No Shortage Of Help For Iowa Caucus-Goers

generic hillary clinton john edwards barack obama iowa election flag white house campaign CBS/AP

By The Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown

Even when Iowans do a Google search for "turkey," "champagne" or "stocking stuffers," the presidential caucus will be there, lurking like a holiday party gate-crasher. All will play a part in growing the number of Iowa caucus-goers.

The group EMILY's List, which raises money for female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, plans to launch a campaign this week aimed at first-time caucus-goers. A website goes live this week and will be followed by five direct mail pieces, a tour of Iowa college campuses, phone calls and micro-targeted Web ads.

This is where the turkey, champagne and stocking stuffers come in.

In its first presidential campaign effort, EMILY's List will target women who are interested in the election but more focused on, say, the holidays and their own lives than the Jan. 3 caucus. The group will post ads on yoga, health care and children's sites, as well as on Google, where searches for "election" and "eggnog" might direct voters to the same caucus ads.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) stands to benefit because EMILY's List has been with her since she announced her candidacy.

"We are playing in Iowa as a pro-Hillary group," said Maren Hesla, director of the group's Women Vote program, which will release more details of the effort this week to Iowa reporters. "That is what our focus is on here."

The EMILY's List campaign is part of a massive quadrennial exercise by presidential campaigns to expand the universe of caucus attendees. About 125,000 Iowans participated in the 2004 Democratic vote - an increase over the 2000 caucuses, but still just a fraction of all eligible voters.

The compressed primary calendar has only elevated the pressure to do well in Iowa. Unlike past years, when a candidate who fared poorly would have several weeks to rebound, the New Hampshire primary could fall within five days of the Iowa vote. (New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner has yet to set the primary date.)

EMILY's List initially planned to zero in on the Feb. 5 primary states, but recently shifted its attention to Iowa, recognizing the outsized importance of the state and its sometimes baffling caucus process.

Each of the leading Democratic candidates is taking steps to demystify the caucus for new voters.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will release a video this week that explains the caucus process to supporters. The gist of it, narrated by former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer: Don't get freaked out and don't be late (doors close promptly at 7 p.m.), but enjoy it, and here's how.

"We understand the history of the Iowa caucus - that if you haven't gone to the caucus before, often you don't go this time," Obama said Sunday. "We are keeping track of [people] who are both previous caucus-goers as well as first-time caucus-goers. We are not going to be banking on some huge upsurge in first-time caucus goers to do well in the caucus."

If Obama's video is a serving of peas and carrots - less humor, more instruction on preference groups, viability and other caucus essentials - Clinton's could be junk food.

She released a video last week featuring her husband, Bill, daydreaming about a hamburger as he runs on a treadmill, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie, dancing uncomfortably, and Clinton herself singing an off-tune version of the national anthem.

The message: Exercising, dancing and singing are hard; caucusing is easy.

Clinton, along with a flood of surrogates, will focus on turning out first-time caucus attendees during an Iowa trip in early December, aides said. She brought dozens of new staff members to the state solely to push this message. For the next few weeks - seven days a week, eight hours a day mdash; the staff will visit 50,000 supporters, often spending 15 minutes in their homes, showing the video and answering questions.

This is around the same time that EMILY's List will kick its campaign into high gear, with phone calls alerting Iowans of mailings to come. The group is targeting about 125,000 women who have never attended a caucus, Hesla said.

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) hasn't done a video yet, but he "is also aggressively working to turn out Iowans who haven't caucused before," said Dan Leistikow, an Edwards spokesman. "With an experienced staff and more than 80 percent of our precinct captains in place, we are recruiting new caucus-goers and teaching them how to caucus on a daily basis."
  • David Miller

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