I recently volunteered for Senator Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign in Des Moines Iowa. I wanted to see the caucus process first hand and more importantly, I wanted to help this wonderful man in his bid for the White House.
I should also say here that I am an extremely liberal republican (actually I will probably be switching and declaring myself independent because I can no longer stomach the machinations of the far right in my own party, but that is another blog entry); I felt that Joe was the only qualified candidate who could navigate the United States out of Iraq in a way that ensure the stability of the Iraqi government and provide safety for the Iraqi people.
What caused a liberal republican to travel to Iowa to support a democratic candidate? I’d read Christine Pelosi’s book, Campaign Boot Camp: Basic Training for Future Leaders. This book urges us to get involved within our communities on issues that concern us. I figured since I was very worried about pro-choice and even more concerned about a sane pullout or reduction in forces in Iraq I should actually support a candidate who supported the issues I cared about. So I put my money where my mouth was by donating to Senator Biden’s campaign; but more importantly I flew out to Iowa to help.
New Year’s day 1 January 2008
I flew out to Des Moines, IA on at 0640 and hit the ground running.
Joe’s campaign was a grassroots campaign. Its focus was about people connecting with other people and I was lucky enough to witness and to be a part of this process.
I spent the first day doing ID calls. That means I called about 300-400 registered voters and asked them if they were definitely for Joe, leaning towards supporting him, undecided, leaning towards another candidate or definitely voting for another person. Once identified, this information was coded into a database and then used to make a list for another volunteer to contact the undecided voters to discuss Joe’s position on various issues, to identify Joe supporters (a follow up call let them know their precinct caucus location) or to remove folks from a call back list.
2 January 2008
They volunteer coordinator handed me a stack of papers and asked me to make ‘persuasion’ calls to those who were still undecided. I was really nervous about this because the voters in Iowa are extremely well informed. I think they are better informed than some political analysts and campaign workers I saw on TV. Several folks explained (patiently I might add) that they liked Joe but were concerned about the viability of his numbers. They want their vote to count and want to support “THE” candidate who would win not only the primary and the democratic nomination, but also be able to beat who ever the republicans chose as their candidate. These people knew the issues inside and out and are passionate about politics.
I stated with the script and a 3-page position paper which was provided to all of the precinct captains (i.e., those who said they would support Joe during the actual caucus process). I was able to talk to many different people about Senator Biden’s record, experience, position on various issues and several signed on to support him.
The volunteer coordinators for the campaign decided to send all of the out-of-state volunteers to different caucuses. We would act/serve as Precinct Captains for the Biden Campaign. At 7pm we attended a conference call where the strategy for the caucus was laid out. We had several major goals and everyone had to understand them. Afterwards, we all headed to Caribou Coffee at Ingersoll and 32nd for a meeting of the Des Moines Precinct Captains. The information came fast and furious; I started to really get nervous.
3 January 2008 , Caucus Day
I made calls persuasion calls or calls reminding Biden supporters that it was caucus day and also telling them to location of their caucus. I did this until late afternoon. In one instance I got a man to commit to supporting Joe through at least the first round to help make Joe viable. When the man I called asked me to pass on a message to Joe I was able to do even better…I had Joe’s daughter, Ashley, call him and talk to him about his concerns. At the end of the call he’d committed to supporting and voting for Joe the entire way. That made my day.
I talked to Ashley about my nervousness in identifying the fact that I was a republican, she was wonderful. She explained that telling folks I was one and giving my personal reasons for supporting her father was a hugely compelling argument for voting for her father. I had told several folks on the phones that I was a republican and had travelled to Iowa to support Senator Biden but only a few people at the Biden For President Headquarters knew about this. I believe with all my heart that Senator Biden would have pulled the independent block of voters as well as the man liberal republicans like myself. In fact, Henry a volunteer from Baltimore is an independent who traveled on his own dime like many of us did to help with the campaign.
Initially I was asked by three college students to go with them to a town about 40 miles west of Des Moines, IA. I cleared it with the coordinators and was almost ready to leave when I was asked to go to another precinct with Dan and Tom from New York. There were 11 delegates at stake and no precinct captain to help the Biden supportors so we headed to Carlisle, IA.
The Iowa caucus is a study in controlled chaos. All non-voting caucus folks are observers and the rules governing their activities and behaviours during the actual caucus are at the disgression of the Precinct Chairperson. Although it might sound like its based on whim this system actually allows the Precinct Chair significant flexibility. Our Chairperson Mark was responsible for both precincts. He was a great guy but a little overwhelmed since they had no way of identifying the 10+ observers. He asked us once things got underway to sit on the stage.
The view from the observer’s seats
Mark told me that they weren’t expecting anyone from the Biden campaign, he sent us to the first two rows in the auditorium. Precinct 1 was on my right and Precinct 2 was on my left. The rows were split down the middle by the flag. They allowed anyone inside the building by 7pm to register to vote. In fact, as long as you qualified, you could register to vote on the day of the caucus and you could also elect/chose to change your party affiliation etc. It was amazing. Add even more confusion with the fact that the republican caucus was in the school’s media center and there was also a wrestling match scheduled too. Amazing!
The actual caucus got underway around 7:30 when they announced the numbers for Precinct 1 and 2. The numbers are important because they are used to determine the number of voters needed to make a candidate viable (i.e., give him a delegate). In this case the magic number was 15% of those present. The Chair in charge of Precinct 1 seemed unable to count and he gave the incorrect number of 26. Later this number was changed to 24 which I was told should never happen, and the Edwards, Clinton, and Obama camps could have protested in order to get another delegate. In precinct 1 there were only two Biden supporters. I explained our strategy to them, both ended up moving into another candidate’s groupings fairly quickly.
For the Second Precinct we had more but still not enough for viability (we needed 28 in this one). Again we asked them to stand fast until the last moment (there are 30 minutes between counts and there is a LOT of horse trading on numbers during this time) and then eventually sent most of them to the Obama camp. This was done in this district because we didn’t have viability and were unable to coordinate an uncommitted candidate. So, I looked at the numbers and decided that the Clinton camp and the Edwards camp had the largests numbers so they were sent to Obama to even things out.
The only thing that disappointed me was having another candidate’s precinct co-captain lie to me about the some information on CNN. He claimed the Senator provided guidance on CNN about what to do if he was non-viable. I looked at him like he’d lost his mind, what would he know about our campaign’s strategy, why would we put it on CNN and more importantly, why would he resort to lying just to get a few bodies for his candidate?
Frankly it was a total turn off. In the event that that candidate wins the democratic nomination I would ensure I voted against them. Why? Because when I spoke with that candidate’s out of town volunteers they’d told me that only the precinct captains knew their particular strategies. I have to assume that the co-captain had been told to do this. I know all is fair in love and war or in this case, politics but why lie on something that was so easy to verify? It was stupid.
What did I learn about the Iowa Caucus?
Well besides the fact that its a once in a life time experience (unless you live there) it’s all about horse trading and putting your candidate out there during the actual caucus. Precinct Captains are expected to be able to get up and discuss their candidate and why he/she is the best choice. And the audience is more informed than almost any you will see.
At a caucus there are a huge group of folks that will mill between candidates, a great deal of non-committed folks as well as folks who just want to be in the largest mob. So anything is possible; as evidenced by Kerry’s win in 2004. In 2004 Kerry was trailing at the polls, yet he won the primary. Also, in both 92 and 96 there were more uncommitted delegates than delegates for specific candidates. Even in this primary, uncommitted delegates came ahead of at least one candidate.
Senator Biden needed to beat Govenor Richardson to make it into the New Hampshire debates. He’s such a fine debater that I assumed he would come off extremely well. Unfortunately our efforts weren’t enough and he came in 5th place.
There was a party scheduled to begin at 9pm at the Science Center in Des Monies. We drove from Carlise, IA made a brief stop to visit a friend of mine and then headed to the party. I knew the initial results at the 70% point due to a friend’s call, when we arrived someone mentioned that the Senator was going to head to New Hampshire anyways, so that made me one happy camper.
Sadly, halfway through his speech (I was literally standing right in front of his podium) when I realized his wife was trying hard not to cry that I understood it was a concession speech. The Senator thanked us for the help, love and support. He then walked through the packed hall to shake hands, sign posters and convey his personal thanks in a wonderfully personal way.
When he got to me, I hugged him and then he signed my poster. I told him at that point that I was a “Republican for Biden”, he smiled and said, “I love you!” imagine that! Senator Joe Biden is a great man and the fact that he is no longer running for President is a loss for our country. I hope that who ever wins the election considers him on their short list for Secretary of State since he’d be phenomenal.
Senator Biden signing a volunteer’s poster