Boxes of printers and office supplies lay scattered on the ground. Campaign staff sat on the floor in mostly unfurnished offices as they were just starting to occupy Joe Biden’s Iowa headquarters in Des Moines after weeks of working remotely in coffee shops around the city.
The delayed headquarters opening is just one of the many ways Biden is playing catch-up in the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state where voters prize retail politics and sustained engagement.
An elected Democratic official in the state, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained that if Biden has a campaign in Iowa, he doesn’t know who’s working on it or how many.
In contrast, Elizabeth Warren, who jumped into the race four months before the former vice president, has built one of the most robust operations in the state, positioning her to capitalize on her surging national poll numbers and her steady rise in Iowa, Democratic operatives say.
A strong operation in the state could propel her nationally, those Democrats say, while many expressed surprise that the former vice president had a slow start building a strong operation in the Hawkeye State.
“Elizabeth Warren, because she got in early, you could say that she has a leg up,” said Penny Rosfjord, the 4th District chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “Her staff has been on the ground and kind of assimilating into their communities.”
Warren’s campaign has nine offices across the state, and her Iowa headquarters in West Des Moines has been in operation since March. The Massachusetts senator has made nine trips to Iowa and has 65 employees in the state.
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The Biden campaign said it has other fully operational offices throughout the state, and it plans to announce additional details about its field operation in the near future.
Looking to replicate Obama’s Iowa success
In 2008, Barack Obama’s surprise victory in Iowa stemmed in large part from a superior ground game and a sophisticated, data-driven turn-out-the-vote operation that was tailored to the peculiarities of the caucus system. Obama captured nearly 38 percent of the vote, handily defeating Hillary Clinton, the race’s front-runner, who came in third, after John Edwards. Obama’s operation was so successful that Clinton looked to replicate it in 2016.
While Biden clings to his early front-runner status in polls, Warren has gained ground through a steady stream of policy proposals, a strong debate performance and a maverick approach. Biden, by contrast, has leaned on his decades in the Senate and the White House in his pitch, which focuses on his belief that he is best positioned to defeat President Donald Trump in November 2020.
“I think she has built momentum by hitting the ground early and by being detailed and creative in what she has announced as her agenda,” said Bill Brauch, a lawyer in Des Moines and longtime Democratic operative.
Warren spending more of her money on staff
The Biden campaign says it has 60 paid staff in the state and is adding more. But it spent more on campaign advertising and other media expenses than payroll nationwide during the second quarter compared with other top-polling Democrats, according to campaign finance reports filed July 15.
Of the $7.8 million that Biden spent on media, payroll, rent and travel, more than half went for media and about a third for payroll, data shows. Warren spent less than a third of her $7.2 million for media and almost 60 percent on payroll nationally.
Warren paid salary to more than 300 individuals during the quarter, compared with about 190 for Biden. Warren’s campaign said she has 60 percent of her staff in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, four early-voting states.
Late entry in race likely hindering Biden
Biden may have a smaller staff in part because he joined the race April 25, much later than Warren and other candidates, said Matt Paul, who ran Clinton’s winning 2016 Iowa caucuses operation.
In Iowa, a candidate’s standing can’t be measured only by the number of staffers and investment — especially given the role of digital advertising and other ways to reach voters, Paul said. Clinton enjoyed a huge advantage in staffers and offices over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016, but won only narrowly after a late Sanders surge.
Still, caucusgoers must be targeted and mobilized. Biden has to continue expanding his operation and can’t take his advantage in name recognition and voters’ familiarity with him for granted, Paul added.
“It still takes people, and it still takes a footprint in the state,” he said.
Working toward ‘Biggest field program in the state’
On a recent tour of Iowa, Biden drew criticism for showing up late to some of his events on what is his third presidential run. He was more than 90 minutes late to a roundtable July 16 with health care leaders in Le Mars.
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About 171,000 people participated in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, and that number could double in 2020, Paul said.
Jake Braun, Biden’s Iowa state director, said the campaign intends to “have the biggest field program in the state soon,” and he rejected the notion that the focus was limited to Biden’s supporters from his previous presidential campaigns and longstanding political connections in the state.
“We’re building things from the ground up,” he said, emphasizing their efforts to have a captain in all 1,677 precincts across the state.
Biden had invitation-only event at Vilsack’s home
But Biden held an invitation-only event July 15 at the home of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who also served as agriculture secretary in the Obama administration.
Vilsack gave a glowing introduction of Biden, and the event was packed with current and former elected officials and party leaders, including two former lieutenant governors and the current Iowa Senate minority leader. The event was part of a three-day swing in the state, Biden’s fourth trip since getting into the race.
“I think that they’re first targeting people that they know for sure have had a connection with Biden,” Rosfjord said about Biden’s campaign strategy. “I think they’re going to work on that a little bit more than Warren did. Warren had a little bit more of a window of introducing herself in Iowa.”