I do not remember how I came to learn that Pizza Ranch was ‘the place’ for presidential candidates to host campaign events. Honestly, it seemed like one of those ubiquitous pieces of knowledge that anyone tuned into Iowa politics comes to realize at some point or another – hosting an event at an Iowa Pizza Ranch location is a must for any candidate looking to have the true Iowa caucus campaign experience.
But how did the largest pizza chain in the Midwest become such a large part of the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses?
The answer revealed itself to me during a one-off conversation at a Doug Burgum campaign event with Dr. Rachel Paine Caufield, Director of the Iowa Caucus Project. In the weird period between the end of the event and the event clean-up, Professor Caufield enlightened a small group of Iowa Caucus Project staffers about an earlier one-off conversation she had with Eric Woolson.
‘Who is Eric Woolson?’ you may ask. I had that same question.
Eric Woolson, according to Professor Caufield, is the “guru of the Pizza Ranch” and originated the Iowa caucus Pizza Ranch tradition. In other words, Woolson is an Iowa Caucus Legend. Dr. Caufield relayed the tale to a handful of students over a few leftover pastries – which were not nearly as good as Pizza Ranch cactus bread, in case you were wondering.
Contrary to popular belief, the link between the pizza franchise and the Republican Party is not rooted in ideology. Historically speaking, religious groups are a fairly powerful voting bloc within the Republican Party, and candidates tend to cater their campaigns to appeal to these circles. Pizza Ranch is a religious pizza franchise with a vision “to glorify God by positively impacting the world” while fulfilling their mission of “giv[ing] every guest a legendary experience.” Despite the correlation, the connection between Pizza Ranch’s mission and vision and the GOP's religious campaign tactics is purely coincidental. The true motivator behind the connection was logistics.
Ahead of the 2008 Iowa precinct caucuses, Eric Woolson served as Iowa campaign manager for former Governor Mike Huckabee (and winner of the 2008 Republican caucus). In this position, Woolson was responsible for scouting out campaign event locations for the governor around Iowa. Pizza Ranch just happened to be one of the locations on Woolson’s call list.
Relative to other spaces, Pizza Ranch was an inexpensive event venue with locations across the state. While the franchise did not openly endorse candidates, they allowed campaign events to be held in their party rooms. The ease of booking the space, the cheap price, and great pizza sealed the deal. Aside from those logistical pieces, Woolson did not claim there was anything more that went into the decision to book the first Pizza Ranch space.
Prior to 2008, the Iowa Pizza Ranch campaign tradition did not exist. Today, it is a campaign trail staple. Ahead of the 2024 caucuses, many of the GOP candidates have made stops at Iowa Pizza Ranch locations, stuffing campaign supporters into party rooms and providing copious amounts of buffet pizza.
While the story starts with a cheap and easily accessible event venue, it ends with an enduring quirk of the Iowa caucuses, all thanks to Pizza Ranch Guru Eric Woolson.