Jackie Norris on Iowa Democrats' down-ticket disappointment

Iowa Independent’s Jason Hancock recently interviewed Jackie Norris, who ran Barack Obama’s Iowa campaign during the general election. (She conducted the interview before Norris accepted her new job as First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.)

I found this exchange particularly interesting:

II: What effect do you think the Obama campaign will have on future campaigns, especially here in Iowa?

JN: I think Iowa is disappointed that more legislative candidates and candidates like Becky Greenwald didn’t win, that we didn’t see more of a coattail effect for down ballot candidates. The lesson learned is that in the counties where the Democrats weren’t organized before they realized that when they pool their efforts and work together they could actually get something done. I think what we’ve done is come in and be the catalyst for local political organizations. My hope is that once we leave they will still be energized and motivated for the next thing, whether that is a school board, a county auditor or a statehouse candidate.

II: But why weren’t the Obama coattails longer in Iowa?

JN: Iowans are notoriously independent. I also think that a lot of the people who voted were new voters and while we educated them enough to get them out to support the president they need to now be educated about the down ballot races. Not to say we didn’t do that, because I think we did see gains. But I think no one should assume voters would vote straight-ticket Democrat just because they turned out for a Democratic presidential candidate. The state and local parties need to continue to reach out to those voters in the future.

Before the election I often urged volunteers to remind voters to fill out the whole ballot and not just the oval next to Obama’s name. Every once in a while someone would ask why I was so worried about the potential “drop-off” (that is, the people who vote Democrat for president but don’t cast a vote in the down-ticket races).

Jackie Norris’s comments to Iowa Independent suggest that she thinks drop-off was the biggest problem for our statehouse candidates. That is consistent with what I’ve been hearing from staff and volunteers around the state. It is also possible, though, that the Republican scare-mongering about one-party socialist rule drove some Obama supporters away from down-ticket Democrats.

I still want to see more thorough analysis of the close statehouse races in Iowa, both the ones we lost and the ones we won.

Did the races we lost have a larger proportion of “drop-off” ballots? Or was the problem more likely to be related to ticket-splitting?

Several of our incumbents appeared to lose on election night but won once the early votes were counted. In the districts where we fell short, was the proportion of early votes lower than in the districts we held?

If you are willing to volunteer to look closely at the precinct-level results in one or more Iowa House or Senate districts, please post a comment or send me an e-mail (desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com).

Although further analysis needs to be done, the disappointing down-ticket results suggest to me that Iowa Democrats need more of a coordinated GOTV campaign in 2010 and 2012 than we had this year.

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  • Just a quick correction

    I did not conduct the interview with Jackie. It was done by my colleague Jason Hancock.  

  • The most interesting part

    for me was this section:

    “The second thing we did was we really have a policy-based discussion. That’s how we started the caucus campaign. Sen. Obama didn’t have every single plan immediately, so we were able to have conversations with staff and experts from all around the country, to talk to Iowans about the issues, and that helped shape our policy. As a result, when people left the table they walked away feeling invested in the ideas.”

    This was my message to the Iowa campaign very early on and I discussed this with Paul Tewes in March ’07 or so.  I have to assume I was not the first or only person to bring this approach to the campaign’s attention, but it was interesting to see that Jackie gave so much credit to the policy approach.  I don’t think this work got very much attention during the caucus campaign, but I do think it was very effective.  And it was counter to the Obama-mania/cult image of the campaign.  I felt this was a good way to get issue-oriented people (= likely caucus-goer) involved in the campaign.  Especially in a very long campaign like we had in Iowa.

    • I agree with you in part

      but in my voter contacts with Obama supporters, a lot of people seemed to be drawn to him because they thought he would be the most electable.

      I did not get the impression that a lot of people were well-versed on the policy differences between the various candidates.

      Good to “see” you here, by the way!

      • I have been suffering

        from election burn-out.  But I’m still browsing the blogs.  Just can’t kick the habit.

        I think the policy approach was most meaningful early in the caucus campaign.  I think that was a good way to get many very committed people and local opinion leaders in the camp. It was like greasing the machine really well for the final sprint.  Probably produced many of the campaign’s super volunteers as well.  Getting those people on board may have also diminished some of that empty-suit talk about Obama.  

        The focus of the early policy work was to get input from people, not just talk about what Obama stands for and how his policies were different from other candidates.  Just like Jackie says in the interview.  For many issue-driven people in Iowa that is the whole point of getting involved in the presidential campaign, to try to get their issues heard.  And the Obama campaign really did listen, or at least made peole feel like they listened.

  • It will be much easier

    to do a real analysis once the Secretary of State’s report comes out. That gives precinct by precinct results which will be necessary to do a comparison of how many people dropped off in each house/senate district–unless you know another way to get that information.

  • Results

    You can probably get that information quicker when the county auditors release the official canvasses.  We used to always check write in candidates.  If Jim Smith got a few write in votes and was a democrat we would approach him or her about running for a county office,  Most of the time it didn’t work but a few times we could find a local candidate that way.

    The canvass will show a dropoff in each precinct between Obama and the race for County Sheriff and Supervisor,

  • Huh

    My old gov’t teacher is going to be in the White House again.  Man that is a little weird.  (She taught gov’t at Ames High in the early 2000s.

  • Sounds good, Ms. Norris, but evidence?

    She is not taking any responsibility for the down ticket losses and she should, as I have written before.  The Iowa campaign was Obama-centric.  And this is not true, at least in what in saw:

    The lesson learned is that in the counties where the Democrats weren’t organized before they realized that when they pool their efforts and work together they could actually get something done. I think what we’ve done is come in and be the catalyst for local political organizations.

    In counties where Democrats were already organized, the Obama campaign detracted from the kind of effort made in prior years.  They were the catalyst for getting a lot of calling done for Obama and short shrift to other candidates.  Some of the ones who did well realized early on what was happening and did their own GOTV.  Greenwald relied on the Obama campaign.

  • Down ballot effects...

    I think that the districts that had significant down ballot drop off were areas where the early vote was underestimated, or…where there was little Obama presence.

    For example, Tim Hoy vs. Annette Sweeney.  This is a 50% Democratic district AT BEST and had a very low Dem vs. Repub absentee margin.  There is always going to be a certain amount of drop off, but you work the percentages to make sure you have enough of a margin.

    Additionally, I think the coattails were WEAKEST amongst the undecided independents who voted on election day.  Those folks swung HARD towards McCain.  That’s why we saw relatively accurate polling numbers for Obama on the topline, but McCain outperforming his polling in Iowa substantially.

    • didn't Obama have a field office in Iowa Falls?

      And wasn’t that in House district 44? Or am I confused?

      • I believe they did...

        I believe they did have field in Iowa Falls, but clearly there wasn’t as strong an early vote effort in HD 44 as in say HD 75 (Palmer) or some other areas.