Early on a recent Friday afternoon, Cory Booker was winding down his stump speech in a modest carpeted living room in suburban Newton, Iowa. Facing about 75 locals jammed into folding chairs and standing along the walls of a room lined with Native American artifacts and IOWA FOR CORY BOOKER signs, the New Jersey senator got to the point and asked his audience — an older crowd, full of caucusgoers who’d already seen other candidates speak in recent weeks, with plans to see more in the next few days — to consider signing his commit-to-caucus cards. These would informally identify them as Booker supporters ahead of February’s Iowa caucuses, which will formally kick off the Democrats’ 2020 presidential-primary season. Even if they weren’t going to end up supporting him, Booker said, he wanted them to pledge to support the eventual nominee and to pressure the other candidates to do the same. But, he said, as some looked down at the preprinted index-size cards asking for their name, he really wanted their support.
Booker thanked the crowd and stepped onto the front lawn — also lined with his campaign signs — and stood for over half an hour greeting and taking questions from, and selfies with, the attendees. As they filed out, young Booker volunteers circulated the cards and welcomed signatures. The next day, they’d follow up with everyone who’d signed one, thanking the new supporters and sharing ways for them to get involved as volunteers and help spread Booker’s message.
The house party was the first of 11 events on Booker’s latest four-day swing through Iowa, where he’s hoping to shock the political world in February. There haven’t been many reliable Iowa polls in recent weeks, but they’ve just about all shown Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders atop the field, trailed by some combination of Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, and Booker. The organizing battle on the ground in Iowa — the state that invariably sets the tone for the race — however, couldn’t be more different.
While most campaigns, including some of the top-tier ones, have fewer than a dozen aides on the ground in the state, it’s Booker — whose 42 full-time Iowa staffers, including in-state digital and data teams, blanket the state — and Warren — who now has over 50 paid staffers there, about three-quarters of whom are organizers — who are dominating the traditional organizing game.
It’s early in the process, of course, but Booker’s and Warren’s decision to allocate so much of their early resources to Iowa before most voters tune in places them in their own category, even ahead of other candidates who appear to be staking their campaigns on Iowa, like Klobuchar and Montana governor Steve Bullock. Biden, too, has built up only a relatively small presence in the state, visiting just once since announcing his candidacy. Rather than an organizing corps of dozens fanned out across the state, the former vice-president has a senior Iowa staff that is expecting to rely largely on his national popularity while so many voters remain undecided, and planning to build up and spend money in the state slowly over the coming months.
Still, the classic on-the-ground-organization race hardly tells the full story of the caucuses: In 2016, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders demonstrated that this model is far from the only one that works, and Sanders, this time, has built up a machine that’s not only relying on a traditional field program but also a digital organizing one that’s helped sign up over 25,000 volunteers in the state, his campaign says, a massive number in a contest where roughly 200,000 may participate.
Booker’s early and intense focus on organizing the state — which he’s now visited four times — is the result of his campaign’s calculation that in-person campaigning and field organization are his strengths, rather than the national-media-narrative game.
“Every one of us in this race comes to politics in a different way. I had to rise in a very tough environment, where it was all about organizing and fighting against a machine. The only way you do that is retail [politics],” Booker told New York while riding in a rented RV from one intimate house party in central Iowa to another in the southern part of the state over the weekend. Plus, said the former mayor of Newark — whose campaign is run by Addisu Demissie, a veteran organizer who worked for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and whose Iowa operation is led by Mike Frosolone, the former political chief for Iowa’s House Democrats, and Joe O’Hern, a Martin O’Malley and Iowa state party veteran — “This state has a voting community about the size of my city.”
But it’s also a bet that having a full-fledged staff all over the state a full nine months before the caucuses will pay off as Booker hopes to pitch all the right people, often. When visiting Iowa — where, he often notes, he has family — he’s even taken to staying in locals’ homes rather than a hotel.
Warren’s team has also employed unusual tactics while canvassing the state. Her team of organizers has built up a constant presence in supporters’ lives, aiming to keep them engaged even when Warren isn’t in Iowa by hosting events like book clubs, policy conversations, and road races. Warren stacked her campaign with in-demand veteran Iowa hands including state director Janice Rottenberg, a Hillary Clinton and Iowa Democratic Party alum, and Obama 2008 Iowa political director Emily Parcell, as well as Sanders 2016 Iowa caucus director Brendan Summers and Clinton and Obama alum Kane Miller, who are working out of Warren’s Boston headquarters.
On Saturday evening in Newton, a day after Booker’s event three miles away, Warren packed an elementary school’s gymnasium with 200 locals, some of whom had seen Booker, too. As the audience — full of “Nevertheless She Persisted” and “Warren Has a Plan for That” T-shirts — filed in, organizers and volunteers (including one woman who’d seen Booker the day before) handed out campaign literature and Warren’s own commit-to-caucus cards. After bounding out to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Warren spoke in front of a large American flag, unfurled her stump speech, and took questions.
It was her seventh trip to the state. “Iowa is a chance to do the kind of face-to-face campaigning that I think all the Democrats ought to be doing,” she told reporters afterward. “This is our chance to build a grassroots movement, and that happens one person at a time.”
Neither Booker nor Warren would admit to being all-in on Iowa — they’ve both built large teams in New Hampshire and elsewhere, too. But their moves follow an Iowa-heavy playbook that other campaigns have been significantly more hesitant to subscribe to, because of their internal calculations about the relative importance of different states, because they think it’s not worth it to spend so much time and money on any one place so early, because they’re still getting set up and focused on raising money, or because they place less of a premium on on-the-ground organization at a time when the race feels so oriented around the national media contest.
Take Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — two serious contenders with a smaller Iowa footprint. Harris, for one, has visited Iowa three times — a fourth trip was canceled last month owing to the Senate’s voting schedule. She has a senior team in place in Des Moines, and one of her top national aides, communications director Lily Adams, led Hillary Clinton’s Iowa communications in 2016. Harris’s campaign has not disclosed its statewide staffing level, however. Buttigieg, meanwhile, is working across the country to get his campaign infrastructure up to speed after his candidacy took off much quicker than expected: He’s drawn big crowds in Iowa, but his team is still relying largely on volunteers while it tries hiring a full senior staff.
By this point, said former Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan, “I would’ve expected more, full on,” from most campaigns.“It might be a titch early, but summer is a great time for organizing. You’ve got college kids who are available,” he explained. “This is the time to really ramp it up: February is here before you know it, and people are going to start committing.”
This is why some candidates, like Beto O’Rourke, are now working with urgency to build their in-state operations. O’Rourke, who launched his campaign with an appearance in a southeastern part of the state that voted for Trump in 2016 after previously supporting Obama, has held 67 events in Iowa and — as a former congressman — is relying on his ability to visit more than candidates who have day jobs back in Washington.
“The ultimate goal here is to get as much face-to-face contact between Beto O’Rourke and caucusgoers as possible,” explained Norm Sterzenbach, O’Rourke’s state director. When that’s not achievable, he said, then the campaign is expecting to rely on the organizers it’s slowly hiring and volunteers. O’Rourke is methodically building a team using a mostly traditional model, in other words, to reach Iowa’s notoriously late-deciding Democrats. Many of the national operatives who’ve helped O’Rourke build up of late are veterans of field organizing, including under Obama, whose deputy campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon is now leading O’Rourke’s operation, with help from others including trusted Obama political aide Mitch Stewart and Obama’s former Iowa director, Paul Tewes. “There’s plenty of time to get [Iowans] onboard,” Sterzenbach said. “But every day you’re losing time to build an organization.”
Not that a no-time-like-the-present attitude and organization is a guarantee of breaking through. Former Maryland representative John Delaney, who announced his long-shot campaign in July 2017, is ubiquitous in the state, though he remains little known nationwide. He’s visited 28 times as a candidate — hitting all 99 counties by the end of 2018 — he’s running ads in both the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids markets, and he’s hired over 20 staffers on the ground, with eight field offices, even picking up endorsements from party chairs in four counties. The endorsement contest’s leader, meanwhile, may be Bullock, who launched his campaign only in May but who immediately landed the support of Iowa attorney general Tom Miller, the highest-ranking statewide Democrat. Bullock is all-in on Iowa: He’s visited eight times in recent months and kicked off his campaign with an operation of 14 full-time staffers in tow, including seven organizers.
The majority of campaigns in the overflowing field are further behind in the state, approaching it in a variety of ways as they fight for national viability. Kirsten Gillibrand has visited repeatedly. John Hickenlooper’s team recently opened a small headquarters in Des Moines near Warren’s office and is hoping to build up a staff as the former Colorado governor returns to the state where, he often notes, his relative Bourke Hickenlooper served as both governor and senator. On the drive from the airport to downtown Des Moines, one even passes a pair of billboards for Tulsi Gabbard, a classic campaign trick to make visitors (like out-of-town reporters) think the advertised candidate is organized or prominent. Still, no campaign has yet tried decisively to break the Iowa mold.
“If you just accept the methods that people believed in before 2016, that’s not enough anymore. It’s good that there are campaigns that are sort of taking the traditional path, but Trump has shown that there is more than one way to skin a cat here,” said Jeff Link, a veteran Democratic operative in the state who’s worked for both Obama and former senator Tom Harkin, noting that Trump hardly had any traditional Iowa organization to speak of before his second-place finish in the caucuses vaulted him toward the Republican nomination in 2016. Of course, Link said, “if anyone set out and wrote a plan that was actually what Trump did, you’d get laughed at. You’d get fired.”
But Trump wasn’t the only candidate to break through in Iowa with a nontraditional 2016 operation. Sanders’s team is now “combining the people on the ground — the traditional organizing — with the tech-heavy ‘distributed’ organizing that we’ve learned about in the last few years,” said Evan Burger, the senator’s Iowa caucus director.
Sanders’s team knows that if every caucusgoer who picked him in 2016 returns to his side in 2020, he’d likely win easily, so his organizers are largely focused on reaching those voters — many of whom are undecided now — while expanding that base wherever they can. Much of this is being done through the “Bern App,” which empowers supporters to reach out directly to their networks and accounts for the campaign’s massive volunteer count that dwarfs everyone else’s. “The huge breakthrough is someone sitting at home watching the Bernie Sanders video can click the link to immediately start organizing people they know and don’t know,” said Burger.
Still, while Sanders is hoping for a strong showing in Iowa, he is not relying entirely on the state like some candidates are; it was his huge 2016 win in New Hampshire, after all, that sent his campaign into a new level of viability. The calculus is different for candidates like Klobuchar, the Minnesotan who often refers to herself as the “senator next door.”
About 120 Iowans dropped by a sunny café in Boone on Sunday afternoon to hear Klobuchar as she stumped through northern Iowa — the part of the state closest to her home and therefore likeliest to know her. Standing in front of blue-and-green “Amy for America” signs, Klobuchar more than once noted to the crowd, optimistically, that she’d come in sixth place in some polls. Recently, she told me after the event, she met with Jimmy Carter in Georgia. “At this point in the race, he had even less national support than me, people didn’t know who he was, and once he got out there — and got out there in that Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone way — he started doing better and better and better, and he built it up gradually. And that’s what we’re doing, because you can’t win people over with a TV ad anymore — they’ve lost a lot of trust in promises. They’ve gotta meet you, they’ve gotta know your record,” she said. “I won’t have the money and resources of some of my colleagues who are running from bigger states, but I’ll have enough to win.”
If she has her way, she’ll also have the backing of local power brokers. Klobuchar’s Iowa state campaign chair is former state party chairwoman Andy McGuire, and Boone County Democrats chairman Tim Winter introduced her at her campaign event on Sunday. Her weekend trip included an event held at the Charles City home of Todd Prichard, the Iowa House minority leader. Trying to win over such local activists is a staple of the Iowa caucuses — just about every candidate chipped in to help Eric Giddens, a state senate candidate, in a northeastern Iowa special election in March, and many have stopped by the state capitol to talk to lawmakers — and Booker has been aggressively courting them for months. More than once during the 2018 midterms, I was speaking with local officials when they interrupted our conversation because they had — just then — an incoming call from Booker.
One Iowa House member, Jennifer Konfrst, sat in the audience of Booker’s Newton event, while another, Wes Breckenridge, helped introduce him. “Out of all the presidential candidates running, I think — bar none — Senator Cory Booker is probably the largest help in the state of Iowa from a legislative standpoint, helping us to get the word out, to raise money, doing everything we can do to get back in the majority, both in the House and hopefully the Senate,” Breckenridge told the crowd. Booker on Monday announced a high-powered ten-person Iowa steering committee that included Konfrst, former Iowa House Democratic leader Mark Smith, local labor leader Marcia Nichols, and Des Moines attorney Jerry Crawford, the Iowa chairman for both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
Warren, naturally, is doing much of the same: Both candidates have been known to give their cell-phone numbers out to activists, who sometimes use them liberally, and when the senator appeared in Newton the day after Booker, there again was Breckenridge, introducing Warren and then moderating her post-speech Q&A. “She is one of three candidates who has reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, Wes, what can we do for you in Iowa?,’” he told that evening’s audience. (Once Warren was done talking, Breckenridge told me the three candidates were Warren, Booker, and Bullock and that he’d also spoken with O’Rourke.)
Klobuchar, for one, is trying to put a regional spin on her approach. More than once in Boone — like when she was asked about a veterinarian shortage — she noted that she is on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, insisting that no other candidate could talk about farming issues with such authority. “I’m the senator next door,” she said, “and that means I have a good understanding of rural issues.”
Like Warren’s the day before and Booker’s the day before that, Klobuchar’s crowd was standing-room only, and she stuck around after wrapping up to greet attendees and take photos with anyone who wanted to, and to talk to the press, before hopping in a car to her next event, the sixth and final of her latest two-day Iowa tour.
That same day, on Iowa’s eastern border, Booker headlined two events of his own — the ninth and tenth of his trip. On the RV the day before, near the end of the hourlong ride between Newton and Chariton, Booker revealed that he and his top aides had met extensively with caucus veterans in New Jersey before he launched his campaign. “This is what wins in Iowa. We did a lot of research beforehand,” he said. We rolled on south, and cell reception grew spottier as Booker acknowledged he was making a bet that this kind of traditional campaigning still works. “If you look at all past elections, it’s been won by organizers,” he said. “And that’s what gives me insulation against all the pundits who pick all other things to talk about.”
He paused. “And I’m like, ‘Really?! Am I doing something wrong?’” he said. “Is that what matters?”
It might be. Four days after we spoke, Booker had yet to break 4 percent in any recent Iowa poll, and the DNC announced a new, even higher standard for making the second round of primary debates — a fundraising threshold Booker might struggle to hit. After Robert Mueller’s press conference in Washington later that morning, Booker jumped on pundits’ favorite topic. He was the first candidate to newly call for House Democrats to begin impeachment proceedings.