The ground war in Iowa

Campaign troops are swarming the frosty countryside and attack ads fill the air. With the Iowa caucus just hours away, it's life-and-death time for Democrats.

By Josh Benson

Published January 18, 2004 12:18AM (EST)

Forget everything the media has said about who's going to finish where in Iowa, and what you've seen in the many, many polls of "likely caucus-goers" that have caused the story to change -- overnight -- from a struggle for second place behind a dominant Howard Dean and steady Dick Gephardt to a four-way, anything-can-happen race.

Yes, the race has tightened and yes, the campaign has intensified. The candidates and their troops seem to be in every town and on every channel. John Kerry and John Edwards have finally begun to turn in the strong performances expected of them months ago. A new Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby poll actually shows Kerry with a 5-point lead. At least partly in response, Dean and Gephardt have blitzed the airwaves with negative ads.

But no amount of political science can predict what's going to happen when Iowa's Democrats gather at a series of caucuses on Monday to select a nominee. Which means that, with the race too close to call, the candidates will be relying heavily in the next two days on armies of volunteers who will be engaged in a grueling process of trying to win one vote at a time.

Consider the "orange hats" -- some 3,500 out-of-state volunteers who have come here over the last few days to help motivate locals to attend the caucuses on Dean's behalf.

On Des Moines' Searle Street, California natives Chris Finnie and Robin Johnston wander up the sidewalk, looking cold despite their heavy winter coats and bright orange ski-hats, clutching a stack of Dean campaign newsletters and blue sheets printed with the names of registered Democrats.

From the first house on their list, a man asks who they are; when they identify themselves, he tells them to keep moving. Another woman who opens the door tells the volunteer on her step that it's not her house -- she's only babysitting -- but that her sister who lives there hates Dean. Finally, a little farther down the street, someone opens the door and says that she not only plans to go to a caucus on Monday, but that she would "definitely" support Howard Dean, who she thought was "a very nice man."

And so it goes.

With the stakes potentially enormous, the campaigns of Dean, Kerry, Edwards and Dick Gephardt have all invested enormous resources here to build the organizations that will help them identify their supporters and get them to the caucuses, a hugely labor-intensive effort that could provide the margin of victory. And with four candidates fighting for a relatively limited group of regular caucus-goers, each campaign is trying to figure out a way to maximize turnout from new constituencies likely to provide them with support.

There is a particular stress on getting bodies to the caucuses -- as opposed to "getting out the vote" for more traditional primaries -- because of the particular rules that make these gatherings more like old-fashioned town hall or Grange Hall meetings than most modern elections. Democrats will gather starting at 6:30 p.m. at some 1,993 public places, sometimes exclusively with friends and neighbors, and after a half-hour will announce their candidate preferences. Each Iowa precinct gets a certain number of delegates, and after a process that would seem baffling to many outsiders, the caucuses determine which candidate gets the delegates allotted to each precinct, which eventually determines the delegates who are sent to the Democratic National Convention in Boston this July.

Because of the highly involved nature of the process, there is a premium on anyone committed enough to show up in the first place. In 2000, only 10 percent of Iowa Democrats caucused, although that figure is expected to be twice as high this year. And because the caucuses are relatively small groups, one person can tip the balance of an entire meeting, potentially influencing the process far more than any single voter in an ordinary primary state.

Hence, the exhaustive efforts to turn out caucus-goers. Kerry hopes to receive a boost from his fellow veterans, and they're likely to constitute a sizable chunk of Monday's caucus-goers.

At 10:30 last Thursday night at Kerry campaign headquarters on Locust Street, as a few dozen staff and volunteers were clearing out space amid the scattered papers and half-empty pizza boxes for another meeting, state communications director Laura Capps described the final push. She said that through phone banks, the Kerry campaign had built up enough core supporters -- "definite caucus-goers" -- among Iowa's veterans to surpass anything seen in past Democratic caucuses. "We're going to have 10,000 veterans caucusing for us," she said.

In a four-way race in which the highest estimates for turnout hover around 150,000, that would be a significant achievement. And the campaign is hoping to get more mileage out of Kerry's military credentials starting tonight, when former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam, begins a statewide tour of Kerry's "Veteran's Brigade."

In addition, Kerry has the endorsement of 27 Iowa state representatives, more than any other candidate. While the local legislators don't exactly have the star power of some of the other political endorsements in the race, they could have an outsized impact in a caucus system by spreading out to different sites on caucus night to work the room for Kerry.

Gephardt's strength, in turn, is his labor support, the same force that carried him to a win in the Iowa caucuses in 1988. The campaign will be able to deploy a burly corps of union members from the Teamsters and a number of manufacturing unions to bring their fellow members to the caucuses. Of all the strategies, it is the only one proven to have worked in the past.

The Edwards campaign has focused heavily on rural areas of Iowa, where the rural born-and-bred senator is judged to have a greater cultural affinity with the residents. Through a series of house parties organized by supporters identified early on, the campaign has attempted to build "concentric circles" of supporters that will be able to dominate some of the rural caucuses. It is an efficient tactic: Because of the caucus rules, the smaller, rural gatherings can yield more delegates than larger caucuses, even if fewer people attend.

The strategy that is most dependent on "new" caucus-goers is the Dean campaign's. While polls have shown him going in the wrong direction, his Iowa campaign is confident that its organization will provide the ultimate edge. But his organization is unprecedented, and the campaign's target is, in large part, Iowans who have never participated in presidential primaries -- which means that almost anything could happen.

The thinking among Dean organizers is that their number of identified supporters has remained steady throughout the fluctuations in the polls, and that their superior money and their out-of-state volunteers allow them to engage in luxuries like knocking on the doors of random Iowa Democrats in hopes of convincing the odd newcomer to the political process to join their ranks.

"The other campaigns are saying they hope to have hundreds of out-of-state volunteers, so obviously this is a lot different," said Christy Setzer, who left a job writing for the National Journal to begin work less that two weeks ago as a spokesperson for the Dean campaign. Pointing to the hectic scene around the headquarters, she said that a stream of new arrivals was sufficient to raise logistical challenges for the campaign, such as having to go to Nebraska to find cars and minivans to rent for them to go canvassing. Their estimate is that, by Monday, Dean volunteers will have knocked on doors in every "walkable" precinct in Iowa.

That orange-capped army, combined with some key endorsements Dean has picked up in recent weeks, has in effect allowed the campaign to be in several places at once. For example, celebrity supporters Rob Reiner and Martin Sheen -- introduced at rallies as "the acting president of the United States" -- attracted large crowds and coverage from the media as they toured Iowa this week, even without Dean. And this weekend, while the former Vermont governor plans to be in Georgia to meet with Jimmy Carter, Iowa's popular Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin will be holding a get-out-the-caucus rally that will likely be crowded with the now-customary mix of local supporters, out-of-state volunteers and T-shirt-wearing union members who are a constant presence at Dean events.

The organization will have to be strong enough to overcome a number of factors that have eroded Dean's position somewhat in recent days. Kerry and Gephardt have both attacked him in recent weeks. But a Gephardt ad now running on Iowa television is darker and more blunt than anything to date. "How much do you really know about Howard Dean?" the ad asks. "Did you know Howard Dean called Medicare 'one of the worst federal programs ever'? Did you know he supported the Republican plan to cut Medicare by 270 billion dollars? And, did you know Howard Dean supported cutting Social Security retirement benefits to balance the budget?"

The Dean campaign has been running a critical ad of its own about his opponents' votes in Congress to authorize the war in Iraq. That may hurt Dean's targets, but it also runs the risk of offending the nice, good-natured people of Iowa who have a lower-than-average tolerance for what they see as negative campaigning.

Dean has also suffered through some bad news cycles. One that generated a lot of chatter resulted from the resurfacing of comments from a Canadian talk-show interview in 2000 in which he criticized the Iowa caucus process as unduly influenced by special interests.

And although it is impossible to know who is taking potential supporters from whom, the most important factor in lessening the seemingly dominant positions of Dean and Gephardt has been the resurgence of Kerry and Edwards.

At a packed town hall meeting with undecided Democrats on Wednesday, Kerry gave a brief stump speech and then answered questions from the audience for well more than an hour. In contrast with press questions, which tend to focus on poll position and process, those from the audience dealt almost exclusively with what the candidate intended to do to solve local and national problems.

At one point, Kerry vowed to stay until the sun came up if that's what it took to convince the audience to commit to him. (And for a while, it seemed as if the crowd intended to hold him to it.) The reviews were positive, typified by Jim Cornick, a longtime Republican turned Kerry supporter. Kerry "never stumbled over a word," Cornick said. "He's the best man to beat George Bush."

Edwards has also improved his lot, in his case by presenting himself as the candidate with a purely positive message, in contrast to the increasingly heated rhetoric coming from his opponents. His crowds, like Kerry's, have swelled, as has the amount of attention he's been getting from the media.

The question most frequently asked about him these days is whether his organization will be sufficiently strong to capitalize on his newfound popularity by actually bringing his supporters to the caucuses. After all, unlike Dean and Kerry, who have opted out of state-by-state spending limits in the primaries, the Edwards campaign is at something of a financial disadvantage. And while Dean and Gephardt have locked up Iowa's most politically influential unions, Edwards will have little institutional help from organized labor.

"I think when you've got two campaigns that don't have to abide by the spending limits, that allows them to put all kinds of resources into getting people out to caucus," said Rob Berntsen, the caucus director for the Edwards campaign in Iowa. "And unions have won caucuses in the past, and anyone in any campaign telling you it wasn't an advantage would be lying to you."

But Berntsen also said that the Edwards campaign has organizational strengths of its own, ones which he believes will ultimately be more significant than any of the other ups and downs of the contest's closing days. "The polls are bouncing all over the place, and we're happy that we see this tremendous momentum and buzz and surge," he said. "But caucuses are all about organization. You've got to turn people out and have people argue for you. The polls show one thing now, but once the caucus-goers are inside, anything can happen."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections George W. Bush Howard Dean Joe Lieberman John Edwards John F. Kerry