In Iowa, Clin­ton aims to avoid an­other flurry of cam­paign gaffes

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID A. FAHREN­THOLD

AMES, IOWA — In Phyl­lis Peters’s garage, there is a snow shovel. A nice one: green, shiny, with an er­gonomic steel han­dle. It came from Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton.

And it plays a part in a mod­ern-day po­lit­i­cal leg­end, about some of the strangest money a can­di­date has ever spent.

Eight years ago, Peters was a vol­un­teer for Clin­ton’s first pres­i­den­tial run. She had been an ad­mirer of Clin­ton since her time as first lady. But just be­fore Clin­ton lost the Iowa cau­cuses, her staffers did some­thing odd: They bought shov­els for Peters and the hun­dreds of other vol­un­teers.

“If you’re in Iowa, you have a snow shovel” al­ready, Peters said. But she ac­cepted. To be nice. This is Iowa. “We’re not rude peo­ple,” Peters said.

To­day, the story of Clin­ton’s snow

shov­els is be­ing told again in Iowa, as sup­port­ers worry that her sec­ond cam­paign could re­peat the mis­takes of the first. For both those who gave out the shov­els and those who re­ceived them, they came to sym­bol­ize a can­di­date who never quite got their home state.

Clin­ton doesn’t face near the same chal­lenge in Iowa in 2016. But the state still mat­ters as a test of ba­sic pol­i­tics, a gauge of whether she has got­ten any bet­ter at con­nect­ing with the peo­ple she wants to vote for her.

Last time around, Clin­ton tried to win over Iowans with blood­less logic, tout­ing her ré­sumé and her grind­ing work ethic. When that fell short, Clin­ton’s well-funded cam­paign — un­able to buy her love — started buy­ing ev­ery­thing else.

An ex­pen­sive char­tered “Hill-acopter.” A $95,000 or­der of deli sand­wiches. And 600-odd new snow shov­els, some of which still sit, un­used, in base­ments and garages across Iowa.

The idea be­hind them seemed to be that Clin­ton’s own vot­ers might be so old, or so un­en­thused, that they wouldn’t leave the house if it snowed. And that Clin­ton’s own Iowa vol­un­teers — if sent on a voter-res­cue mission — might not be pre­pared for . . . win­ter. In Iowa.

“It’s sort of like, ‘ Yeah, I’ll take a snow shovel,’ ” said Marisue Har­tung, one of Peters’s fel­low Clin­ton vol­un­teers in Ames. “But why?”

The story of the snow shov­els starts way back in the fall of 2007. At that time, Clin­ton —a sec­ond-term se­na­tor from New York — was crush­ing Barack Obama in na­tional polls ,up 20 points. In Iowa, she was up by a hand­ful.

But al­ready, Clin­ton staffers were dis­cov­er­ing a prob­lem here: Their vot­ers. There were large num­bers of el­derly peo­ple. Shift work­ers. Sin­gle moth­ers. All peo­ple who might be too tired, or too busy, to come out and vote the way Iowans vote: with their feet, in a gym, in a long cau­cus night of speechi­fy­ing and wait­ing around.

“We left, and we all wanted to go drink. It was like, ‘I don’t know what a cau­cus is,’ ” said one Clin­ton staffer from the 2008 cam­paign. “We re­al­ized that, like, we were go­ing to lose be­cause we weren’t go­ing to be able to get out all of th­ese Hil­lary sup­port­ers” to stay as long as it took to be counted.

So Clin­ton needed more peo­ple. New peo­ple. She was pour­ing re­sources into Iowa. But so was Obama, and his soar­ing mes­sage of hope and change was spread­ing among the kind of peo­ple who re­ally would come to a cau­cus and stay.

To Clin­ton, by con­trast, pol­i­tics was not about soar­ing. It was about grind­ing — a con­stant, in­cre­men­tal strug­gle— and she was the can­di­date who could suc­ceed at it. That might have been true. But it was hardly the stuff of joy.

“We all want change,” she would say. “Some peo­ple be­lieve you bring it about by hop­ing for it. I be­lieve you bring about change by work­ing re­ally, re­ally hard for it.”

The other prob­lem was Clin- ton’s dis­tance — both emo­tional and real. Even when she was in Iowa, it felt as if she wasn’t.

Obama “would get on a bus, and he would go from town to town to town, and peo­ple would ride on the bus with him. Peo­ple would get to know him,” said Chris Gowen, who was part of Clin­ton’s ad­vance team. “Whereas we would fly into Des Moines . . . then dart back to the air­port, and fly to north­ern Iowa, then dart back to the air­port.”

“We were spend­ing all this money,” he said. “And you’d never re­ally connect with peo­ple.”

As the Jan. 3 cau­cuses ap­proached, Iowa seemed to be slip­ping away from Clin­ton. But her cam­paign still had money com­ing in — on some days, more than $1 mil­lion.

And money is for spend­ing. With Iowa still the­o­ret­i­cally in play, there would be no prizes for sav­ing it.

“The re­al­ity is, the closer you get to an elec­tion day, the harder it is to spend money in a smart way,” said Karen Hicks, a se­nior ad­viser to Clin­ton’s 2008 cam­paign. It was get­ting too late to buy ad time on tele­vi­sion, or print up new fliers, or train new staff, be­fore the cau­cuses. “It gets harder to spend in a way that you can tie to an in­cre­men­tal vote or cau­cus victory.”

At a time like that, Hicks said, “you prob­a­bly should stop spend­ing.” The cam­paign didn’t. It spent big on the “Hill-a copter,” a Bell 222 with leather seats that the cam­paign char­tered, try­ing to hit 16 Iowa coun­ties in five days. News re­ports put the cost at thou­sands per day.

Even when it worked, this was not a per­fect idea. Clin­ton — seek­ing to project a com­mon touch — would meet vot­ers by de­scend­ing from the sky.

An even more last-minute pur­chase was the $95,384 or­der of deli sand­wiches from the Hy-Vee gro­cery chain. The Iowa tra­di­tion was to bring munchies, not meals. But the Clin­ton peo­ple were wor­ried about their young moth­ers and shift work­ers. Would they skip the cau­cuses if it meant wait­ing hours to eat? And then: the shov­els. “I re­mem­ber when they were or­dered. There was an ac­tual con­ver­sa­tion about is there any­thing else, you know. ‘We are sure that we can’t pur­chase any more phone time?’ ‘Are we sure that we can’t pur­chase any more flights of mail?’ ” said the for­mer Clin­ton cam­paign staffer, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to pre­serve re­la­tions with the cur­rent cam­paign.

The shov­els were bought, and they were dis­trib­uted to of­fices and precinct cap­tains by cam­paign staff. It’s not clear, from cam­paign-fi­nance records, what they cost— but it seems cer­tain to have been at least $10,000.

In hind­sight, there is de­bate about why snow shov­els ap­peared to be a bet­ter choice than noth­ing.

Some peo­ple saw them as a metaphor: a phys­i­cal re­minder that Clin­ton’s vol­un­teers were needed to get their peo­ple out, come hell or high wa­ter — or snow.

“I think the same thing could have been ac­com­plished by giv­ing out a key chain with a snow shovel on it that costs 30 cents,” said the for­mer Clin­ton staffer.

Hicks said this was a pre­emp­tive ma­neu­ver, grab­bing a valu­able re­source be­fore the en­emy did. And if vot­ers didn’t stay home, there was an­other worry: cau­cus sites. Snowy walks. Vot­ers might not make it to the door.

Maybe. But, again, if you live in Iowa, you prob­a­bly have a shovel.

Nei­ther Obama nor Sen. John Ed­wards (N.C.), the other two top con­tenders, seem to have bought snow shov­els. Did they laugh when Clin­ton did? “I’m not go­ing to an­swer that on the record,” said Jen O’Mal­ley Dil­lon, Ed­wards’s Iowa state direc­tor.

To the Iowans who got them, they did not make much sense. Ei­ther as a metaphor or as a shovel.

“All down the hall­way in the of­fice are th­ese brand-new snow shov­els,” said Justin Sharp, then a Uni­ver­sity of Iowa stu­dent vol­un­teer. He asked. Some­body ex­plained. Sharp thought it was the same kind of think­ing that had led Clin­ton’s cam­paign to tell him to knock on doors in Iowa City on Satur­days, dur­ing Iowa Hawkeyes foot­ball games.

“If they’re go­ing to go to the cau­cus, they’re go­ing to go,” Sharp re­mem­bered think­ing. “And if they’re not, they’re not go­ing to go — even if you shovel them.”

In West Des Moines, Clin­ton vol­un­teer Tom Laug­h­ead, who ad­mired the can­di­date for her work on health-care re­form, ac­tu­ally tried to put his gift to use. A few days be­fore the cau­cuses, he cleared old snow off a walk­way at one woman’s house.

Just to show that he, and Clin­ton, were se­ri­ous.

“She said, ‘Oh, well, thank you very much,’ and then she just kind of like, uhhh,” Laug­h­ead said, mim­ing a woman try­ing to avoid eye con­tact with a Clin­ton vol­un­teer.

“I just hope to see you there,” Laug­h­ead re­mem­bered say­ing. And? “I don’t re­mem­ber see­ing her there.”

When cau­cus night came at last, Clin­ton’s vol­un­teers saw what Clin­ton’s staff had feared. Their well-funded cam­paign — so flush it could give shov­els to peo­ple who had shov­els — was go­ing to lose.

“It was like, ‘ This half of the room is where the Obama del­e­gates are go­ing to be, and every­body else go in this half of the room,’ ” said Sharp, the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa vol­un­teer. In his col­lege town, Clin­ton’s sup­port­ers were in the “every­body else” part, lumped in with the other losers. “They never told us that this could hap­pen. We were just ex­pect­ing that the sup­port was go­ing to be there.”

The sand­wiches didn’t seem to help much. “The Obama peo­ple, and the Ed­wards peo­ple, I think they ate as­many as the few Hil­lary peo­ple did,” Sharp said.

And the shov­els didn’t help much, ei­ther. On cau­cus day, it did not snow any­where in Iowa.

“The Obama peo­ple had th­ese shirts. And ev­ery­one loved th­ese T-shirts, and peo­ple were run­ning around like mad­men to get th­ese shirts,” said Gowen, the ad­vance man. In the cau­cus en­vi­ron­ment, where peo­ple can watch each other vote, the red T-shirts sig­naled to un­de­cided vot­ers that Obama’s strength was strong and catch­ing. “Had we gone with T-shirts over shov­els,” Gowen said, “we might have had a dif­fer­ent pres­i­dent right now.”

Okay maybe that’s a lit­tle strong.

“Had we gone with T-shirts, I think we would at least have come in sec­ond,” Gowen said.

In­stead, Clin­ton came in third, be­hind Ed­wards.

Now, Clin­ton is back in Iowa. Some sup­port­ers here say she doesn’t need to change her log­i­cal, ré­sumé-based ap­peal.

The prob­lem in 2008 was Obama and the well­spring of frus­tra­tion with the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion that he tapped. Both are out of the pic­ture now. “It’s sort of an ur­ban myth that the Clin­ton cam­paign didn’t do well in Iowa in 2008. The truth is that she got more votes than any­body in the his­tory of the Iowa cau­cuses,” said Jerry Craw­ford, her Mid­west­ern co-chair in 2008 and still a close ad­viser. “It just wasn’t as much as the other two.”

But many in Iowa, and on Clin­ton’s cam­paign staff, say they are determined to do some things dif­fer­ently.

For her first Iowa event, in April, she ar­rived in her “Scooby” van, not in a Hill-a-copter. And she has held a se­ries of small events — house par­ties and round­tables — to em­pha­size her de­sire to start small and lis­ten first.

“Hil­lary made it very clear to us that she wanted to have a con­ver­sa­tion with Iowans and hear their thoughts, con­cerns and ideas for the fu­ture,” Matt Paul, Clin­ton’s Iowa state direc­tor, said in an e-mail in­ter­view. “The cau­cus is about re­la­tion­ships, and to build those, you’ve got to lis­ten — and that’s ex­actly what she’s been do­ing.”

But el­e­ments of the old ap­proach re­main.

For one thing, Clin­ton’s small events have still been stiffly staged, with at­ten­dees of­ten pre­screened by staff or by the Se­cret Ser­vice. “We passed the dead­line for a se­cu­rity clear­ance, so we didn’t get to go,” said Nancy Sweetman, a green-shovel owner who saw too late an in­vi­ta­tion to a “house party” with Clin­ton in Ma­son City. “But you know, living in Iowa, we’ll see her again.”

Clin­ton still fo­cuses on her ré­sumé and work ethic, cast­ing her­self as “a cham­pion” for the mid­dle class. That means her ap­peal can still be tied to the idea that pol­i­tics is a grind.

“She’s got the strength to take the crit­i­cism right now from the press on avoid­ing ques­tions from the press,” said Dean Genth, a Clin­ton sup­porter who hosted the Ma­son City house party.

“She’s go­ing to have to connect at a very dif­fer­ent level if she wants to be pres­i­dent,” said Janelle Ret­tig, a Clin­ton precinct cap­tain in 2008 who is now a county su­per­vi­sor in John­son County. “It’s very hard formeto go against a woman who’s smart, who’s qual­i­fied and who’s ex­pe­ri­enced. But I also need some­body who I’m pas­sion­ate about. And that’s not there, yet.”

A few weeks ago, one of Clin­ton’s new cam­paign staffers came to Ames to ask ad­vice from three lo­cals who had seen the last cam­paign up close. All three owned green snow shov­els. What­ever else hap­pened, they wanted Clin­ton to know that they didn’t need more.

“The snow shov­els aren’t nec­es­sary,” Har­tung said. Iowans come to cau­cus, whether it snows or not. “We were go­ing to get there any­way.”

Har­tung re­called the staffer’s re­sponse: “She sort of said, ‘ You know, I’ve heard other com­ments about this. . . . ’ ”

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TomLaug­h­ead, a precinct cap­tain for the 2008 Clin­ton cam­paign in­West Des Moines, Iowa, tried to put the shovel he was given to good use, but to no avail.

YANA PASKOVA/GETTY IMAGES

PHO­TOS BY JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton aboard the “Hill-a-copter,” a Bell 222 char­tered by her 2008 cam­paign to hit 16 Iowa coun­ties in five days. ABOVE: Chuck and Nancy Sweetman ofMa­son City, Iowa, at left, and Phyl­lis Peters and Ge­off Abel­son of Ames, Iowa, with shov­els that were given to them and hun­dreds of other Iowa vol­un­teers by the Clin­ton cam­paign in 2008. “It’s sort of like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take a snow shovel,’ ” saidMarisueHar­tung, one of Peters’s fel­low vol­un­teers in Ames. “But why?”

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