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley, ready to chat about the upcoming Iowa caucuses.
Just as he was heading off, Lust summoned O’Malley back to meet her teenage daughter, who was decked out in a Taylor Swift T-shirt and had gotten a guitar for Christmas. “Three chords and the world is yours,” said O’Malley, a musician himself who had broken out his guitar to play a Swift song during a recent TV appearance on the “The View.”
It was one of countless connections the former Maryland governor has made in the nation’s first caucus state, where he’s visited more often than his two Democratic rivals.
But there’s little evidence of a payoff. In a state that has long demanded retail politicking from presidential contenders, this time Iowa isn’t rewarding the candidates from either party who have spent the most time on the ground.
The disconnect might be increasing because of the evolving way that caucus-goers get their information. In the age of 24-hour cable television, social media and political blogs, Iowans are experiencing the race more like other Americans.
“The type of media and exposure candidates get nationally are seeping in more,” said Nathan Blake, a Democratic activist in Iowa who supports O’Malley. “For someone in Dubuque, it matters less if a candidate is speaking in Des Moines or in Washington, D.C. You have access to the same kind of information.”
In the crowded Republican field, the two most frequent visitors have been Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee — two previous winners of the Iowa caucuses — both of whom are stuck in the low single digits in 2016.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), the leader in most recent Iowa polls, has been a relatively constant presence. But Donald Trump, a close second and the Republican front-runner nationally, ranks 12th among GOP visitors to the state, according to a tally kept by the Des Moines Register.
On the Democratic side, O’Malley is running a distant third in the polls behind Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Clinton, who until recently has led in polls among the three Democrats, has put in the fewest appearances.
“Showing up on some level is necessary, but clearly it’s not sufficient,” said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor.
Another factor that can’t be overlooked is message.
“You can visit all you want, but if you have a message that’s not resonating, it’s hard to get traction,” said Brad Anderson, a veteran Democratic activist who’s endorsed Clinton.
O’Malley, he said, has “struggled to find a message that really differentiates himself.” That’s in part because Sanders has done such a successful job courting the party’s left wing with his focus on wealth and income inequality, Anderson said.
Anderson said “the Trump factor” has also had an effect on both party’s races, with coverage of the real-estate mogul’s national rise crowding out other news.
One of the other GOP hopefuls, Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, has achieved an impressive political feat, at least by old-school standards: visiting all 99 Iowa counties.
“Hey, Chuck? It’s Huck. And this is how I do the ‘Full Grassley!’ ” Huckabee tweeted at the state’s senior senator, who crisscrosses Iowa annually.
But it has gone mostly unnoticed by Republicans. Huckabee, who won Iowa in 2008, now sits at just 2.5 percent in the polls, according to a Real Clear Politics average, despite holding more events in the state than all but one other GOP candidate, according to the Register’s tracker, which includes appearances since the 2012 elections.
The only Republican candidate who has spent more time in Iowa, according to the data, is Santorum, the 2012 Republican caucus winner. At about 1 percent, the former Pennsylvania senator is an afterthought in the polls.
The problem for Santorum and Huckabee is that many Iowa Republicans feel they have already had their shot.
“They are yesterday, and people are interested in tomorrow,” said Iowa Republican strategist Doug Gross, who is neutral.
While it’s no panacea, having a big presence in the state doesn’t hurt. With the right candidate for the mood of the moment, it could be a key to victory, as evidenced by Cruz’s success. Cruz, a fiery conservative who is a newer arrival to presidential politics, is the GOP candidate with the most momentum in Iowa right now. He has surged into the lead after building an army of Christian conservative activists.
Trump, who is communicating with voters through social media and national TV interviews, is running second behind Cruz in Iowa, recent polling shows. He’s held fewer appearances in Iowa than two GOP candidates who have already dropped out: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former governor Rick Perry of Texas.
Gross said that the nationally televised debates, with national polling thresholds to qualify, essentially replaced the Iowa straw poll and spurred the candidates to adopt less Iowa-centric messages. The straw poll, which had served as an entrée for the Republican candidates, was canceled in June.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who is polling third in the state, says he is trying to compete heavily in each of the four early states. He took heat for a lighter footprint in Iowa than some rivals in the summer and fall and has lately ramped up his efforts. He remains a top-tier candidate, thanks in part to a robust television advertising campaign.
On the Democratic side, O’Malley has 157 events over 58 days in Iowa, with appearances dating back four years ago. Clinton and Sanders have ratcheted up their travels but still lag O’Malley.
Beyond the candidate’s time in Iowa, the Clinton campaign argues that it is strong because of an organization built up over many months.
Sanders, who has drawn the largest crowds, argues that the enthusiasm he is generating will translate to victory. According to his campaign, he is on track to have drawn 50,000 Iowans to his events before the caucuses.
“That’s why we’re going to win, because we’re doing it the old-fashioned way, person to person,” Sanders said.