Harris seeks Iowa edge with army of volunteers

Harris seeks Iowa edge with army of volunteers
© Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Iowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Warren avoids attacks while building momentum MORE (D-Calif.) does not have the largest staff on the ground in Iowa. She has not held the sorts of barnstorming tours on which some of her top rivals have embarked, and she does not lead in the polls.

But Harris’s campaign is quietly building an army of volunteers that she hopes will allow her to build momentum toward Iowa’s February caucuses, a strikingly complex contest in which candidates must receive 15 percent of the vote in any given precinct to win delegates to the national convention.

“That’s the thing that keeps us up at night, making sure we’re viable everywhere,” said Will Dubbs, who runs Harris’s campaign in Iowa. “Fundamentally, the Iowa caucuses are about organizing.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Harris’s campaign has held a series of volunteer trainings it calls Camp Kamala, wooing college students on five campuses around the state and training attendees on the finer points of organizing.

The campaign declined to say how many students and volunteers went through the program, but an initial group of five regional organizers began work this week, and another five will start next month.

When Harris makes stops in Sioux City, Council Bluffs and Des Moines this week, her campaign will use a sophisticated set of tools to identify and track those who show up.

They keep tabs on how voters find out about an event they attend, whether through Facebook or by text message using unique SMS short codes. And they track those voters’ top four preferred choices.

After caucusgoers attend one of Harris’s events, the campaign follows up with everyone in the room — within 24 hours.

The goal, Harris insiders say, is to create a network of supporters and shepherd them through the caucus process, a much more laborious undertaking than simply showing up to vote in a primary on Election Day.

To be counted in the caucus, voters have to show up at a specific time and place on what is usually a frigid winter night and stay through the initial tallies and at least two rounds of voting before they can head home. The process is not always welcoming for those who are participating for the first time.

“It’s easy for people to fall through the cracks, and our commitment is, if you want to follow this process, we’ll take you through it every step,” said Deidre DeJear, who ran for Iowa secretary of state in 2018 and who now chairs Harris’s Iowa campaign. “The biggest priority is including people who don’t typically get included.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Other candidates have built out big staffs much earlier than Harris. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Warren avoids attacks while building momentum Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE (D-Mass.) has 50 staffers on the ground in Iowa. Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerIowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding 2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MORE (D-N.J.) has close to 40 — and a network of more than 80 extended family members who live in Iowa and volunteer on the campaign. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin Delaney2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Analysis: 2020 digital spending vastly outpaces TV ads MORE (D-Md.), the first candidate to join the race, has two dozen staffers.

Most candidates have spent more time wooing Iowa voters than has Harris. Delaney has already hit all 99 counties in Iowa, totaling 167 events over nearly two months in the state. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) has raced through 44 events in just 15 days. Former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperLeft off debate stage, Bullock all-in on Iowa Yang says he would not run as a third-party candidate The Hill's Morning Report - Hurricane Dorian devastates the Bahamas, creeps along Florida coast MORE (D) and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharMSNBC 'Climate in Crisis' special draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot The two most important mental health reforms the Trump administration should consider Sanders searches for answers amid Warren steamroller MORE (D-Minn.) have both clocked nearly 30 events.

Harris, by contrast, has spent just seven days in Iowa since announcing her campaign. She has made an impression in those seven days — in April she drew a standing-room-only crowd in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, and hundreds more at a stop in Ames, home of Iowa State University.

“Kamala impressed people when she was here last fall. We haven’t seen a lot of her since then,” said Sean Bagniewski, who chairs the Polk County Democratic Party in Des Moines.

Harris starts her latest swing in the middle of the pack, trailing front-runners Joe BidenJoe BidenUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' Warren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE (I-Vt.). Recent polls show Harris narrowly behind South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding MORE (D), tied with Warren and narrowly ahead of O’Rourke, Booker and Klobuchar.

With eight months before Iowans hold their caucuses, every campaign is focused on identifying and winning over as many voters as possible. That universe of potential voters, aides to multiple candidates said, is expanding rapidly.

Observers and operatives planning for the caucuses expect a massive turnout this year, one almost certain to eclipse huge crowds in 2008 and 2016. In both those races, first-time caucusgoers energized by then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKrystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans Sanders campaign announces it contacted over 1 million Iowa voters Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE (D-Ill.) in 2008 and Sanders in 2016 fueled their strong showings.

Harris’s team wants to turn this year’s first-time voters into delegates. Unlike primary states, caucuses reward campaigns that can keep their supporters together over several hours of debate and the very public act of standing up in front of neighbors and friends when casting a vote.

“Organizing in this area looks like building relationships,” DeJear said in an interview. “We’re just trying to bring some of the essentials back to Iowa.”