At Iowa Caucuses, Politics Really Is Local

Iowans await Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at the Jasper County Community Center in Newton, Iowa, Dec. 31, 2007.
CBS/Brian Montopoli
This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

The solicitations began almost as soon as supporters walked into Hillary Clinton's New Year's Eve celebration in downtown Des Moines.

"Would you be willing," a clipboard-wielding volunteer asked, "to drive someone to the polls on Thursday?"

For all the hype about the Iowa caucuses, there are a small number of votes up for grabs: Estimates at the higher ranges call for a turnout of 150,000 Democrats and 90,000 Republicans at over 3,500 caucus sites across the state tonight.

And that means presidential campaigns spend much of their time making sure each and every supporter gets to their caucus meeting, despite cold, snow, or the hassles of everyday life.

Their efforts this year have been unprecedented.

The John Edwards campaign, according to Edwards' Iowa spokesman Dan Leistikow, is "helping to find babysitters, locating handicapped parking spots, offering rides, providing meals, [and] helping people find their precinct location."

The campaign says it had 1,000 canvassers working the state Wednesday, and 51 active phone banks "with hundreds of volunteers and supporters." It has set up a hotline that Edwards supporters anywhere in Iowa can call if they need a ride caucus night, and has even lined up all terrain vehicles to get supporters to the caucuses in case the weather turns sour.

The Clinton campaign, according to Iowa state director Teresa Vilmain, has secured over 600 shovels and pounds of salt in case of snow. It has 5,000 people ready to drive voters to caucuses (and nearly as many identified as needing rides.) It's hosting pre-caucus gatherings for supporters, complete with food.

Fred Thompson's Iowa executive director, Bob Haus, says the Thompson campaign is calling up to 10,000 people per day from Thompson's Iowa headquarters. Like rival campaigns, the Thompson campaign asks those who come to events to fill out cards so they can be contacted and encouraged to caucus for the candidate.

How will they make absolutely sure voters actually show up on caucus night?

"We're thinking about hot toddies," jokes Haus.

The Iowa state director for Mitt Romney, Gentry Collins, characterizes his campaign's turnout operation as "very traditional."

"We've got a volunteer operation in all 99 Iowa counties," he says. "We've been working hardest on offering rides to people who can't get themselves to the caucuses. You can't just run a van or a bus around town. You've got to have somebody matched up with each person who needs a ride."

The turnout operation for Mike Huckabee, who the polls suggest is Romney's main rival for GOP voters' hearts in Iowa, is anything but traditional: With less money available to establish a statewide organization than Romney, Huckabee is depending in large part on tight-knit groups of pastors and home-schoolers to ensure that supporters get to the caucuses.

"We are doing what we need to do to contact voters all across the state and let them know where their caucuses are, what time their caucuses are, what to expect when they get there," says Eric Woolson, Huckabee's Iowa campaign manager.

But Woolson acknowledges that the Huckabee campaign has little planned when it comes to driving people to their caucus.

"By and large, what we're finding is folks are able to get themselves where they need to be," Woolson says. "The biggest question I'm getting is what people should do with their kids. I told a guy to just take them with him."

The Clinton campaign, by contrast, has been lining up teenage baby-sitters for supporters.

Barack Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton characterizes Obama's turnout operation as "massive," though he declined to offer specific numbers. Burton did say the campaign is "active in every precinct in every county in the state." Defying conventional wisdom, the Obama campaign has targeted independent voters and those who have not caucused in the past.

Because of the logistical challenges inherent in caucuses, campaigns rely on local activists to motivate voters in each of the state's precincts. The most sophisticated operations have differing approaches for different categories of voters - they might make a different pitch in their phone calls to solid supporters than in their calls to undecided voters on caucus day, for example.

Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, who were not expected to do well with the state's largely conservative and religious GOP electorate, do not have the volunteer network here that some of their rivals do. (The candidates are still doing some campaigning in the state, however, and McCain has seen a recent bump in Iowa polls.)

"Organization is huge," says Drew Ivers, Iowa state chairman for Ron Paul. "At least 30 percent of the total outcome will be organization, and you could argue it's higher than that."

Ivers says that if Paul's supporters haven't shown up to their caucus 15 minutes before it is scheduled to start, the campaign will make a phone call to make sure they are on their way. He says 250 college students are working the phones to make sure people turn out for Paul.

Even the most passionate supporters need encouragement, argues Ivers.

"Who wants to get up on a cold winter night in Iowa," he asks, "and go to a meeting?"

By Brian Montopoli