Later this evening, thousands of dedicated Iowa Democrats will trudge through the snow and the cold to attend their local precinct caucus. It’s expected to see the largest attendance ever for a non-presidential year caucus, but the stakes involved with the gubernatorial primary alone don’t ensure people turn out.
Phone calls, meetings, trainings and door-knocking by campaign staff and volunteers – thousands of hours of work in all for every single campaign – get voters into those caucus rooms.
That’s what Nate Boulton field organizer Adam Henderson was working on during a recent Friday when Starting Line shadowed him for an afternoon. His first one-on-one meeting of the day was down the street from Boulton’s East Village campaign headquarters at Scenic Route coffee shop, meeting local activist Kim Cornick.
Henderson was a field organizer in Des Moines for the Iowa Democratic Party in 2016, and brought with him to the Boulton campaign a wealth of relationships with local volunteers. Cornick was a steady presence at their campaign office for Clinton, “practically sleeping there in the final days,” as Henderson puts it.
They’re there to talk the governor’s race, but they start off reconnecting like old friends.
“How’s Sammy doing?” Henderson asks of Cornick’s husband. “He still teaching at, was it Central?”
“East,” she says. “22 years there.”
“I thought about him because the Giants had a horrible season. I could imagine him on the coach on Sunday not happy.”
Friends on Facebook, the two kept up with each other’s lives after the election. Cornick asks about how Henderson enjoyed his time in Malaysia – he went to teach English to school children there after 2016. Cornick notes she got laid off recently and started working as a Farmers insurance agent.
Then Henderson gets down to business, and that’s where he first hits a snag.
“Have you thought much about the governor’s race?” he asks.
“I have, and I know you’re a Boulton campaign person, but I really have a soft spot in my heart for Andy McGuire,” she replies. “I’ll obviously support whomever wins the primary, but right now I really like her a lot.”
An active leader of the Gray Area Democrats, a neighborhood group in the mostly-African American neighborhoods in Des Moines, Cornick notes that McGuire has met with them often and Fred Hubbell has come by. She warns that they haven’t seen Boulton there as much.
Henderson says he’ll work on scheduling a time that the senator can meet with them, and follows up with a question of what specific issues her friends are concerned about.
She doesn’t have any in particular in mind. “Sometimes I think it’s just about being heard,” she says.
But Cornick does mention that she’s been impressed with what she’s seen from Boulton.
“I think he resonates well, especially with a lot of younger voters. I think he’s got a lot of energy,” she observes, adding that he appears to be the front-runner.
On that topic, Henderson quickly points out the enthusiasm they’ve seen on the campaign, comparing it to the difficulty of getting volunteers in during the Clinton campaign. As with any political discussion these days, that sets off a long conversation on the 2016 race that went so poorly for Democrats, veering it away from the gubernatorial topic.
Cornick laments the number of friends who told her they’d vote or volunteer but never did, figuring Clinton had the race in the bag. She’s frustrated with others who share legitimately fake news on Facebook that attack Democrats. It got so bad that she had to mute her own mother, a Trump supporter, on Facebook for six months. Mostly, Cornick explains how frustrated she was that more people didn’t take 2016 seriously.
Henderson steers that concern back to Boulton.
“In 2016, I was calling volunteers and I got multiple people who told me, ‘No, I don’t want to volunteer for Hillary, I want to go across town and volunteer for Boulton.’ For his state senate race,” he recalls. “I was like, who is this Nate Boulton guy, stealing my volunteers? … I saw his speech up at the capitol during the labor rally. It was packed. He was up there, he was fired up.”
Still no luck, as Kim insists she’s sticking with McGuire for now, but she indicates unprompted that she’s not very interested in Hubbell or Cathy Glasson.
“I’ll probably eventually come over [for Boulton], just not ready yet,” she says. “Want to see what happens during caucus.”
And that’s why these kinds of meetings are so important for campaigns like Boulton’s in the caucus-to-convention process that could determine the party’s nominee if no candidate hits 35% in the primary. Cornick is the precinct leader at her caucus site tonight, and is exactly the kind of longtime party activist that will move through as a delegate or alternate. Even if you don’t have her won over now, having your candidate as their as a second choice and maintaining that relationship can mean success in the later stages of the race.
Henderson convinces Cornick to walk a few blocks down the street to see their office, where his next one-on-one meeting of the day arrives.
While Cornick was a staunch Clinton supporter, Betty Baker, who is meeting with Henderson to discuss becoming a delegate, was a strong Bernie Sanders backer. Her daughter is involved with the campaign and is trying to bring more of her friends in.
“I know you caucused for Bernie, and we’re reaching out to Bernie supporters to see why you back Nate,” Henderson says as they sit down at one of the folding tables in the large campaign office. “We’re trying to get a broad base of support.”
Baker says she loves Boulton’s energy and defense of labor unions, even though she notes that she doesn’t have a specific connection to labor. Just to make sure, Henderson checks how she feels about the other candidates, especially Glasson.
“She’s tempting,” Baker admits, but reiterates her support of Boulton. “I don’t think they have the big-enough history, the position, the judgement that Nate has.”
Henderson encourages her to become a delegate for Boulton at the caucus, and they discuss which caucus training time she can attend to prepare for it. Beyond that, he also signs Baker up to be a data entry volunteer.
“We just want to make sure we have as many Boulton supporters elected as deleagates as possible,” Henderson explains. “Then we can push our people through. So, you would go from the caucuses to county to state conventions. It’s a lot of fun. The people who do it often go back because they like the process. It’s a really great way to be involved and do the democracy thing and help Nate if for some reason we don’t get to 35%.”
They plan their next meeting and Baker gets up to head out.
“I wore my Bernie t-shirt for a long time,” she reminds him.
“Good, we’ll get you a Boulton one now,” Henderson says.
Next up on the agenda is picking up one of his volunteers for the evening. Laura Darnall doesn’t drive, but she’s a veteran phone bank volunteer – again, someone that Henderson knows from his work in Des Moines during 2016.
On the drive up to get her, Henderson points out all the houses he knocked during that time as he drives through the Drake Neighborhood, one of his old turfs. He had everything south of Unviersity Avenue. A good friend of his and former field organizer who covered everything north of University now works for Hubbell.
Henderson didn’t think he’d ever get back on campaigns after the crushing loss in 2016. But his reasons for getting into politics – and staying in – are personal to him.
His grandmother’s life story initially inspiried him to be involved. She was raised in Union, South Carolina on a small farm that her family received generations ago through restitution from slavery. She would wake up at 4 a.m. to get a plow ready before going off to school.
“The middle school was five miles away,” Henderson explained. “They wouldn’t let the black kids on the bus. So, she would either walk or drop out of school. And she couldn’t take the time to walk and work on the family farm, so she worked on the farm.”
It was the 1950’s and his grandmother was essentially living in slavery-like conditions, also working as a live-in maid for a white family. When she was 19, she moved to Toledo, Ohio, where she raised three children as a single mother. Her son – Henderson’s father – became the first person in their family to go to college.
“To me, that’s the American dream,” Henderson says. “Pushing your family to be better than what you grew up in. Listening to her story makes me want to make that dream possible for every family. Getting involved in politics is the way I see myself helping that dream come alive.”
Henderson grew up just outside of Columbus, Ohio, later going to college at Notre Dame. After college, he moved to Des Moines and got hired by the Iowa Democratic Party.
A couple months of Trump as president and watching the consequences of a Republican takeover in Iowa, as well as Boulton’s pushback at the Statehouse, was enough to get him back involved. As soon as he posted on Facebook he was returning to the state, he got flooded with text messages and calls.
“Probably the most beneficial thing to this job right now is the job I had before,” Henderson says. “People recognize my phone number when I call them. The best thing about this job is the relationships.”
He still can recite word-for-word certain volunteers’ voicemail messages. And he got a chance to speak at a major Clinton rally in September 2016 in Des Moines, which led to him getting recognized out around town. One person approached him at a gym, telling him the leader of their book club said a prayer for him at their meeting after seeing him onstage.
As he heads to Darnall’s house, he tries calling to tell the volunteer he’s on his way. Darnall doesn’t answer. He tries again when he pulls into the low-income apartment complex on Des Moines’ North Side. Still no answer. Darnall always comes out to meet him, so he’s not sure where in the complex she lives. Checking some records on his phone, he heads in and tries the door that’s supposed to be hers’. A gruff-sounding man informs him that it’s not.
With the trip almost a bust, Henderson gets a call from Darnall as he’s getting back in the car. She’d forgotten she was volunteering today, but comes out all the same and they head back to the office.
Like with other volunteers, Henderson catches up on family things, asking Darnall about her grandchild.
“He’s growing,” she says. “Getting into stuff. And I mean actually getting into stuff. We have a bet going on by end of this month he’s going to be walking.”
When they get back to the office, Henderson’s crew of phone banking volunteers are starting to arrive. Twenty people in all show up to call and ID voters for the caucus – not a bad turnout for a Friday night. Attendees range in age from 15 to 78 (there was also a two-year-old, but he wasn’t making calls). Everyone says they’ve seen Boulton’s latest TV ad, which also helps the calls go easier.
“You don’t have to stick specifically to the script, do what comes naturally,” Henderson says in his brief training. “If they’re up in the air, they say they kind of like Nate or aren’t sure who he is, we have a paragraph of talking points on here that we can use.”
Nights like these are how a lot of the people who will show up for the caucus will first hear about it, or at least get encouraged to go. Henderson has to get extra chairs from the back of the office to spread everyone out. Volunteers record their responses into a rather-complicated coding system, difficult when you have so many candidates in the race. But keeping track of which voter is for which candidate means they can try to persuade people later down the line.
“There’s two things we’re preparing for: Planning for a caucus while also planning for a primary in the future,” Henderson explains. “We also have to organize around two different scenarios within the caucuses. There’s a chance we go to preference groups, there’s a chance we don’t. We are focused on doing both. For either eventuality, we’re training our people to be prepared and go ready to support Nate.”
As the volunteers complete their work, finished call sheets start coming back to Henderson’s desk. Eventually it’s just him and Isabella O’Connor, one of the small army of interns that the Boulton campaign has as their disposal. Many of them come from Roosevelt High School and several, including O’Connor, got to know Boulton working as pages in the Iowa Senate last year.
She also spent election day in 2016 doing one last pass of door-knocking with Henderson.
“She’s part of the reason why I came back,” he says.
“He’s part of the reason I’m for Boulton,” she adds.
As she’s finishing calls, she gets one supporter who just spoke with Henderson recently on something else. She apologizes for the double call.
“It happens sometimes. He has a lot of people to handle,” O’Connor jokes to the woman.
With a pile of data entry now to do, Henderson closes up shop for the evening. He’ll be back at it the next day, and will have a new task the day after the caucus – figuring out which supporters got through as delegates and strategizing on how to win over the uncommitted ones. That means a lot more early mornings and late nights to finish out and win the wild, unpredictable Democratic primary for governor.
“You need a candidate who you can get up in the morning for, wake up at 5:00 a.m., get home at midnight,” he says. “That’s Nate.”
by Pat Rynard