A Giant Mathematical Puzzle

Italian team Azzurra competes in Nice southeastern France, Monday, Nov. 16, 2009, during the sailing match racing competition "The Louis Vuitton Trophy."
AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
This commentary from The New Republic was written by Ryan Lizza.

It's Junior High Night at Dean for America's Des Moines headquarters, housed in some non-descript office space downtown. In the volunteer center, a half-dozen kids, many wearing braces, sit around a brown folding table and frantically work the phones, trying to persuade Iowans to caucus for Dean on January 19. Dean volunteers have a reputation for being young, but, for the most part, these kids will be ineligible to vote not only in this year's election but in the 2008 election as well. Sasha Smith and Drew Daumueller, both 13, methodically work through a page of Iowa names. Sasha is here to get some after-school credit; Drew is here because he saw so many Dean commercials on television that he thought it would be cool to go work for the guy. Their task -- like that of the volunteers directly across Locust Avenue at John Edwards's office, and the ones half a block away at John Kerry's headquarters, and the others around the state at dozens of regional offices for the five candidates competing here -- is to find the most coveted thing in Iowa right now: a "one." "I got one one," Sasha says. "I got two ones," adds Drew.

Next to each name on their call sheets are five numbered boxes. An Iowan counts as a one, according to a sheet of paper explaining the codes, if he or she "is 100 percent positive they will caucus for Dean on Jan. 19th. A person is only a one if they have signed the commit card and are completely positive about caucusing." People merely leaning toward Dean are twos. Mushy undecideds are threes. And those leaning toward or committed to another candidate are fours and fives, respectively. Add up all the ones and you get your "hard count," the total number of Iowans definitely supporting your candidate and the most tightly held secret in every campaign.

I watch some of the young Deaniacs try to turn threes and fours into ones. In front of them, each caller has a two-page "persuasion script" that explains the secret of selling Dean over the phone to undecided Iowans. The script calls for the volunteer to deliver a tough version of the Dean stump speech:

"Governor Dean is running for president to stand up to George Bush and take back our country. His opponents are going after him with negative attacks designed to confuse people. All they can do is attack, because, while Governor Dean was standing up to George Bush, they were surrendering to him in Washington. They surrendered when they gave George Bush a blank check in Iraq and when they passed his No Child Left Behind Act. And, while Governor Dean was ensuring health care for every child in Vermont, his opponents were spinning their wheels in Washington."

If this still doesn't persuade the Iowan on the other end of the line, the script offers a section titled "Tips" to strengthen the message. "People are sick of hearing about the caucus," it notes. "Empathize. Share your frustration. Tell them your story. Tell them why you dropped everything and are sleeping on a floor in Iowa to make Howard Dean president." Of course, empathy doesn't always work. Sometimes you need to be a little tougher. That's when you move on to the script under the heading: "If they get pissed and try to cut you off or hang-up." The way to deal with a pissed-off Iowan is to push back. "Assertively tell your story," the persuasion script counsels.

Sasha and Drew are a little too polite to argue with the non-Dean supporters. But, a few feet away, a Dean staffer in a green union shirt who looks to be in his twenties but won't tell me his age -- "My name's Josh Tucker. Unfortunately, that's all I can tell you" -- has the method down. He tears through his calls, making the case for Dean with an intensity that has the same angry edge as his candidate. When he finds a three, four, or five, he seems almost disgusted with them. He races through three main points, shouting into the phone, rarely taking a breath.

First, he explains the Dean fund-raising phenomenon. "One of the main reasons I think Howard can win this is that he's raised more money than any Democrat in history," Josh says. That's important because, when he's elected, Dean will only "be accountable to the people." The Iowan still seems to be listening, so Josh dives into a well-honed discourse on how the other candidates are Bush Lite, seemingly adapted from the persuasion script. "A lot of the Democrats that are running for president, they voted for the war in Iraq," he says, sounding sickened. "They voted for No Child Left Behind that is gutting our school systems. They stood by while George Bush took money away from Social Security, and even this latest bill, the Medicare bill, it's really a giveaway to the large corporations." It's not really clear what those last two points have to do with Dick Gephardt, Kerry, and Edwards, all of whom opposed the Bush tax cuts and the Medicare bill, but the whole point of the exercise is to blur the differences between Bush and Dean's rivals. "It's hard for them to say that they would do things differently than George Bush because they haven't been doing things differently. Howard? Howard, he has. He provided health care for everyone under one hundred fifty percent of poverty in Vermont." Click. The Iowan has abruptly ended the call. Josh hangs up the phone. I ask how it went. "It went well," he says. "I think you got to just keep on keeping on."

Dean's lovable communications director, Tricia Enright, takes me next door to what the Dean campaign calls "the Storm Center." For months, the Dean campaign has been urging its supporters from across the country to descend on Iowa for the final weeks of the campaign here, and the Storm Center is where all these volunteers are organized. (The campaign originally set a goal of 5,000 volunteers, but that's been dialed back to around 3,000.) The Storm is broken up into four "waves," each lasting three to seven days; when one wave has completed its commitment, the next blows into town to replace it a few days later. This weekend, the campaign expects 800 new arrivals for the penultimate wave known as "Gathering Storm." (The final wave, taking place from January 16 to 20, will be called "Perfect Storm.") Naturally, Stormers sign up on the Dean website, where they can arrange to share rides with others ("Eastern shore of MD, but will pick up anywhere along route to Iowa. VW Golf," reads a typical entry).

Enright takes me upstairs at the Storm Center. One homemade sign depicts Bush leading the United States into battle against North Korea and Syria. A bumper sticker reads, SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS, A VILLAGE IS MISSING ITS IDIOT. Enright tries unsuccessfully to get some of the Stormers to show me around. Puzzled by their reluctance, she inquires, "What, were you guys told never to talk to the press?" A chorus of "uh-huh" and "yeah" is returned.

Eventually, Adam Mordecai, a 28-year-old Dean staffer who was shipped out from the New York office to help run the Iowa blog, offers to explain the system. Once in Iowa, Stormers are housed throughout the state in "winterized camps," which offer cabin-like accommodations that are halfway between a hotel room and a tent. "We've tested out the locations ourselves and can vouch for their quality!" the campaign website promises. When one wave of Stormers is getting ready to leave, they call the incoming Stormers to help psyche them up for their turn. "Everyone gets a free orange hat for democracy," says Mordecai, "and then they blog about why they are coming for the Storm and why it makes a difference."

Cecilia Hayford -- "'hay' like the plant you feed to a cow, 'ford' like the truck" -- explains that she's 18 and drove 1,000 miles from Virginia to help Dean convert fours into ones and get those ones to the caucuses on January 19. She's staying near Indianola, ten miles outside Des Moines, at a camp that houses Girl Scouts during the summer. "[The cabins] are not as warm as being really inside, but they are much, much warmer than being outside," she testifies. I ask if she and the other volunteers are at all worried about the savvy labor guys streaming into the state for Dick Gephardt, Dean's closest rival. "They are not as dedicated as us," Hayford says. "They wouldn't live in a Girl Scout camp."

She's right. Recently, about 300 Teamsters, Seafarers, Ironworkers, and members from the other 18 unions backing Gephardt arrived in Iowa for the final two weeks of the campaign. Most arrived by plane and are staying in hotels. These folks are generally the most politically active organizers from locals around the country. For every Cecilia Hayford working for Dean, there seems to be a Tina Anderson working for Gephardt. Anderson is a 56-year-old UPS driver who has been a Teamster for 30 years. While Hayford bundles up at the winterized camp, Anderson sleeps at the Four Points Sheraton; while the Deaniacs are here over their college winter breaks, Anderson is using vacation time she has saved up from work.

The same night that Sasha and Drew ring up twos and threes at Dean headquarters, Tina is at her hotel phoning union members that she canvassed during the day -- the assumption being that having union members speak directly to other union members is the best way to make them into Gephardt "ones." "If you want to compare his college kids and our union folks," says Brett Voorhies of the Alliance for Economic Justice (a sort of mini-AFL-CIO formed by the unions backing Gephardt), "the advantage we have is union members talking to union members. When you have a steelworker talking to a steelworker, you can't beat that."

This intense competition between Dean and Gephardt is shaping up as a battle between a guerrilla movement and a regular army. "The twenty-somethings," says Gephardt's state director John Lapp, unknowingly exaggerating the age of many of Dean's volunteers, "are great. The Dean swarm, that's a wonderful thing for them to come in from out of this state, but Iowans are going to decide this." The Gephardt team delights in tweaking the young Deaniacs. "They are housing them in these winterized Girl Scout camps," says Steve Murphy, who ran Iowa in 1988, when Gephardt won the state. "We're busing people in, too. The only difference is ... we're putting them in individual precincts." Ultimately, he says, the difference will be that "we're the best-organized."

It's a political cliché that the best-organized campaign wins, but in this case it's probably true. More than any other state, Iowa is a test of organizational prowess. At their core, the caucuses are really just a giant mathematical puzzle.

Solving that puzzle begins with a giant database stored on a file server in Rhode Island. That's the home of the "IDP VAN," the Iowa Democratic Party's Voter Activation Network™. The VAN includes a list of all 1.8 million registered voters in the state and, most important, the 105,000 Iowans known to have attended a Democratic caucus between 1980 and 2000. All the serious campaigns bought the list from the state party for $65,000, most of them in the winter of 2002 or spring of 2003.

The next important piece of the puzzle was delivered last July. Every four years, the number of Democratic delegates allotted to each of Iowa's 1,993 precincts is determined based on its share of the Democratic vote within its county in the last couple of general elections: The more Democratic the precinct, the more delegates it is allotted. It's the election of these delegates -- 13,490 in all, or an average of about seven per precinct -- that is the purpose of the January 19 caucuses.

The July document shows how many delegates every precinct will get and is crucial to developing a caucus strategy. "Gephardt seemed to be the one campaign that understood the importance of that document and focused on it right away," says Jean Hessburg, the state party's executive director. It's just another scrap of evidence that suggests the advantage Gephardt's team has in having done all this before. "Most other campaigns had to go through a get-acquainted period," explains Murphy.

With a list of caucus-goers to target, and an understanding of the exact number of delegates each precinct caucus will elect, each campaign can then figure out a "hard-count" goal for every precinct in the state -- that is, the number of "ones" they will need in each precinct in order to win delegates there. This is where the Ouija boards come into play, because coming up with an accurate hard-count goal requires a projection of what turnout will be at each precinct. In 1980, Ted Kennedy's aides were gleeful because at pre-caucus meetings at precinct after precinct they were achieving their hard-count goals. The problem was that, on caucus night itself, turnout was some 50 percent higher than they had projected, and Jimmy Carter crushed them.

Like the hard count, each campaign's turnout projection is a tightly held secret. The most talked-about variable this year is whether or not the legions of new Dean supporters who have never caucused before will actually show up. Most campaigns assume there will be record turnout. "We based our targets on a turnout that is higher than is even remotely realistic," says Murphy, who worked for Kennedy in Iowa in 1980 and knows firsthand the damage that overly conservative projections can cause. "I'm not going to give you the numbers, but it's twenty or thirty percent higher than anything that will realistically happen."

The other crucial variable in the Iowa caucuses is "viability." A caucus is an anachronism in U.S. politics, a throwback to the days before the secret ballot became sacrosanct. Caucus attendees publicly declare their support for a candidate by physically organizing themselves into presidential preference groups. But, if a group doesn't contain at least 15 percent of the total attendees at that meeting, it's not considered viable, and members of that group must realign with a group that is.

This rule obviously has a tremendous impact on a candidates' strategy, both in terms of how they organize for the caucuses and what they do on caucus night itself. For a candidate struggling in the back of the pack, the best chance of winning delegates is in smaller precincts, where hitting 15 percent takes fewer bodies. This is one reason John Edwards spends so much time with small groups of potential caucus-goers in rural parts of the state. Also, since the delegates themselves are awarded on a proportional basis within each precinct, it takes fewer bodies to win each delegate in a sparsely attended caucus.

As the caucuses near, the candidates are starting to hone their strategies to take advantage of this viability rule. For instance, it was not lost on a lot of Iowa Democrats last week when a very savvy Dean answered a question at The Des Moines Register debate about a mistake he has learned from by mentioning how apologetic he is for once falsely accusing Edwards of flip-flopping on his war vote. Dean was making a play for all those Edwards supporters who will have to align with another candidate on caucus night once their group is declared nonviable.

The viability threshold creates interesting strategic opportunities. If a group of Gephardt supporters isn't viable, should they caucus with Edwards or Kerry instead, since those two men may be less of a threat than Dean? "That's probably the million dollar question," laughs Voorhies, who organizes Gephardt supporters. Officially, the campaigns don't admit to employing this kind of strategy and argue that it's too difficult to pull off statewide anyway. I asked Pat Lynch, a Teamster who is in charge of caucus-training for the unions backing Gephardt, where he would send the representative's supporters if they don't hit viability. "Probably to the undecided delegate group," he says, noting that "uncommitted" is an option on caucus night. (Delegates elected by a viable, uncommitted group can commit to a candidate at a later date.) "We don't want to give anybody the opportunity to take away any more delegates. That's part of the strategy you need to work out. Every campaign out there would use more or less the same procedure."

Since delegates are won proportionally, even when a candidate's group is viable, a similar strategy can be employed with "wasted" supporters. Jean Hessburg offers as an example a caucus where every nine additional members in a group gains one more delegate for that group's candidate. "Say the precinct elects three delegates," she explains. "I see that my group of people has enough to get two delegates, but I have three extra people in my group. ... Do I try and get six more people to get an extra delegate, or do I take those three extra people and send them over to candidate B, which is the person I know won't challenge me the most, or will hurt my closest challenger?"

But, since the race is still far more fluid here than conventional wisdom suggests -- polling for caucuses is notoriously inaccurate, the percentage of undecided voters is still high, and talk about Kerry and Edwards catching fire persists -- many of these micro-level strategic decisions can't be made until the final days of the campaign. For now, each campaign is methodically drilling away at meeting its hard-count goals, precinct by precinct.

And that brings us back to the VAN. Each night, after the UPS drivers, junior high kids, and all the other volunteers and staffers furiously contacting potential caucus-goers and defining them on the one-to-five scale are finished, that data is uploaded to Rhode Island. In fact, every time a voter is contacted, it is noted in the VAN. The campaigns even include notes about their conversations with the voters they contacted, and they customize their VAN interface to include fields for whatever demographic or ideological characteristics they want to record for each voter.

Right now, each candidate's data is protected from his rivals by a firewall. But the genius of the way Iowa Democrats are organizing is that, once the caucuses are over and the winner is settled, the firewall will come down, and all the data will be consolidated into one file again. In essence, what is happening right now in Iowa is that all the campaigns, though competing with each other, are really working together to create an extraordinarily rich database about Iowa voters that the Democratic nominee will use in the general election. If the story ends happily for Democrats, come November Teamster and college student will then work together to beat Bush in Iowa.

Ryan Lizza is an associate editor at TNR.

By Ryan Lizza