MUSCATINE — With a historically large field of Democratic presidential candidates and a race that appears destined for a closely contested finish, campaign organization is poised to play a critical role in determining the outcome of this year’s Iowa caucuses.
Organizing is always critical to success in the Iowa caucuses, the first official step in the process of picking the next U.S. president. Every four years, caucus campaigns work to identify, engage and ultimately turn out supporters on caucus night. The strategies vary, but the bottom line remains the same: make contact with as many people in as many places as possible, and convince them to stand in a room on caucus night in support of the candidate.
There are many candidates from which to choose this time around: 18 officially. And much of the field is well-liked by Iowa Democrats. So the competition for support is fierce.
And the race has become competitive, with four candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden — leading the pack in polling on the race. In the most recent poll in Iowa, those four leaders were separated by just 5 percentage points.
That makes the work of those caucus campaign organizations over the next three months even more crucial. This year, as much as ever in Iowa, those organizations’ performance will go a long way toward deciding which campaigns are successful on caucus night.
“The stakes are so much higher, and it really does put more emphasis on the ground game,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats.
Warren’s organization the gold standard
The consensus among political watchers in Iowa is that Warren has the most impressive caucus campaign organization. The U.S. senator from Massachusetts made an early, significant investment in her organization here, a move that was met at the time with some skepticism. The question was whether it made sense, still almost a year out from the caucuses, to invest that much money into a campaign organization at a time when precious few people were truly paying attention to the race.
Nine months later, Warren’s campaign organization remains the gold standard, and her support has grown steadily to the point where she has become the consistent leader in polls on the race in Iowa, albeit by narrow margins.
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“At the time she got some guff for taking that big bet so early, but it seems like it paid off for her,” Bagniewski said. “It seems like she’s the odds-on favorite to win the caucuses because of that organization, because of that team, because of the work she’s put in here.”
Warren’s campaign has more than 20 offices and more than 100 paid staffers, and has held organizing events in all 99 counties, according to the campaign. Warren events have become well-known for the “selfie lines,” in which supporters line up to have a photo taken with her. And that presents yet another opportunity for her staff to engage supporters.
“Early on (the Warren campaign) went heavy with the organizing in Iowa, and I don’t think that has changed. They’ve continued to expand, and they got a huge head start,” said Sam Roecker, a veteran political strategist in Iowa who earlier this cycle worked on John Hickenlooper’s now-defunct campaign.
Warren said the decision to invest in a grassroots campaign early in Iowa aligns with her overarching campaign theme of building a government that works for all Americans, not just the wealthiest.
“If the only way that we can select a Democratic nominee for president is to go suck up to corporate executives and lobbyists and billionaires, then our democracy will keep working better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top,” Warren said in an interview. “So for me it was important to run a real grassroots campaign — not a photo-op campaign, but a real grassroots campaign. That meant financed by grassroots donors and it meant spending that first money that came in on field organizers ...
“I think of what our team does every day as repairing our democracy just a little bit.”
Buttigieg’s organization rivals Warren’s
The Buttigieg team turned a big summer of fundraising into a robust Iowa caucus campaign organization, one that has grown to rival Warren’s.
The Buttigieg campaign also estimates it has more than 20 offices and more than 100 staffers across the state.
That boost in campaign organization has coincided with — and perhaps aided — a rise in the polls for Buttigieg, who has surged to where he now has the second-highest rolling average in Iowa polls, behind only Warren, according to Real Clear Politics.
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“It seems like they’re catching up fast and building that organization,” Roecker said of the Buttigieg campaign. “It seems like over the past month or two they’re one of the ones that they’ve really come together and made organizing and building that team a priority.”
That organizational growth was apparent at the state party’s recent fall fundraiser in Des Moines, where the Buttigieg campaign put on a show that included a downtown rally before the event and choreographed, flashing lights inside the stadium during the show.
The Buttigieg supporters’ organizational display was on par with the Warren team’s, which was similarly impressive.
“They’ve built quite a team that really has risen to the occasion. They’re behind Warren, but for them to be in the position they are really is impressive,” Bagniewski said of the Buttigieg campaign. “It has been impressive to watch.”
The Buttigieg campaign says it has focused on relationship-based organizing. Instead of focusing only on making phone calls, the organization works to create events such as house parties where supporters can invite friends, family, co-workers and neighbors.
Sanders taking an ‘ambitious path’
Sanders’ campaign has 112 staff working out of 12 offices across the state, with plans to add more in the coming weeks, the campaign said. True to the candidate’s message of leading a political revolution led by the grassroots, the Sanders campaign claims thousands of volunteers have held more than 1,600 organizing events in Iowa, including phone banks, community canvasses and training.
“We are taking the most ambitious path to the nomination, relying on our ability to energize and mobilize constituencies that are often the most difficult to turn out, including first-time voters, students and young voters, working class people with multiple jobs and low-income voters who feel ignored by our political process,” Misty Rebik, the Sanders campaign’s Iowa director, wrote recently in a memo to staff and supporters.
Both the Sanders and Biden campaigns said their goal is to have a precinct captain in each of Iowa’s 1,600-plus precincts.
Biden leads in campaign offices
The Biden team has easily the most campaign offices: 24 with more potentially to come. The Biden team also has roughly 100 staffers working in Iowa.
The Biden campaign has focused on direct voter contact — a different approach than the relational strategy of the Buttigieg campaign — and has worked to capitalize on the former vice president’s many personal relationships in Iowa and robust databases of supporters and potential supporters, the campaign said.
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Biden’s polling average in Iowa has slipped in recent weeks, although he has remained in the top tier and competitive with his fellow front-runners.
“At the end of the day it’s a good, old-fashioned organizing, and it’s built on relationships,” Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz said. “And we’re fortunate that we have the candidate that understands the importance of relationships.”
Organization ‘is how you win Iowa’
Bagniewski and Roecker said Amy Klobuchar’s campaign, which saw a slight polling bump after the most recent debate, has grown and could help the U.S. senator from Minnesota sustain her momentum.
For Klobuchar and the rest of the field, however, Bagniewski said time is running out for candidates to get hot. And if they do, it may be too late to grow an organization in a way that can be competitive with the four front-runners.
Cory Booker’s team also made an early, significant investment in Iowa. His support has not grown like Warren’s — Booker’s rolling average in Iowa polls is just more than 1 percent. Despite that, Booker said recently during an episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa Public Television that he believes that organization is what can help him pull off an underdog success story in Iowa.
“That is how you win Iowa. That is how (John) Kerry, who was polling at 4 percent, went on to win,” Booker said. “I’ve won every election, as I was saying earlier, as a grassroots underdog insurgent. That is how we’re going to win here, and we’re going to win it by going directly to the people if we can build the organization to sustain it.”