Clinton County was not Clinton country in 2008. The eastern Iowa working-class county situated on the Mississippi River broke for neighbor-state Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 Iowa Caucus win, besting Hillary Clinton here by a 37% to 34% margin.
That defeat in the county that shares a name with the former Secretary of State has weighed heavily on the minds of Hillary supporters here.
“I kind of feel like I disappointed myself by not doing more for her,” says Dave Dawson, a local precinct captain for Hillary. “When [the campaign] called me this time it was not a question of yes, it was ‘hell yes.’ I feel like we disappointed her, but maybe it made her better for the cause.”
Clinton’s loss in 2008 came as a harsh surprise to many supporters who believed the press stories of her insurmountable lead throughout much of 2007. Now many have heeded the lessons of that tough loss, including Iowans who haven’t even caucused before, like Louise Lorenzen.
“Probably to my shame, my regrets of why didn’t I jump in before,” says Hillary volunteer Lorenzen, who lives on the north end of the city of Clinton, of why she’s motivated to come to the local field office this year. “I’m using that negative as a positive. I think we are at a crossroads right now, and I need to jump in. I’ve come to see that little things like writing letters or a phone call does have a bigger impact in the grand scheme of things. Start out small, and hope for that ripple effect.”
Last weekend on a bitterly cold, single digit early morning, car after car pulled up outside of the Hillary campaign’s local field office in Clinton. The colorfully-decorated headquarters here is in a sprawling store-front property in the city’s tiny downtown, but it looked full that day with dozens of volunteers filing in, ready to work.
The campaign was operating a “dry run” that day, a shake-down test of sorts with their local volunteer teams and reporting system. Every volunteer’s name was radioed back into Des Moines at the start of each shift, every three hours.
Oh, and Madeleine Albright was there too.
The former Secretary of State arrived to the office, was introduced by one of the campaign’s best local activists and recounted her personal connection with Hillary and her foreign policy experience.
And then she left and the volunteers got back to work. There were doors to knock, after all. A group of well-bundled Democrats, most in their 50’s and 60’s, gathered in one corner of the office to discuss their door-knocking packets, while others sat down at folding tables and took out their cell phones to start calls.
Two of those volunteers is a brother-sister team of Nancy Stillings and Dave Dawson. They’ve been helping out in the office since September. Stillings notes that she’s been involved in politics since Bill Clinton’s early days – she lived in Arkansas while Clinton was governor.
“The first moment my mother saw him, she said ‘He’s going to be President,'” she recalls.
Both Stillings and Dawson have slowly been given more and more responsibility in the campaign infrastructure as time went on.
“It started out with meetings here, and they asked us to make phone calls, and I found out I was good at it, which surprised me!” explains Dawson. “We had already told them I’m willing to see this thing through, so when they need something they give us a call and we’re there ready to help. We went from making phone calls here to taking packets home and making calls at home.”
Now the two are precinct captains in separate Clinton County precincts. They’ve already lined up a group of fellow Hillary volunteers in their precincts to serve as greeters, sign-in volunteers and ride-givers on caucus night. Stillings also now serves as a staging location captain, meaning she’ll help organize incoming volunteers in the office in the final days of their Get-Out-The-Caucus push.
This organization did not build itself, of course. It was put together, piece by piece, over the last nine months by meetings at coffee shops, phone calls to past activists and late-night volunteer training sessions. And here in Clinton County it’s been spearheaded by Hillary field organizer Austin Lyle, the first on the ground of the now-large local staff.
The young field organizer arrived in Iowa back in April, part of the first wave of highly experienced field operatives who hit the ground the very day Clinton announced. Lyle is a veteran of campaigns for Kay Hagan and Terry McAuliffe, and was recruited to join the Iowa team from one of his former bosses who now runs the eastern Iowa region.
Growing up in Utah, Idaho and Montana made the small rural communities of Iowa familiar to him. He also came in with a bit of a mountain man look, sporting a thick, scruffy beard in the early months of the campaign before trimming it back during the hot door-knocking days of July.
“Growing up I was never in a town over 50,000, you go out, you see someone you know,” Lyle says. “Coming out to Clinton it was that same type of mentality, you walk down the street and you see people, and you stop and have a quick conversation to catch up. That was something I found made it a very easy transition for myself.”
Lyle started out in Iowa living in supporter housing in Davenport before moving into an apartment in Comanche, a small town right to the south of the city of Clinton. His organizing turf originally covered Jackson, Clinton, Louisa, and Muscatine counties. As more staff arrived, that narrowed to a focus on only Clinton County.
Working out of his car in the early months, Lyle met with Democratic activists and former Hillary supporters in a variety of his makeshift offices. In Clinton County, it was Cafe 392; in Jackson County, Flapjacks Restaurant; in Louisa County, a gas station; and plenty of coffee shops and Hy-Vees in between.
“A lot of folks were hesitant because the last time didn’t go so well,” he says of the concerns from his early meetings. “What are you doing? How are you going to run it this time?”
Some of the old Hillary network was still around, but many had become disengaged from politics in recent years. Much of the Hillary grassroots organization in Clinton County had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was slow-going at first. But as time went on, many Democrats came around and signed on to the campaign. Dorothy O’Brien, a local attorney and major activist signed up early, and important Democratic families like the Reeds and Keefers came on board too. A mix of former Hillary, Edwards and Obama backers made up their core early group.
Some took longer, like Diane Rice, a local Clinton County activist who Lyle met within his first month on the ground. She was uncomitted at first, so Lyle sat down often with her for coffee or at one of the campaign’s “engagement” events in town. Persistence paid off.
“Every week for about a month and a half, two months, she had a question, ‘what’s the policy position around this?'” Lyle recalls. “By July she had signed a caucus commitment card and now she’ll be serving as one of our precinct captains.”
So much of the Iowa Caucus is about relationship building, but it extends to more than just the voters. The Clinton team this time around has developed as a particularly cohesive bunch, and the eastern Iowa organizers have bonded over shared interests in what very little free time they have.
“We as a region went to see The Force Awakens the Friday after it came out, and that was just a blast because we were all able to nerd out extremely hard,” Lyle notes. “It’s been fun because a lot of this team, the Clinton/Jackson [counties] team, is nerd-heavy.”
The camaraderie and enthusiasm from the staff emanates out to the volunteers. As the old field organizing saying goes, volunteers come in for the candidate, but they stay for the staff.
“I’m really excited about these young men who [run the office],” comments the volunteer Lorenzen, who was recruited by Lyle over the phone in September, and has since written letters, knocked on doors and made phone calls. “Their enthusiasm is translating well. They have a good rapport across all ages.”
The Hillary staff made sure to involve their volunteers in more fun activities, sometimes putting aside a phone bank night to invite folks to the office for coffee and conversation. The local volunteers returned the favor, with O’Brien bringing the Hillary staff over for dinner at her picturesque winery high atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi.
The local party has noticed as well.
“I’m very impressed with the staff here in Clinton for Hillary,” says Jean Pardee, the chair of the Clinton County Democrats, a long-time institution in state politics who can be reserved at times in where she gives out praise. “I think they’ve done an excellent job and have bent over backwards to be helpful and communicate with the party, and I appreicate that … It’s a tremendous improvement from 2008.”
As those relationships and volunteer infrastructures built up, so too did the campaign’s activity. Lyle sent out his first door-knockers in mid-June, around the time they started up regular phone banks. A small handful of volunteers manned those night. By the time the leaves started turning colors, the office got more and more active, and Lyle tasked his best workers to start organizing their neighborhoods.
“We gave [Nancy] a list of folks in her precinct, and I think in that first week she might have talked to everybody in that precinct, going door-to-door and phone calling them in the evening,” Lyle says of sending Stillings to organize Comanche 2.
Hillary herself visited Clinton County on November 22nd, holding a rally at a local middle school. Lyle notes they locked in several more important activists at that event.
Now as the clock ticks down to caucus night and the temperatures stay permanently locked below freezing, the past nine months of on-the-ground organizing work comes to a head. All the one-on-one meetings, all the phone calls, all the door knocks, all the signed caucus commitment cards and all the volunteer planning will culminate in about two very important hours on caucus night.
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will host rallies this weekend in Clinton County, separated by only an hour and a half. A swarm of reporters will pack both events to compare the candidate’s messages and crowds, and likely make much to do of the confrontation in Clinton.
But the more important story will be what happens in the field offices and in the streets and coffee shops of Clinton County before the all-important caucus night vote. Will the grassroots organization that Lyle and his fellow Hillary staffers have built here for months deliver that win for their candidate that proved so elusive last time? They’ll know the answer late in the evening, two Mondays from now.
by Pat Rynard