How the Iowa caucuses work, part 6

cross-posted at Daily Kos and MyDD

Field organizers for the presidential campaigns in Iowa have many jobs, and one of the most important is lining up precinct captains. Mike Lux laid out why Precinct Captains are the Key at Open Left this summer, emphasizing what these volunteers can do for their candidates on caucus night.

In this diary I will focus on how precinct captains can help their candidates during the weeks and months before the Iowa caucuses.

I covered some of this ground in a recent diary on my house party for John Edwards. I think it's worth going over a few points again for readers who don't click on diaries with “John Edwards” in the title.

Political junkies and hacks, join me after the jump.

In case you missed the earlier installments in the series:

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 1 (basic elements of the caucus system)
How the Iowa caucuses work, part 2 (corrects an error in part 1 and discusses who is over-represented and who is under-represented when delegates are counted)
How the Iowa caucuses work, part 3 (why it's hard to turn out caucus-goers)
How the Iowa caucuses work, part 4 (more about why caucus turnout is low)
How the Iowa caucuses work, part 5 (on second choices and caucus math)

Now, back to the topic of the day: why field organizers for presidential candidates work hard to recruit precinct captains.

Some precinct captains are too busy to do anything besides help on caucus night. They can still lend important assistance, for the reasons Mike Lux wrote about. But it's much better to have a precinct captain with the time and commitment to work his or her neighborhood before caucus night. They can take on the following tasks:

1. Identify the preferences of voters on the campaign's list.

All of the serious presidential campaigns have purchased a voter file from the Iowa Democratic Party, which includes not only names, addresses and phone numbers, but also information about who has voted in recent primary and general elections, as well as who attended a precinct caucus in January 2004.

Field organizers spend countless hours calling through these lists. But some people with caller ID will never pick up the phone if the call is coming from campaign HQ. On the other hand, they may pick up for a person with the same telephone number prefix, who is likely to be calling from nearby. Similarly, people are more likely to return a phone call if the message on their answering machine comes from someone who lives in the neighborhood.

I recently made dozens of calls to invite neighbors to my house party, and I was able to speak with quite a few people whom the Edwards campaign had previously been unable to contact.

It's most helpful when precinct captains identify neighbors who are supporting or leaning toward the candidate. Keeping track of supporters helps the campaign get a sense of where the candidate will definitely be viable and where extra work is needed before caucus night. Also, some supporters may be willing to volunteer for the campaign if they are asked by a neighbor rather than a stranger.

Precinct captains can also help by identifying non-supporters. Those people can be taken off lists used by the campaign's phone banks or canvassers closer to caucus night. When I reach non-supporters, I always try to find out their preference, which gives me a sense of who else will be viable in my precinct.

Additionally, some non-supporters may be open to Edwards as a second choice, especially if I am polite and don't bash the candidate they're backing. Some of them may have a spouse or a child over 18 living at home, who are not on my contact list but turn out to be open to supporting Edwards.  

Undecided voters identified by the precinct captain can be targeted later in the campaign. If I am inviting people to see Edwards when he is coming to the Des Moines area, reaching the undecided voters who have said they are considering him will be my top priority. Similarly, when I canvassed my neighborhood this past weekend, most of the people on my contact list had been identified as undecided.

Finally, the precinct captain can alert the campaign to the people who will not caucus. These include voters who have died or have moved out of the precinct, as well as voters who spend their winters in the sun belt, will be on vacation, or do not plan to caucus for some other reason. Getting these names off the contact list will save campaign staff and volunteers time closer to January 3.

2. Identify and turn out supporters who do not appear on the campaign's list.

When I was planning my house party, I mentioned the event to people I ran into while walking the dog, taking my son to school, or trick-or-treating on Halloween. I also called a dozen or so people I knew to be either new to my neighborhood or not registered Democrats.

Last weekend I knocked on some extra doors in order to leave copies of the Edwards policy book with newcomers to my neighborhood, or people I remembered as Kerry supporters during the 2004 general election.

Finding potential caucus-goers like these is one way precinct captains can contribute more than volunteers who do not live in the neighborhoods they are canvassing.

Getting more Edwards supporters to the caucus will improve his potential delegate count in two ways. Obviously, the more people who come there with Edwards as a first choice, the better his chance of winning a second or third delegate.

In addition, increasing the raw number of caucus-goers in my precinct could potentially keep one or more candidates below the viability threshold. That would yield a larger pool of voters who might choose my candidate as a second choice.

Let's say Bill Richardson has 20 supporters in my precinct. If 100 people attend our caucus, he easily clears the 15 percent threshold. If 150 people attend, he will be close to the line, and his precinct captain will probably be able to attract the extra people they need to make Richardson viable. If 200 people attend our caucus, Richardson will fall short. Then we would have a chance to bring some of his supporters over to our Edwards group. Already two Richardson supporters in my neighborhood have told me that Edwards is their second choice.

3. Persuade voters on the list to support the precinct captain's candidate.

I already mentioned house parties, which provide a friendly setting for undecided voters to pick up information and ask a field organizer questions about the candidate.

Most of the people I invited were unable to come to my party, but at least they received a personal message from me giving concrete reasons why I support Edwards.  

Canvassing is another great method for voter persuasion. Anyone can do a lit drop, but the precinct captain is more likely to be able to get residents to open the door and engage in conversation. One of my big regrets is that family and other volunteer commitments leave me little time to knock on doors. Every time I have done so, it has been well worth my effort. Face-to-face contact is much better than a phone call. Some precinct captains I've met have been out knocking on doors every weekend since the middle of the summer.

I won't claim that personal pitches are the most important factor in Iowans' voting decisions, but they have the potential to help at the margins. On caucus night 2004, my husband overheard a few people say they were there because I kept asking them to show up.

One of my neighbors, a close friend of the family, is currently undecided between Clinton and Edwards. He has told me that even if he decides on Clinton, he will come over and caucus with our group if I only need one more person to make Edwards viable or earn an extra delegate.

I've already found enough supporters to be confident of surpassing the 15 percent threshold on January 3, but I may need just a few extra people to get a second or third delegate for Edwards. When I talk with someone who is leaning towards another candidate but also likes Edwards, I occasionally mention that they have the option of crossing over to Edwards if he just needs one or two people to get a delegate.

4. Make sure all known supporters are able to attend the caucus.

As soon as the caucus locations are announced, I will call the Edwards supporters and leaners we've identified to let them know where they need to be at 6:30 pm on January 3. At that time, I will check to see if anyone needs a ride or has a friend or relative in a different part of town who needs one. I already know of one Edwards supporter in my neighborhood who will need a ride, because she does not drive at night. Other elderly voters may be in the same boat.

I may make a few of these calls to neighbors who are supporting other candidates, if they've said Edwards is their second choice and if their first choice is unlikely to surpass the 15 percent threshold in my precinct. This tactic is risky, though, because someone who seems unlikely to be viable today may surge in December. I only know of three firm Biden supporters in my precinct today, but there are so many undecideds that he could easily end up with 30 or more supporters on caucus night.

I also plan to arrange for a baby-sitter or two to be “on call” in case someone calls me at the last minute saying they can't come to caucus because their baby-sitter is unavailable. Failing that, I may be able to persuade the person to bring their children to the caucus, as my family will do.

So how important are precinct captains?

Nobody can measure their precise impact. Possibly my efforts during the last campaign helped John Kerry win more delegates from my precinct than Edwards did. The Edwards precinct captain in my neighborhood couldn't do any voter contact before caucus night because of his job with the state.  

On the other hand, a neighboring precinct with similar demographics and a much less active precinct captain for Kerry went exactly the same way on caucus night: three delegates for Kerry, two for Edwards, one for Dean.

The hardest-working Kerry precinct captain I knew lived in a Des Moines neighborhood with lots of young families, and Edwards ended up winning more delegates despite all of her efforts. Probably Edwards would have won her precinct by a larger margin if she had not knocked on all those doors, but there is no way to know.

Talking with my field organizer this past weekend, I asked him how the canvassing went in other parts of my suburb. The local volunteer who knocked on doors in her precinct had a great day. The out-of-state volunteer who knocked on doors in a precinct where we lack a captain had fewer conversations with voters and a generally less enjoyable time. If we fail to meet our vote goals in that precinct on January 3, I'll be inclined to think it was the lack of a captain that made the difference.

Thanks to those who made it to the end of this long diary. I look forward to reading your comments. Feel free to suggest topics for later installments in this series. I know I will write a diary about the precinct captain's job on caucus night, as well as a diary responding to some common arguments in defense of the caucus system.

You need to signin or signup to post a comment.