Be­hind the scenes in Iowa, organizers sow seeds

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

From the Mis­sis­sippi River in the east to the Mis­souri in the west, Iowa’s soy­bean farm­ers are in the field right now, plant­ing their next crop in some of the most fer­tile soil in the coun­try. But those are not the only seeds be­ing placed in the state’s rich ground.

Through­out the state that holds the first test of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, young organizers -- the in­vis­i­ble shock troops of American pol­i­tics, op­er­at­ing be­yond the sight of tele­vi­sion cam­eras and out-of-state po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dents -- also are in the field right now, plant­ing seeds of their own. Near the big quilts of Iowa’s agri­cul­tural bounty -- corn, then oats, then wheat, then al­falfa, all ready for har­vest well be­fore the au­tumn chill deep­ens -- these organizers are stitch­ing to­gether po­lit­i­cal forces that won’t be har­vested un­til a cold Mon­day night next Fe­bru­ary.

Liv­ing in small apartments and group houses or bunk­ing in with Iowa fam­i­lies, some 200 po­lit­i­cal organizers al­ready have de­camped in this state, some 275 days be­fore Iowans re­treat to their town li­braries, fra­ter­nal halls and church base­ments to make their qua­dren­nial pres­i­den­tial se­lec­tions. Be­fore the sum­mer is out, that num­ber will grow to

800 and soon there­after will mul­ti­ply again.

In a state that pi­o­neered mech­a­nized agri­cul­ture -- and where corn planted in early April is spik­ing around now -- these organizers’ work re­mains per­sonal, slow and la­bor-in­ten­sive.

There are rel­a­tive cer­tain­ties in Iowa agri­cul­ture: Bar­ring un­usual cir­cum­stances, corn seedlings emerge in about three weeks if the soil tem­per­a­ture is 51 de­grees Fahren­heit. Scores of pres­i­den­tial con­tenders can tes­tify that there are no par­al­lel as­sur­ances in the Iowa cau­cuses, which is why the harder these organizers work, the more Iowans they contact, the more porches they mount, the more peo­ple they as­sure get to their des­ig­nated cor­ners on Feb. 3, the bet­ter their chances are to survive to go on to the next test, in New Hamp­shire eight days later.

“Or­ga­ni­za­tion is crit­i­cally im­por­tant,” said Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Rep. Eric Swal­well of Cal­i­for­nia, born and reared in Iowa, whose 30 days cam­paign­ing in the state is the most so far of any con­tender cur­rently hold­ing of­fice. “A top po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion is es­pe­cially crit­i­cal in a place like Iowa, where you need peo­ple to go porch to porch.”

Iowa’s highways and ru­ral by­ways are lit­tered with the car­rion of can­di­dates who be­lieved oth­er­wise. Ad­vis­ers to John H. Glenn, a for­mer astronaut whose 1984 cam­paign co­in­cided with the “The Right Stuff” film about the Mercury astro­nauts in their sil­very space suits, thought they could rely on me­dia cov­er­age and slick ads rather than on or­ga­ni­za­tion. Sen. Glenn was the prin­ci­pal ri­val to for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Wal­ter Mon­dale, who con­structed a mas­sive or­ga­ni­za­tional ar­chi­tec­ture here and won Iowa with 49%. Glenn fin­ished sixth, with less than 4% of cau­cus-go­ers.

The dig­i­tal age may have made most el­e­ments of life less per­sonal, but work­ing “in-per­son” in Iowa may be more im­por­tant than ever. “The goal,” said one or­ga­nizer here, “is to have neigh­bors talk­ing to neigh­bors.”

Day­ton Dun­can, born in In­di­anola, Iowa, in one po­lit­i­cal hot­bed and now liv­ing in Walpole,

New Hamp­shire, in an­other, was a Mon­dale aide in that 1984 con­test and four years later wrote a book about cam­paign organizers in New Hamp­shire’s Cheshire County.

“It’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent world to­day, but the odd thing is that grass­roots or­ga­niz­ing is more ef­fec­tive now than it was back then,” he said. “Cam­paign mes­sages get de­liv­ered in dif­fer­ent ways to­day -- but get­ting mes­sages out per­son­ally is more im­por­tant than ever.”

That’s why this cam­paign’s crop of organizers is seek­ing out what one veteran or­ga­nizer calls “the peo­ple ev­ery­one knows, ask­ing whom we should meet, where we should go, try­ing to connect our ideals with the pub­lic.”

It’s not glam­orous work, and the life is any­thing but cushy. The pay is about $3,000 a month -- cam­paigns in trou­ble al­most al­ways re­duce that or elim­i­nate it en­tirely -- plus health care and, usu­ally, a $50 gaso­line card. These organizers soon dis­cover that Casey’s Gen­eral Store, a gas sta­tion chain, ac­cepts the cards for pizza. Such are the lessons of the road.

These or­ga­ni­za­tion ef­forts are con­structed like start-ups, with the en­ergy, and the risks, of a start-up. One Des Moines apart­ment build­ing is home to organizers for El­iz­a­beth War­ren, Kirsten Gil­li­brand and Cory Booker, but they won’t be there long. In this no­madic trade, organizers for a suc­cess­ful can­di­date go on to the next states; those af­fil­i­ated with a los­ing can­di­date likely join one of the more suc­cess­ful ones.

These organizers know lit­tle things -- that, for ex­am­ple, the Univer­sity of Iowa College Democrats are the only group that can re­serve func­tion rooms on cam­pus. And they learn big things, like the im­por­tance of a can­di­date’s views on the top­ics of pe­cu­liar in­ter­est here in Iowa, such as tariffs on agri­cul­tural prod­ucts and the eco­nomic prospects for ethanol, the mo­tor fuel pro­duced from lo­cal corn that is a cam­paign peren­nial here but is never dis­cussed once the cam­paign moves past the Iowa cau­cuses.

That is the les­son of Barack Obama’s stun­ning 2008 cau­cus vic­tory in a state whose pop­u­la­tion is less than 3 per­cent black.

“Obama’s vic­tory in this white state was the tri­umph of or­ga­ni­za­tion -- and ide­al­ism,” said for­mer GOP Rep. Jim Leach, who ran Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s suc­cess­ful 1980 cau­cus ef­fort against Ronald Rea­gan, a one­time ra­dio broad­caster in Iowa. “Obama’s organizers re­al­ized this and got his peo­ple out. Can­di­dates should save their tele­vi­sion money, go on cam­pus and hire stu­dents to work on the ground.”

Once they do, they can em­ploy some of the po­lit­i­cal or­ga­niz­ing soft­ware such as Mo­bi­lizeam­er­ica, cre­ated by a duo of mil­len­ni­als, that al­lows cam­paigns to cre­ate events, of­fer them on their web­site, share them to their lists and gather signups. To­day more than half of the 2020 can­di­dates use this tool, which per­mit­ted some 400,000 peo­ple to vol­un­teer about 800,000 times in the 2018 midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions.

“This is the way to get peo­ple or­ga­nized to knock on doors or to get peo­ple to go town halls and house par­ties in Iowa and New Hamp­shire,” said Al­fred John­son, a Stan­ford MBA who was one of the ac­tivists who de­vel­oped the tool. “The re­sult is many more peo­ple at events from many dif­fer­ent spheres.” It may be Or­ga­ni­za­tion 2.0, but it is still po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion, the oxy­gen of Iowa pol­i­tics.


David M. Shrib­man is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-gazette. Fol­low him on Twit­ter

at Shrib­manpg.


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