Iowa caucuses will test a year of organizing

INDIANOLA, Iowa — Daniel Hyer drove eleven hours from Columbus, Ohio, to support Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Poll: Trump, Biden in dead heat in 2020 matchup Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on MORE (I-Vt.). In the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses Monday, he and the six friends sharing his Airbnb in this small college town will knock on doors, call voters and sit through a training that will teach them how to corral Sanders supporters at a precinct in the area.

For all the millions of dollars spent on television advertisements and mail pieces, survey research and office space, it is volunteers like Hyer, and the organizations they represent, who can make the difference between a strong performance that propels a candidate forward into subsequent primaries and a weak showing that dooms a candidate to the footnotes of history. 

“We know how important it is,” Hyer said.

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The leading Democratic campaigns have spent a year building robust armies of volunteers across Iowa, volunteers they will deploy to caucus sites with instructions to build and hold coalitions of supporters in each of the state’s 1,700 precincts. Those volunteers are armed with talking points meant to persuade supporters of other candidates who might not meet viability thresholds to switch allegiances after the initial round of voting takes place.

“The caucus is all about organizing, and we’ve taken organizing very seriously, I think more seriously than any other candidate in the state,” said Misty Rebik, Sanders’s Iowa campaign director.

Sanders’s campaign will have at least one precinct captain at every caucus site. At locations where big crowds are expected, they plan multiple leaders, Rebik told The Hill. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE’s campaign has trained about 5,500 precinct leaders in Iowa, a spokesman said. 

Other campaigns declined to detail their organizing plans ahead of Monday’s caucuses. But in such a tight race, as polls show four and possibly five candidates with a chance to win the first delegates in the march to the Democratic presidential nomination, the quality of the teams they have built will matter on a cold weeknight, when voters have to stand for hours among friends and neighbors, publicly declaring — in some cases several times — which candidates they support. 

“If you don’t have people on the ground that know Iowa, then you’re at a disadvantage,” said Rob Sand, Iowa’s Democratic state auditor. “You could literally lose people because you don’t have a precinct captain.”

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Caucus calculus is confusing enough on its face. Candidates must receive 15 percent of the vote in an initial alignment in order to stay viable. Supporters of those who do not reach the viability threshold are then free to migrate to a viable candidate’s team. Speeches ensue, arms are twisted, friendships tested, and hours can tick by.

“Organization is so important because people you respect, their neighbors, are able to convince [voters] and then it’s really important to get them out to the caucus and then to organize them at the caucus, to try and get the maximum delegates,” said Tom Miller, Iowa’s Democratic attorney general, who backs former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Poll: Trump, Biden in dead heat in 2020 matchup Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE.

A strong and dedicated volunteer base is likely to matter even more this year, with so many candidates hovering just above or below the viability threshold. A huge percentage of Iowa Democratic voters have held off on deciding who they will support, conscious both of the wide array of options before them and the pressure they feel to choose a candidate who can beat President TrumpDonald John TrumpWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Coronavirus hits defense contractor jobs Wake up America, your country doesn't value your life MORE in November.

“Iowans have really had ample opportunity, and they’ve seized it, to meet a lot of the candidates, a lot of them multiple times,” said John Norris, a former state Democratic Party chairman who is backing Warren. “The angst over the decision and electability is just crazy.” 

In some cases, campaigns make mutually beneficial deals to cooperate or align on caucus night. If one candidate does not reach the 15 percent threshold required to win a delegate in a given precinct, his or her precinct captain will encourage supporters to migrate en masse to another candidate’s team. 

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In 2008, supporters of then-Sens. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCivil rights leader Joseph Lowery dies at 98 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - House to pass relief bill; Trump moves to get US back to work Obama thanks Fauci, Stephen Curry during Instagram Live session MORE and John Edwards crafted an alliance to help deny delegates to the national front-runner, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Hillary Clinton on US leading in coronavirus cases: Trump 'did promise "America First"' Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines MORE

Charlie Jordan, who will captain a precinct for Biden in Des Moines, said Thursday she had already received her marching orders. She said Biden’s coalition would be a natural home for supporters of Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Democratic Senators urge FTC to prevent coronavirus price gouging MORE (D-Minn.), who is hovering just under the viability threshold in most public polling. 

“You look at the weak ones,” Jordan said, a hint of mischief in her eye. “Her supporters would be fantastic for us, but I really think she’s going to have a fantastic turnout.”