Most people’s idea of a fun 21st birthday celebration probably doesn’t entail working from sunrise to midnight and getting serenaded by your guitar-playing boss in front of all your co-workers and friends. But if you’re an Iowa Caucus field organizer, that’s actually a perk of the job, with a former governor running for president leading a crowd of hundreds in singing you “Happy Birthday” right before the biggest, most exciting night of the campaign.
That’s how Jordan Sabine, a Polk County field staffer for Martin O’Malley, spent her coming-of-age birthday last month, at the campaign’s rally outside Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines before the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. After marching with O’Malley over to the event hall, Sabine helped lead many of her excited volunteers and local supporters in cheers for the governor as he pitched his message from the center stage to a room of over 6,000 Democratic activists. O’Malley himself sat for a while in the stands with his supporters, right behind several of Sabine’s interns. Later that evening O’Malley bought Sabine her first “legal” beer as the close-knit Iowa staff celebrated their big night.
Sabine would be a junior this year at Drake University, but chose to take both semesters off to work for the underdog O’Malley’s presidential campaign in Iowa. It was a decision long in the making for the Seattle, Washington native, having chosen to attend Drake several years ago in order to situate herself at political ground zero for lead-off caucus state (much like Starting Line himself did).
“They think it’s really cool,” she says of how her parents – both Republicans now converted to O’Malley’s cause – feel about her choice. “My mom is the biggest proponent ever of Martin O’Malley in Washington, everyone knows who he is now because of her. They’re both oceanographers. My dad studies climate change and ocean acidification and loves O’Malley’s environmental policies.”
Whether O’Malley succeeds in the nominating battle or not, Sabine has already experienced a lifetime of unforgettable campaign memories that few others in the country ever get to experience.
But every day on the campaign trail is not all flash and excitement. Satellite TV trucks may often line the streets of downtown Des Moines to cover the media spectacle of the Iowa Caucus, but the vast majority work happens behind the scenes in small field offices staffed by young 20-somethings around the state. Working 12 to 14-hour days, 7 days a week, the organizers slowly build up their candidate’s caucus night turnout in every precinct, voter by voter, phone call by phone call, door knock by door knock. The work can certainly be a grind, but you rarely hear many complaints from the motivated workers, all of whom realize the importance of their efforts.
While most field organizer positions on political campaigns are often entry-level (with the exception of Hillary Clinton’s early Iowa field staff this cycle), the responsibilities that fall upon those who work a caucus campaign are considerable, and their impact on the final result significant. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. You work among some of the best campaign operatives in the entire country, your campaign is often the focus of national news and the voters in Iowa take their caucusing seriously, leading to more substantive field work and rewarding personal friendships with volunteers.
To paint a clearer picture of what a day in the life of these organizers looks like, Starting Line shadowed Jordan Sabine of the O’Malley campaign for the better part of a day a few weeks ago.
Calls, Calls and More Calls
Sabine’s day starts out near the school she’s taking time off from, waking up in her apartment just a block off campus.
“I feel like I’m on campus so much that some people don’t realize I’m taking a semester off,” Sabine says, who has recruited a number of interns from Drake.
Rolling into the downtown O’Malley headquarters office before 9:00 each morning, Sabine hops on a 9:30 conference call with the rest of the statewide field staff, then gets started early on the campaign task that takes up the majority of any given week: phone-calling. Churning through lists of likely caucus-goers over the age of 65 is the order of the morning.
The office Sabine works in houses both central Iowa field staff and the Iowa headquarters crew. The office is by far the smallest of the three Democratic headquarters, occupying one section of a small office park on 8th Avenue, situated between the bridges that connect downtown and Des Moines’ South Side. The higher-up staffers work behind a self-constructed partition in the middle of the office, with the field organizers up front to greet and coordinate volunteers.
The field section of the office serves as a catch-all work space when not filled with volunteers; leftover materials from the JJ Dinner sign construction still clutter several of the tables, and large O’Malley barn signs lean against the walls. Several field organizers have their own desks in the front of the office. Long folding tables in the corner offer seats to phone-banking volunteers.
When Starting Line arrived to the office just after noon, a half dozen staffers and volunteers were plugging away on their calls, some returning to their desks after lunch out at nearby fast food joints. There are occasional sleepy moments in the room as voters sporadically pick up their phone from the calls. Some sit at their desks during call time, while others pace the room, kicking around a soccer ball between each other as they dial.
“We’re lucky to have three very strong candidates in the Democratic field,” Sabine tells one undecided voter she gets on the line, reading through the man’s voter history at her computer. “I’m here for O’Malley because he has a proven record of getting things done, including raising the minimum wage.”
“I would be happy to get you more information on some of his policy issues,” another staffer offers a voter. After some cajoling, she sets up a later one-on-one coffee meeting with the person, not bad for a cold call.
“Definitely as a woman I’d like to see a female president, but O’Malley has done so much for women in his home state of Maryland,” Sabine explains to a Clinton supporter as she bravely fights to get the woman to consider O’Malley instead. “The state has the most small businesses owned by women, it’s really cool how he’s been a champion for them. He also made their schools number one in the country for five years in a row.”
“It was Martha. It was you,” jokes another staffer in light-hearted frustration after a voter declines to speak to her.
“What has Hillary Clinton in front of Governor O’Malley for you?” inquires an organizer who speaks with a Clinton supporter. She asks if the person would still like to meet O’Malley at an event and gets a positive reply.
“Why was she with Clinton?” asks an O’Malley volunteer after the call ends.
“She likes Hillary because she sticks it to Republicans,” the staffer replies. “Well, I guess that’s a reason.”
One young woman’s accent stands out from the others.
“It’s a small country, I probably know them,” an O’Malley volunteer from New Zealand says to a voter who had met a Kiwi couple on an Alaskan cruise recently. Sarah, who’s spending a month in Iowa to help the campaign, doesn’t know the fellow countrymen, but makes progress with her call, identifying policy issues to follow up on and setting up a later one-on-one.
A full-time volunteer from New Zealand aside, most of O’Malley’s field staff came from Iowa, or have campaign experience in the state. All but one of their regional field directors worked in Iowa last cycle, and several of the field organizers clerked for Democratic legislators at the State Capitol. They’re a younger crew than the Clinton field operation, but their higher percentage of staff with Iowa experience means many local activists and elected officials started out with previous relationships with them.
Sabine herself first met O’Malley in 2014 at the coordinated campaign office during a canvass for Brad Anderson, the Democrat running for Secretary of State that year. O’Malley’s PAC had deployed a number of staffers to the state to help local Democrats’ campaigns, Anderson among them. Sabine had no idea who the Maryland governor was at the time, but came away impressed. She met him again at a fundraiser the next year, where O’Malley sought her out specifically and spoke with her for 20 minutes about being a younger person in America. O’Malley’s state director, Jake Oeth, a former Bruce Braley operative, followed up with Sabine and recruited her for the campaign, much as he did for many of his staff with Iowa backgrounds.
Afternoons of One-On-Ones
Sabine likes to fill her afternoons with one-on-one meetings, dropping in on volunteers, local activists and undecided likely caucus-goers she’s spoken with on the phone before. This day she had four set up around town.
Her first stop is Victor’s Auto Sales, a ten minute drive from the office on Des Moines’ upper east side. Sabine talked with Victor a few days ago and wanted to get him more information in person.
“Hi, is Victor here? I’m with Governor O’Malley’s campaign,” she introduces herself to a technician at the auto shop. Victor isn’t, so she drops off a folder with pamphlets and policy papers for him.
“He’s getting a call later,” she notes on her way back to the car.
Undeterred, Sabine’s next stop is fifteen minutes the other direction on the South Side. Her organizing responsibilities used to include counties to the south of Polk, but after a recent wave of new hires, her turf has shrunk to a more manageable section of Des Moines.
Pulling into her regular parking spot outside Mary Nilsen’s townhouse, Sabine heads up to her door with a fresh call list and talking points in hand.
“I have Des Moines 34 for you today, our most important precinct,” Sabine tells Nilsen for encouragement as she goes over the call list and new script in Nilsen’s entryway.
“It’s been hard, but it’s getting easier,” says Nilsen of the calls for the previously little-known governor. “Compare it to ’08 when there were probably 100 more workers than [O’Malley] has … you just have to keep at it.”
Nilsen is a caucus pro, serving as Obama’s precinct captain in 2008, when she also housed some campaign staffers out of her home. She’s used to success, winning her precinct that night eight years ago. Jerry Crawford, Clinton’s state chair in 2008, also lives in Nilsen’s precinct, and she takes considerable pride in the surprise they sprung on Crawford on caucus night.
“Those were me and my peeps,” she says with a laugh when describing an interview she read about Crawford’s recollection of the 2008 caucus. “All these weird people in Jerry Crawford’s precinct that he didn’t realize existed.”
Sabine first met Nilsen during an one-on-one she set up early on with past volunteers.
“She touched my little ego by saying ‘we know you were active last time around and we’d like to gain some wisdom on Des Moines,'” Nilsen recalls, and comments on Sabine’s even-keeled personality. “She is the most cheerful and pleasant and obsessively non-obsessive person, if that makes sense.”
Nilsen was drawn to O’Malley in a way you may only find in the Iowa Caucus, where voters take their choice very seriously. She was impressed in particular by O’Malley’s spiritual readings of Richard Rohr and Thomas Martin (something Starting Line noticed voters mention once before at an event in Cedar County).
“When you’re on the campaign trail it’s hard not to fall into dualistic thinking,” Nilsen remembers O’Malley telling her at an earlier event in Des Moines. “I thought what other person running for president would have any concept of what dualistic thinking is … There’s a lot of people out there who are looking for someone who thinks higher thoughts.”
“Let me know when you’re finished,” Sabine tells Nilsen as she heads out the door to head to her next meeting.
Driving around to drop off and pick up call packets like this takes up a few hours each week, but the calls that get done from her volunteers quickly add up. In addition to the large Sunday night phone banks she organizes at the office, Sabine also operates an extended network of O’Malley supporters who make calls from home, several of whom are home-bound with disabilities.
One volunteer is an older woman with MS who makes calls from her kitchen table. Sabine drops in on her once a week to refresh her call list, but also to spend a little time hanging out with her, as the woman doesn’t get too many visitors. A blind couple does call packets as well, and Sabine prints out pages with extra large text on it that they read with a special magnifying glass.
“They call me every time they hear the Governor on radio or TV and say, ‘I’m so proud of him!'” Sabine says.
“I have an awesome amount of volunteers who I go to lunch with once a month, which is nice to get out and not be in the office,” she says of her volunteer network, several of whom have even tried to set her up on dates. “I’ve created so many relationships like that … I’m actually building friendships instead of just coming in for the campaign … [O’Malley] is my guy and I’m going to fight to the end for them, and they see that.”
Sabine’s next stop for the afternoon is at Zanzibar’s Coffee on Ingersol. Her first meeting there is with Peg and Karl Schilling, who head up the South Side Democrats group and were also precinct captains for Obama in 2008. Karl has helped the campaign already, and Sabine hopes to bring Peg on board officially as well.
“I wanted to ask how do you guys want to get involved in the campaign? Do you like phone banking, door-knocking?” Sabine inquires of both of them as they snack on pastries at the coffee shop.
“I don’t really like phone banking because I don’t like to get the calls,” Karl replies. “I don’t mind hoofing around the neighborhood. I can do that with my veterans hat and my cane and they usually don’t slam the door in my face.”
“I write checks. I buy my way out of it,” Peg jokes of how she gets involved, but offers to help with mailings and post cards.
“Are you all in for O’Malley at this point?” Sabine asks of Peg.
“Yes, I am,” she replies, to which Sabine gives a small cheer. “I was waiting for Joe Biden, but now he’s dropped out. And I hate to give up on the dream of the first woman president as well … You better get me now, so I don’t change my mind at the last minute.”
“I know where you live,” Sabine jokes as she slides a commit-to-caucus card across the table to Peg to sign. A number of former Biden supporters have been breaking O’Malley’s way, and the Whitworths discuss with Sabine other potential South Siders she might be able to lock in now.
After business is discussed, the three chat about various policies, and the conversation meanders for a while about Medicare and healthcare plans. The Whitworth’s choice with O’Malley is partially practical, seeing him as the most electable candidate who also boasts a solid progressive record.
Soon after the Whitworths depart Zanzibars, Sabine’s last one-on-one of the day enters. Cal Woods, a former TV reporter, has been a volunteer for Sabine for months. Now a real estate agent, Woods spends his weekends canvassing for O’Malley between his open houses.
Already on board with O’Malley, Woods mostly chats with Sabine about how the campaign is going and the overall state of the horserace after checking his schedule to sign up for his next canvass shifts.
“They mention Trump and Rubio and Hillary and that was about it,” Woods says of the national news from the previous night, frustrated with the lack of attention O’Malley has gotten. “I just don’t understand why everyone feels Hillary is the presumptive nominee.”
As the sun sets outside the coffee shop, the talk turns to actual caucus night and preparations for the final months.
“I’d love for you to be a precinct captain in your precinct,” Sabine pitches Woods. “You’ve done all this and you’ve proven yourself.”
“What’s involved in that?”
“You get a full training from us and the IDP as well, and during the caucus you stand up and make the case for the Governor, and then be in constant contact with me that night, while you try to bring more people into our corner … You’ve been very reliable so I’d love to have you on our team.”
Woods agrees, and Sabine ends her afternoon with a new precinct captain, an important new commit-to-caucus card and a call packet delivered to a good volunteer.
Motivation for a Long Night
Sabine returns to the office a little after 5:30 and jumps back into a call list, now targeting Des Moines voters under the age of 65. The phone banking lasts until 9:00, but the long hours don’t bother her.
“I know that the Governor knows that I’m working hard for him,” she says of her boss, who worked the Iowa Caucus himself once for Gary Hart. “Whenever he comes into the office he gives a really inspirational speech. I know he knows my name, I know he’ll buy me a beer. He’s such a cool guy. He knows what we’re doing, so he’s really appreciative of it and he makes that known. He jumps on the conference calls sometimes. He was a field organizer and he’s running for President.”
That makes the non-stop 80-hour weeks a little easier to handle, though it also adds pressure to the work.
“I’m right on that brink where I’m so passionate about Governor O’Malley that I freak out when I’m having an off-day and I’m like, ‘this state could ruin his whole campaign,'” she notes. “I have to be on my game all the time or else I’d be very disappointed if we lose … I see it with all of our organizers, we all understand that he’s in this for us as we’re in it with him.”
It’s easy to see how much the smaller O’Malley staff (about 35 in all) has bonded if you watch them at events or see them hanging out in the evenings. Much of the central Iowa staff get together in Des Moines often, some of whom crash on Sabine’s couch, as she’s one of the few with an actual apartment in town. The Iowa staff’s leadership makes sure there’s plenty of time to build that team mentality, holding a number of “forced family fun” events, including one long night of laser tag recently.
“We’re very cohesive, which is cool for us who want to work on campaigns long-term,” Sabine says, appreciating that the senior staff joins in on activities with the field organizers.
That helps a lot in getting through to the end of an evening. Sabine’s nights officially end after the statewide conference call at 9:30pm, though she usually has data entry to finish up before heading home or out to a restaurant for a late night dinner with fellow staff.
As any person who’s worked on a campaign before will tell you, however, the work never really ends, as your mind races well into the night, often planning out the next day and week as you try to fall asleep. Sabine’s had her share of this. One night she dreamed of a local activist who had eluded her for weeks. She’d called and called the man for some time, but couldn’t get ahold of him, meeting him once at a debate watch party, but still she had difficulty tracking him down. He then showed up in a dream of Sabine’s, where she imagined she finally landed an one-on-one with him, only to wake up angry, fearing she had missed the meeting. Eventually, though, she did meet him again in real life.
Stories like those are testaments to how all-encompassing an Iowa Caucus campaign can be for the field organizers who toil for months for their candidates in the lead-off state. It becomes your entire life’s focus for those months before caucus night, probably a helpful distraction for staff on campaigns like O’Malley’s that face increasingly long odds of success.
“Fear The Turtle” is the O’Malley’s campaign unofficial slogan, believing their slow-but-steady work will pay off in the end. Time, however, is starting to run short.
On one wall of the O’Malley Des Moines office hangs a sign that reflects those chances and the tough fight their team has ahead of them. It reads:
Believe in the impossible
Strive for the impossible
Do the impossible
It’s a daunting idea to work by, but one that history has proven an achievable goal. The impossible has certainly been done before in the Iowa Caucus. Today, like every other day between now and February 1st, field organizers like Sabine will wake up all over the state and head into campaign offices to work toward making that impossible task a reality on caucus night.
by Pat Rynard