How the Iowa caucuses work, part 4: What a precinct captain does

Continuing a six-part series. Part 1 covered basic elements of the caucus system, part 2 explained why so many Iowans can’t or won’t attend their precinct caucus, and part 3 covered Democratic caucus math, which sometimes produces strange results.

Axiom of Iowa politics: the key to winning the caucuses is to “organize, organize, organize, and then get hot at the end.” Although paid staff do much of the ground work, a successful presidential campaign needs a large number of volunteers at the precinct level. I haven’t been engaged as a volunteer this cycle, because for the first time in my life, I remained undecided until shortly before the caucuses. But I spent many hours trying to turn out neighbors for John Kerry in 2004 and for John Edwards in 2008. During the past thirteen years, I’ve talked with hundreds of Iowa Democratic activists who volunteered locally for presidential candidates.

This post focuses on how precinct captains can influence outcomes on caucus night.

Not miracle workers

A dedicated precinct captain can help a campaign in many ways, but she can’t overcome larger political trends. My precinct’s captain for Howard Dean and later for Hillary Clinton is a superstar organizer who won the Iowa Democratic Party’s outstanding activist award in 2004. Nevertheless, important factors were outside her control, such as Dean’s downward spiral, beginning several weeks before the caucuses, and the surge in turnout for Barack Obama eight years ago.

By some accounts, Rand Paul has the largest network of precinct captains in this year’s Republican field, but he has been stuck in single digits in every Iowa poll I’ve seen for months. He may outperform those poll numbers Monday night, but he won’t be a top-tier contender, despite having some of the most enthusiastic supporters you will find in American politics.

I worked my precinct hard before the 2004 caucuses. About 175 voters showed up on caucus night. I would estimate that at most, my efforts over a period of months turned out 20 people who otherwise would not have caucused. Perhaps another dozen or so who would have attended anyway ended up in my Kerry group, but might have supported another candidate if not for my efforts. That is a generous estimate. I may have influenced a smaller number than that.

I failed to turn out plenty of people in my precinct, for reasons that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked the Iowa caucuses. Some people were out of town, others were elderly or in frail health, some had young kids, one was shy about talking to strangers, one had recently had foot surgery. I’m not talking about people who are disinterested in politics. I’m talking about people who vote in every general election, often by absentee ballot, but who did not show up at our precinct caucus in January 2004 despite multiple personal contacts by a neighbor.

That is not to say I had no impact. Kerry ended up with three of the six county delegates from my precinct. If not for my efforts, he might have won only two delegates (or he might have won three anyway–it is hard to say). Edwards had strong support, but his captain had not done much GOTV ahead of time, due to a state job that limits how active he can be politically. Our Kerry group was that little bit bigger.

Weeks and months before the caucuses

Key tasks for a precinct captain to start tackling long before the Iowa caucuses include:

Identifying supporters. Campaigns will provide voter lists, usually focusing on local residents who have caucused before. Field organizers do lots of phone banking and canvassing, but voters are often more receptive to such contacts coming from a neighbor rather than a stranger. In the age of caller ID, many people will not pick up the phone for an unknown number, but they will answer if the caller is a name they recognize. I’ve often identified supporters of my candidate or rivals by striking up conversations with acquaintances I run into while walking my dog.

Converting supporters into volunteers. A neighbor may be better positioned than a staffer to recruit new volunteers. A precinct captain may stop by while knocking doors on the same street, or call to invite sympathetic voters to attend a debate-watching party in her home. Hanging out with like-minded neighbors in a low-pressure atmosphere can get a person more invested in helping the candidate win the precinct.

Converting undecided caucus-goers into supporters. Precinct captains may call locals to give a heads up about an upcoming event featuring the candidate or a prominent surrogate. House parties are another tried and true Iowa caucus persuasion technique; I described what goes into planning and hosting one here. I think Addisu Demissie, who has fond memories from the two cycles he worked in Iowa, attended one of the parties I held for Kerry’s campaign in 2003. My field organizer from the Edwards campaign told me in 2007 that their goal for a house party was to get at least five to ten truly undecided voters in the room. Campaign staff make a brief presentation and usually bring position papers or other materials to hand out before taking questions from caucus-goers.

Critics of Iowa’s place in the nominating calendar should come to a few house parties to see how many voters put real time into considering their options. In my experience, undecided Iowans sincerely want to learn where the contenders stand on their priorities. Demissie remarked, “Iowans like to candidate-shop [….] More than anywhere I have been before or since, Iowans were willing to talk. They want to hear your pitch. They want to debate issues.” At one of the gatherings in my home,

The field organizer gave the broad outline of Edwards’ plan to end the war in Iraq: withdrawing 40,000 to 50,000 troops immediately, with the rest of our combat troops coming out over a nine- to ten-month period. One of my neighbors then wanted to know where the initial 40,000 to 50,000 troops would come from–would they be pulled out of the Baghdad area, or largely from some other region in Iraq, or would Edwards bring out a few thousand troops from many different parts of the country? It was a good question, and we didn’t know the answer.

Convincing people to come to the caucus. Once supporters have been identified, a captain can work on overcoming some common barriers that keep Iowans from making it to the caucus. That could mean arranging a ride for people who don’t drive at night; reassuring people who are intimidated by the process and wonder whether they will know anyone else in the room; or educating voters that they can change their party affiliation in order to participate in the Democratic or Republican caucus.

Improving voter lists. A precinct captain who knows the neighborhood can save campaigns time by telling staff to remove from lists people who have died, gone to spend the winter in a warmer climate, or moved away since the previous election. Alternatively, they may know sympathetic people who are not listed in the voter file, either because they are registered no-party or because they are new to the area.

Final days before the caucuses

During the last few days of the Iowa caucus campaign, precinct captains often prioritize contacts with undecided voters. Samantha-Jo Roth posted a picture of a hand-written letter from one of Bernie Sanders’ precinct captains to a neighbor. I was impressed by how that volunteer went the extra mile; I stuck to phone calls or postcards.

Late-stage canvassing also targets people who have signed supporter cards with literature listing the caucus location, because most precinct caucuses do not take place where locals are used to casting ballots on election day. Julie Stauch offered more advice in a recent guest post for this blog.

Do you have a list of all the supporters in your precinct? If not, then contact your campaign and get the list.

Call through the list and introduce yourself to your supporters. Tell them:
a. Where your caucus is located.
b. When you will arrive at the location.
c. When they should arrive.
d. Ask if they need a ride, and if they do, line up someone to drive them.
e. Ask one or two people to help with check-in.

Touch base with your temporary chair and introduce yourself.
a. Offer to have some of your candidate’s supporters help with check-in.
b. Offer to help with the caucus set up and clean up.

On caucus night

Precinct captains are usually among the first voters to arrive at the caucuses, greeting people as they enter the room and sometimes offering refreshments.

A strong and well-informed precinct captain is particularly important for Democratic caucuses, where results are reported only in terms of delegates awarded, and caucus math can sometimes be manipulated to alter delegate counts. I took advantage of the time before our 2008 caucus was called to order to chat with some people I knew were supporting Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, or Chris Dodd. Some had verbally committed to moving to the Edwards group if their candidate was not viable; others had not tipped their hand, but I figured it could not hurt to say hello.

A group with a trained precinct captain is far more likely to stick together after falling below the viability threshold. Otherwise, instead of searching for the last few people needed to secure a delegate, supporters may immediately start to disperse during the realignment period.

Republican caucuses have no viability requirement, but precinct leaders can still welcome supporters before the caucus is called to order. They will often give a speech on behalf of their candidate before ballots are distributed. Presumably few voters are still undecided by the time they get to the caucus, but there’s always a chance for a convincing case to influence someone at the last moment, especially a voter who had been wavering between two candidates.

Please share your own Iowa caucus stories in this thread.

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