Democratic hopefuls staff up for Iowa ground game

So many candidates stretching thin the state's talent pool

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks Feb. 10 during an organizing event at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rap
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks Feb. 10 during an organizing event at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids. Warren since has leapfrogged ahead of the field of candidates with assembling a ground game in Iowa, hiring 50 paid campaign staffers in the state. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Winter is coming.

Even though it’s May, activists in the Iowa Democratic Party are setting their sights on February.

Since Iowa took the leadoff slot in the nation’s presidential selection process more than four decades ago, top political operatives, newbies looking to start a career and hordes of volunteers engage in a ritual every four years of dividing up into competing camps and choosing which candidate they will back and work for in the quest to be the party’s nominee.

And for 2020, there’s a lot to choose from with the field of announced or undeclared candidates hoping to unseat Republican President Donald Trump hovering around two dozen and growing.

Many of those hopefuls already have been crisscrossing the state looking for early supporters and building the ground game that will be needed to compete in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses Feb. 3.

Sue Dvorsky, former state party chairwoman and longtime activist who is neutral on the Democratic candidates running this cycle, said the crowded field is stretching Iowa’s talent pool — with couples finding themselves working for competing campaigns, and former Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton organizers spread throughout.

Only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden previously have competed in the caucus process, and Biden’s 1987 and 2007 bids were short-lived, she noted.

“Sanders is the only one with muscle memory of what it was like last time,” Dvorsky said, but he competed in a three-way battle while this time it will be “like trying to sip a tea cup out of a fire hydrant.”

And so it begins.


Now-former Maryland Rep. John Delaney was the first officially announced candidate in July 2017 and has begun staffing up and assembling a field operation.

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., announced last week four hires in Iowa, including Ben Halle, a University of Iowa graduate as communications director.

But Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has leapfrogged ahead of the field with an aggressive leadership team and 50 paid campaign staffers on the ground in Iowa.

“There are a finite number of people who have experience — a lot who have been signed up or are in negotiations,” said Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and a former Clinton staffer in 2016. “That pool is getting gobbled up, but I think there’s still a lot of good talent out there.”

Most candidates bring in a core of their key aides and build a hybrid campaign that usually is a mix of new faces and “old guard folks” who are experienced in the process, Price noted.

“This town and this state is going to be crawling with campaign staffers before this is all said and done,” he said. “It’s going to be very interesting to watch and we’ll see how it all unfolds. I’m already having a hard time of keeping track of where everybody is working.”

While it’s not Game of Thrones, the high-stakes, intraparty competition does get intense.

“There are still Democrats who talk about Carter and Kennedy in 1980,” noted party veteran Matt Paul.

But, at the end of the day, Price noted, most Democrats come back together after an experience that creates “a sense of camaraderie and friendship” in a process that’s always evolving.


“It’s a new age. The way people engage and share information is very different than it was in 2008,” said Paul, who is not signing on with a campaign for the 2020 caucus season. “We’re in uncharted territory here and the name of the game is distinction. How are you going to stand out in that field and get the attention of Democratic activists and simultaneously prove how you’re going to beat Donald Trump?”

Jeff Link, a consultant with a lengthy campaign resume dating to Biden’s 1987 campaign, said the size of this year’s presidential field has pressed some “super activists” from previous years into paid staff roles now.

Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and Obama administration Cabinet member who announced his presidential bid in January, said he was able to land “a couple of great staff members so far” as he builds his Iowa campaign crew.

“There are many folks who have past campaign experience who are committed to a campaign already, but there are also ones that are out there that haven’t for whatever reason and I intend to build a great team — both the people who are experienced in a caucus and also people that are new,” he added.

Even with past caucus experience, Castro said, 2020 is unique because “I don’t think anybody has ever run with this many candidates.”

Also making this year unique is a new element added by the party to expand participation by holding six “virtual” caucuses leading up to the in-person caucuses, which Paul noted will be like adding a county in each congressional district. The same 15 percent threshold candidates have to meet for viability will apply,

“The caucuses are only done once every four years so everybody has to brush up on their math,” said longtime party activist Jean Hessburg, who in 2008 helped Nevada model a caucus system similar to Iowa’s.

The changes to the 2020 process could help level the playing field for candidates new to Iowa because it creates a learning curve for each.


“We’ve never done this with 23 candidates; nobody has. We’ve never done this with virtual caucuses; nobody has,” said Dvorsky.

David Roederer, a Republican political activist and campaign veteran with George W. Bush’s Iowa campaign, said his party went through the challenge of a crowded field of 17 candidates in Iowa during the 2016 cycle and the process helped energize people.

“Actually I think the more the merrier. I think it’s going to be quite exciting,” said Roederer, looking at the Democrats lining up to challenge Trump and the possibility of a GOP nominating skirmish as well.

“Donald Trump obviously had no experience at this type of thing and he came in and did quite well,” he noted. “In politics and in campaigns, you always want to have new people. You want to have people that don’t know what can’t be done. I think it’s just a great opportunity for more people to participate and for people to learn the basics of campaigning.”

In Iowa, regardless which party’s nomination you’re seeking, the caucuses come down to whether you have staff and funds, given the paid media market is fairly expensive and advertising messages in border cities reach “a lot of people who can’t vote in the caucuses,” Roederer said. “That starts the winnowing out process. If you don’t have the funds to maintain your campaign, you’re not going to keep going.”

While the past view has been that there are three tickets out of Iowa in the presidential nominating process, top Democrats don’t believe that will hold true this year, with maybe six or possibly more moving onto the New Hampshire primary Feb. 4.

“We’re not going to have a caucus for 24 people. That’s not going to happen,” said Dvorsky, who said the two upcoming nationally televised candidate debates and campaign showings this August at the Iowa State Fair will be “break points” that expose which candidates have the best message and organizational skills.

“I don’t think we’re going past Labor Day with 24 candidates and I know we’re not going into February with 24 candidates,” she added.


Tom Henderson, a former Polk County Democratic Party chairman and longtime activist, said a June 9 Hall of Fame in Cedar Rapids will be another flash point, with most of the candidates signed up to speak at an event where rank-and-file party members can compare and contrast them.

“That’s going to be a long night but an interesting night,” he said.

Currently, Henderson said the field is too unwieldy but he expects it to narrow as candidates looking to inject their message into the race or see it as a chance to open future opportunities lack the funds to keep going.

“This is way, way too many right now,” he said. “I think that we might see Iowa leave with seven and after New Hampshire that will get smaller quickly.”

With a large field, it will be difficult for candidates to hit double digits, noted Link. With the 15 percent threshold for viability in each precinct, the math indicates no more than six candidates will be awarded delegates. If current poll numbers hold until then, Biden and Sanders likely would be viable “almost everywhere” and most likely there would be an uncommitted delegate in most precincts.

“So that means there’s only three seats at the table left in any precinct,” he added. “When you look at that, there are going to be 19 campaigns vying for three spots for delegates. That’s going to get really dicey.”

Hessburg said the 2020 race is “wide open right now” and “expecting that it will look the same next year as it looks today is a fool’s game. That’s just not how politics works.” Speculating on how many candidates will be viable by next February is “all a guess right now,” she said.

Price said competing in Iowa requires understanding the culture of a caucus state versus a primary state, building an organization and establishing relationships strong enough to persuade people to venture out on a winter night to stand up for a candidate.

He likened working for a campaign to getting a master’s degree in political science or a specialty endorsement because of the experience and connections that working in one of the early selection states provides.


“One thing I will say is there’s not going to be a lack of work here the next nine months, and so if people are interested in working on campaigns, now is the time to do it,” Price said.

“Iowa is ground zero. Careers are made in Iowa,” said Eric Woolson, a Republican political operative who ironically got his start with Biden’s 1987 campaign in Iowa. “Regardless of small campaign or big campaign, being in Iowa is where the action is. It’s where you get noticed, it’s where careers are made.”

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