The Iowa Caucus: Days 1 through 7

After the fall of traveling in Asia and Australia/New Zealand, we had a three-week interlude in North America.  Elizabeth and the kids spent three weeks in Seattle with my fabulous in-laws Caroline and Jim Goedhart.  I was there for two weeks, but spent my last eight days in North America in Iowa.  I’ve been involved in Barack Obama’s campaign from very early on, and wanted to help in a pivotal state.  This blog will report on the experience of being a foot soldier in the caucus process in Iowa.  I’ll cover the ramp up time in Iowa in this blog, Caucus Day in the next blog, and a third blog on my perspective Barack Obama.

The Obama team had a two-hour training session for volunteers on December 27th.  My first surprise was the age of the volunteers.  Of some sixty volunteers at this session (just for the Iowa City area, and a small portion of Obama’s volunteer force), participants ranged in age from the mid 20′s to the 60′s, with pretty much an equal distribution across all age brackets.  I expected the volunteer force to be much younger, especially since our assignments were physically demanding.

The Obama staff in Iowa was young, but impressive.  The organization had a core of about ten young men and women, all in their 20′s, and all extremely smart and dedicated.  My “boss” was Tony Rediger, who gave me my daily marching orders.  Now, it’s been 20 years since I’ve had a boss, but I couldn’t ask for a better re-introduction into that experience.  Tony was professional, capable, committed to the cause, and always cheeerful and positive.  His colleagues were quite similar.  I never once saw any sign of tension, disagreement, or lack mutual respect in the office, despite the work pace.  And these staffers worked pretty much from 8:30/9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. or later, seven days a week, for three to six months! 

The first surprise I got in the training was a very serious guideline.  All volunteers could never, ever say anything negative about another candidate.  And the staffers meant it.  We could talk to people about what we liked about Barack, about policy initiatives where we had expertise, or why we were volunteering, but it would be a cardinal sin to speak negatively against any other candidate.  They said they had spent months here in Iowa trying to establish a culture of respect for all parties, and didn’t want a volunteer to erode that effort.

Our daily assignments depended on the day of the week.  On weekdays, we’d start with phone calls around 10:00 a.m., and make calls until about 3:30 p.m.  Then, we’d go knocking door to door from about 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.  On weekends and New Years Day, we were focused just on door-to-door visits.  The campaign would give us daily contact sheets, with the names and addresses (targeted by a voter prioritization algorithm), but we were free to approach others not on the list.

Iowa 009 I had a specific precinct I focused on (Iowa Precinct 14), but covered other areas.  After a few days, believe it or not, I began to know some of the people I’d see in these neighborhoods.  The neighborhoods ranged from apartment units, to townhouses, to duplexes, to single family homes.  These residences represented a suprisingly full cross-section of life in the Midwest.

Iowa 001 I wasn’t at all sure what kind of place Iowa City would be, but I really enjoyed my time there.  It’s home of the main campus of the University of Iowa, so it’s got a college town feel (even though students were gone for winter break).  I stayed right downtown (see left), and had a great time exploring the city by foot. 

Iowa 051 As soon as I hit the ground in Iowa, I heard almost non-stop ads (more later) for the candidates.  Almost all available radio and television spots were taken by politicians.  And almost all discussions with people I met in Iowa City revolved around the caucus, so there was clear buzz in the air over the January 3rd event.

Iowa 070 I was a little nervous and concerned when I started my first set of phone calls.  I hate getting calls at home, and braced myself for some pretty unfriendly reactions.  But I’d estimate just 5% or so of the people I called were ticked off at getting a call.  Another 5% had a Caller-ID block (smart move), and well over half (say 60%) weren’t home, so I’d just leave a message.  I made about 500 calls during the week, and reached about 30% of the people.  Most were polite, and many asked questions and seemed genuinely interested in my thoughts about Barack.  That surprised me!  An example was a very nice woman named Megge I called who said, “I’m leaning toward John Edwards, but don’t feel I know enough about Barack.  Do you have time to answer some of my questions?”  This woman was smart, thorough, and committed to making an informed choice.  Over the course of the week, we traded several e-mails, and talked again by phone a couple of times.  I never met her in person, but she really gave me faith in the way Iowans go about this process.

Iowa 007 The door-to-door duty was darn hard.  As you can see from the pictures, Iowa City didn’t lack for snow.  The sidewalks and driveways were often icy or not fully shoveled/plowed.  And it was cold.  Quite cold.  Several of the days I was out had air temperatures in the single digits, and wind-chill adjusted temperatures below zero.  Some people would ask me inside, which was a nice relief.  I could only go to 4-5 houses before my hands got too numb to continue, and I’d retreat to my car. 

This process focused onIowa 004  priority addresses, but if I walked by a house where it looked like someone was home, I’d knock.  Again, my stats for door-to-door weren’t terribly different from the phone calls.  About 2/3rds weren’t home, about 5% just wanted me out of there, and the rest seemed genuinely interested in what I wanted to talk to them about.  And these people were not only very nice, but they felt they had an obligation to evaluate all of the candidates.  Many of the people I talked to had gone to hear almost all of the candidates in person, and were quite careful in making up their minds.

Iowa 075 I called on one home where the Mom I talked to (Tina, more in my Caucus Day blog) had a very young boy, named . . . Barack!  As you’ll see, Barack and I got to be real buddies during our caucus!  And, with a son named Barack, I was pretty confident that she’d be an Obama supporter.  At another house, there was a moving van out front, and I ended up talking to the movers (an older man and two younger guys).  We had a fabulous discussion, and they were all going to caucus for Barack.  At the end of our discussion, the head guy gave me an orange, which was one of the nicest presents I’ve ever gotten!

Iowa 076 I would check in at Obama’s Iowa City headquarters many times a day.  It was helpful to them to get my results as frequently as practical I’d indicate which people I’d talk to, how they expected to vote, and what follow-up steps made sense — and they’d enter the data.  The energy in those three rooms was something I’ve never seen in twenty years of backing start-ups.  It almost didn’t matter what time of day I’d dropped by, the rooms were packed with staffers and volunteers — making outbound calls, briefing a volunteer, entering data, or assembling hand-out packages.

Iowa 015 On January 2nd,  Barack came to Iowa City for a rally.  I’ve heard Barack speak several times, so I was tempted to just keep going door to door, but my boss Tony said it was important to be there.  And, boy, am I glad I went.  I knew things were going well when the main convention center room at the Marriot was packed, and late arrivers turned away.  At 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, some 1,700 turned out to hear Barack.  And, Barack really has hit his stride on the campaign stump.  I got goosebumps listening to his 45 minute talk, and the crowd just bubbled with energy and excitement.  How he does this rally after rally, day after day, week after week, is beyond me.

Internal to the campaign there’s an oft-cited refrain of “Fired Up!!  Ready to Go!!”  You’ll hear that at times at his rallies from the crowd.  It all stems from a visit he made in the spring to a tiny town in South Carolina.  Barack tells the story about driving three hours to get to this place (Greenwood, a small SC town in the middle of nowhere) to talk to a tiny group of 20.  But one attendee was an older African-American woman who had just come from church.  And as Barack finished his talk (undoubtedly wondering why he had driven so far for such a small crowd), she started chanting, “Fired Up!  . . .   Ready to Go!!”  That’s become the battlefield march for all Obama campaign workers.

Iowa 017 Well, after the rally, I was fired up and ready to go.  It didn’t hurt that after the rally, one of the staff members tracked me down to tell me that Barack would be spending a few minutes saying thanks to the volunteer force, and having some group pictures taken.  I’m met him a few times, but it was a big crowd and he has a million things on his mind, so I hardly expected that he would recognize me.  But as he was walking along, he noticed me, came over, said hello, gave me a hug, and said thanks for all the work.  Boy, was I “FIRED UP AND READY TO GO!!!!!”

On to Day 8.

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