Hitting the canvass for John Edwards

The populist crusader's blue-collar base appears solid after door-knocking in a depressed Iowa town.

Published December 30, 2007 9:42PM (EST)

In the past 24 hours, I have canvassed with John Edwards volunteers in Newton; watched a Barack Obama speech in Mount Pleasant; and enjoyed lengthy off-the-record conversations with top figures in the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns at Centro, a Des Moines restaurant where the political bar scene was still smoking at 1:45 Sunday morning. This morning I was up unconscionably early to watch all the Sunday talk shows beginning at 8:00 with "Meet the Press" (Mike Huckabee and Obama) and ABC's "This Week" (Clinton and John McCain). I, of course, read the New York Times and the real newspaper of record (at least until Thursday) the Des Moines Register. And do not get me started about how many online sites I have trolled and how many e-mail press releases I have digested.

And (crank up the volume and drop the confetti) here is what I have concluded about the Democratic race: nada, zip, nothing.

It is not that I lack for facts -- I have notebook filled with them. It is that they fail to cohere into any larger pattern. At this point in 2004, just a few days before the caucuses, I had begun to pick up anecdotal evidence (from crowd size and interviews with likely caucus-goers) that Howard Dean was slipping and John Kerry and John Edwards were surging. But this time around, I have not seen or heard anything that prompts me to move away from the conventional wisdom that Obama, Clinton and Edwards are locked in a three-way tie.

But rather than resort to the desperate techniques of a reporter in trouble (a full notebook dump), here are a few nuggets from Newton that might prove relevant in retrospect once we know who won the caucuses:

Newton is a sad-eyed town of 15,000 -- 30 miles east of Des Moines -- where the long-imperiled Maytag plant closed at the end of October. (One of the Edwards canvassers was Ted Johnson, the last president of UAW Local 997, which represented Maytag workers). This is the kind of angry blue-collar turf that should be made to order for John Edwards. And after three hours of door-knocking at the homes of up-for-grabs Democrats (I am pretty convinced that the campaign did not cheery-pick its lists to point me to proven supporters), I am willing to tentatively conclude that the Edwards base is holding firm.

The emblematic Edwards voter in Newton is Beverly Morse, a retired secretary eager to give me a bunch of leftover Christmas cookies. She apparently has a backup plan for getting rid of her lovingly baked confectionaries, since she announced, "I'm going to bring treats to the caucus." Morse also knows exactly where her candidate fits in the pantheon of Democratic heroes. "John Edwards is the equivalent of John Kennedy," she said. "Kennedy was a millionaire for fought for the poor. John Edwards is a millionaire who fights for the working man."

The Obama team has been making the against-the-grain point for months that they will benefit from the caucuses being held during the Christmas-break period for Iowa colleges. Their spin: Students will caucus in their hometowns all over the state rather than being confined to college-town precincts. In Newton, I found the first evidence that this might indeed be happening. My other Edwards escort for canvassing was Jane Odland, whose career arc has taken her from letter carrier to stay-at-home mom to law school to local attorney. But Odland (whose husband is a Republican) will be outvoted in her own family on Jan. 3: Her two college-age children, both home from Iowa State, will be caucusing for Obama.

Thursday night the Clinton campaign may become the largest taxi service that Iowa has ever seen as they shuttle their over-the-Hill gang (mostly women of a certain age) to the caucuses. But in Newton, there is a caucus location for Precincts 1-2 that should quiet the fears in the Clinton camp that their entire vote could be wiped out by an ice storm. Residents of the Wesley Park Centre retirement home only have to take the elevator to the ground floor to caucus.

A common theory among those obsessed with handicapping the caucuses is that Democrats are either for Clinton or against her. That means she seems less apt to pick up second-choice support from Democrats whose original candidates do not make the 15 percent threshold for their votes to be counted. (The arcane rules of the Iowa caucuses defy easy summation.) But Wendell Wendt, a resident of Park Centre, told the Edwards canvassers, "My first choice was Bill Richardson, but when he wasn't going anywhere, my wife and I switched to Hillary."

Caucuses are, by their nature, an anathema to the Democratic Party's traditional commitment to maximizing voter turnout. Everyone, for example, who works the night shift (like two voters I met in Newton) is disenfranchised since Iowans have to show up in person on Thursday evening to caucus. But there are also Democrats who will be deliberately boycotting Iowa's Day of Decision because they hate the public skirmishing that differentiates a caucus from a primary. The best excuse for staying home I heard came from a spry man in his 70s who greeted the Edwards team in Newton by announcing, "I absolutely won't be going. I've got high blood pressure. I don't want to get excited."

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton John Edwards