How Young 20-Something Organizers Change The World In Iowa, Then And Now

Guest post from Addisu Demissie

I landed at the Des Moines airport as a 22-year-old on May 31st, 2003 completely unaware of what I was getting myself into.  A month or so earlier, I had been offered a job as a Field Organizer for John Kerry in the Iowa caucuses. I knew nothing of what that meant, but working on any presidential campaign was a dream job. So I told my horrified parents, packed up my life – which, at that age, amounted to a few boxes and even fewer suitcases – and moved to the heart of the Midwest to do whatever it is that a Field Organizer does.

I learned.

The next day – June 1st, 2003 – remains one of the most significant of my life.  It happened to be my 23rd birthday.  It was the first day of a two-day staff training that I consider the moment when I really fell in love with campaigns and started a career that continues to this day.  It was the day I met several people who have since become my best friends, including one who would be a groomsman at my wedding.  And it was the beginning of a journey over the next 7+ months in which I got a crash course in organizing, relationship building, campaign strategy, and testing the limits of my own commitment and endurance.

I make no apologies for being an Iowa caucus enthusiast and defender, and nearly everyone I know who’s worked the caucuses feels the same way.  It was the site of one of my greatest victories (Kerry in the ’04 caucuses) and most crushing defeats (I returned to serve as the Deputy Field Director for Hillary Clinton in ’07-’08, when we placed 3rd), but in both experiences, I came away with the greatest respect for both the people who care so much about their pivotal role in politics and, just as importantly, the process by which they do it.  With the 2016 Iowa caucuses less than a week away, I wanted to take a moment to shine some light on those people and that process and what makes them both so unique.

Addisu with State Sen Janet Petersen
Addisu with State Sen Janet Petersen

Let me start by saying this: there are some serious problems with caucuses that could and should be rectified.  Holding them in the evening on a weeknight in winter can be disenfranchising to working people, older people, parents, and caregivers who might not be able to arrive by 6:30pm, or stay for multiple hours, or even get out of the house at night.  Building in some kind of absentee ballot option, or even just holding the caucuses during the day on a weekend, is something that should be seriously considered. But here’s the thing about the Iowa caucuses: as President Obama articulated in his interview with POLITICO’s Glenn Thrush earlier this week, they are in many ways an idyllic form of democracy – not only in the actual caucus room, but in the months leading up to it.

Starting that June, I was the organizer for the western half of the most populous county in the state, Polk County, stretching from the central Des Moines precincts that house the state Capitol and Drake University through the more affluent western suburbs and exurbs.   My “turf” as we called it included roughly 7% of the total statewide “caucus weight,” or the percentage of the total number of delegates awarded.  All of my fellow organizers were responsible for roughly similar caucus weights but the geography varied immensely.  Mine was the smallest turf in the state.  Meanwhile, my colleagues in rural Iowa were responsible for up to 10 sparsely populated counties and spent hours every day driving between small towns in an otherwise vast, seemingly empty flatland.

We all, however, had the same simple goals: 1) to make 50 “hard IDs” a day (campaign speak for firm statements of support, opposition, or indecision directly from a voter), 2) to recruit volunteers to help with canvassing, phonebanking, and other campaign activities, 3) to build relationships with key political leaders and 4) to identify “precinct captains” for each of the precincts in my turf.

For most of that summer, what that meant was being on the phone calling through targeted lists of voters for 4, 6, sometimes as long as 8 hours at a time, just banging out IDs and hoping and praying to find maybe one supporter an hour.  This is not an exaggeration.  Iowans like to candidate-shop, so there were more than a few nights when, at our 9:30pm reporting meetings, I would report over 50 total IDs, with every single one as a “3,” or undecided.  It was beyond frustrating but that’s what we did night after night, month after month.  While they were slow to commit to a candidate, that is the process, painstaking as it might be.

More than anywhere I have been before or since, Iowans were willing to talk.  They want to hear your pitch.  They want to debate issues.  They generally are happy to take your call, or even have a black kid from Atlanta show up at their door to talk politics in the heat of summer or dead of winter.  I was on a first name basis with some voters in my turf, calling them multiple times a week just to check in because I knew from their voter file record that they were virtually certain to caucus and were on the fence between Kerry and some other candidate.  They knew why I was calling, over and over.  Almost without fail, they took the call anyways.

During the day, I would mostly be out of the office and in my turf, sometimes knocking doors, sometimes meeting with key leaders like state legislators or pastors or nonprofit executives, sometimes literally just driving around and learning the neighborhood – what time school gets out, what the best and busiest coffee shops and diners were, figuring out who might not be an obvious community leader based on any obvious criterion but who everyone seemed to know and respect.

The Kerry team, summer 2003
The Kerry team, summer 2003

This is really the crux of organizing and it is unglamorous work, but it turns out there is a method to the seeming madness.  What I and my fellow organizers were doing in those summer months wasn’t just churning through IDs, though it may have felt like it.  We were building relationships and establishing ourselves as members of a new community.  Unlike many voters, though, Iowans don’t just welcome their quadrennial invaders; they love them.  They take the job of vetting the presidential candidates seriously but I think it’s fair to say that they have real affection for the people, mostly in their 20s, who come into their state and give their life to their candidate for months on end.  The process of politics, in Iowa, is almost as important as the substance.  Voters don’t just tolerate it, they embrace it.

This ethos is present in the volunteers and especially the precinct captains, the lifeblood of the caucus organization.  As summer turned to fall and then winter, more people began to make their decisions to commit to caucus for Kerry.  We wouldn’t count them as “1s” – the highest level of support – until they literally signed their name on a magic card called the “supporter card” which made it into a precious file folder that I still have to this day.  On that card, you could indicate with a checkmark whether you were interested in volunteering or, God willing, serving as a precinct captain for your caucus.  So the leaves changed and the job shifted: we began to have an office full of volunteers making the hard ID calls so we, the paid staff, could focus on more volunteer and precinct captain recruitment.  And the beautiful circle began to repeat.

The old adage in campaign organizing is that volunteers come for the candidate and stay for the staff, and in both my Kerry and Hillary experiences, this could not be more true of Iowans.  Those volunteers wanted me to exceed my goals more than I did.  They invited me over to their houses to meet their children, their families.  Many were such experienced caucus veterans that they taught me more than my bosses ever could about how to organize.  They wanted their candidate to win but they also wanted ME to succeed because we had built that kind of relationship.  12 years later, I still keep in touch with so many of them.

Finally, there are the precinct captains who are everything to a successful organizer and caucus operation.  Precinct captains are not necessarily your best volunteers but they are your best leaders and strategic thinkers.  Leading up to the caucus, they are the face of your campaign in their community.  On caucus night, they are your chief strategist, cheerleader, organizer, and surrogate.  It is not hyperbole to say that a good precinct captain can make the difference between winning and losing multiple delegates, a dynamic that will play out in all 1,681 precincts next Monday.

This is because the Iowa caucus voting process is brilliantly, gloriously, esoterically small-d democratic.  Say, for example, that a given precinct awards 10 delegates, and the caucus chair announces that exactly 100 people have shown up for the caucus.  The caucus begins and there is a time period during which voters literally separate into camps in the room – Hillary in this corner, Bernie here, O’Malley over there.  Anyone who has ever been in a crowded room can understand how chaotic a process this could be.  It’s up to the precinct captain to make it orderly and simple for the candidate’s supporters to find their candidate’s area, lest they get buttonholed by an opponent’s supporter while wandering around, and comfortable once they get there, lest they get bored, tired, or hungry and leave.  There is an art to this, something for which the campaign will train their captains well.

Kerry's 2004 Iowa staff
Kerry’s 2004 Iowa staff

And then there is the math.  First, in our example, a good precinct captain will know immediately that she needs to have 15 supporters (15% of the 100 attendees ) to reach the “viability” threshold required to receive at least one delegate, and that additional delegates come on the 10s – 20 for 2, 30 for 3, etc.  Simple enough.

Where the true strategic thinking comes in is trying to assess the best strategy for delegate allocation.  In our example, let’s say that the Clinton precinct captain does a count just prior to the end of the alignment period and finds the following:

52 Sanders

34 Clinton

14 O’Malley

If this scenario were allowed to play out, O’Malley would be non-viable and his 14 supporters would be free to caucus with either Clinton of Sanders.  But if the Clinton precinct captain thinks about it, she might WANT O’Malley to be viable here.  With 52 caucusgoers, Sanders is stuck at 5 delegates, after rounding of the 10 available.  However, in realignment, he could easily get to 6 by attracting just 3 of those 14 O’Malley supporters to his side to get to 55.  Meanwhile, Clinton is virtually guaranteed to end up with 4 delegates unless the precinct captain believes that 11 of the 14 O’Malley supporters will come to caucus with her.

The potential solution?  “Release” one of the Clinton supporters to caucus with O’Malley, ensuring his viability and a delegate.  The result?  The caucus ends Sanders 5, Clinton 4, O’Malley 1.  Not ideal if you’re a Clinton supporter, but better than 6-4 Sanders if you believe he is your chief rival statewide.

This is the type of sophistication that being a precinct captain requires and these are the types of calculations that Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley volunteers are going to be making across Iowa on Monday night.  The three campaigns, if they have done their jobs, have trained their captains to think like this.  And though we will likely never hear about it, it will happen.  I saw it with my own eyes in 2004 at the caucus for Des Moines Precinct 49 where my captains – State Representative Janet Petersen and two Drake Law students named David Adelman and Jeff Wurzburg – pulled the exact number of caucusgoers to their side to reach the threshold for an additional delegate.  They had the training.  They had done the math.  They won it for us.

So, that’s the Iowa caucus.  For all its flaws, it ends about as pure as democracy can get: neighbors and strangers, friends and colleagues, coming together to stand up in support of a candidate that they believe in.  Citizens using persuading and cajoling their fellow citizens about the rightness of their cause.  It’s a beautiful thing, and no matter the result on Monday, I salute all the staff, volunteers and, of course, the Iowans who are going to make it so.


by Addisu Demissie
Posted 1/29/16

16 Comments on "How Young 20-Something Organizers Change The World In Iowa, Then And Now"

  • I am really hoping we are not first in the next time around. First in the nation status is wearing out the activists. In 2 years we won’t have any or many at our gubernatorial caucuses which are more important than POTUS caucuses. It would be great if that same kind of enthusiasm would take place in 2 years. We need a new governor and a progressive state house.

  • I was a precinct captain for John Kerry in 2004 and worked with Matt Slusky that year. This is a wonderful description of how important the paid staffers for a campaign are. I started working with Hillary’s people in April of 2015 and have enjoyed every second of it. Her staffers are out of this world.
    Gary Schmidt’s comment above is wrong, in my opinion, in that what we need are more activists. The sign of a failing organization (church, political party and so on) are that the same people do all the jobs every year. Hillary has added a lot of new blood this year and they include many, many mature Iowans who will not just fade away if only the Democratic Party in Iowa will stay in touch and involve them in future efforts.

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