In just 30 minutes on one night, five presidential campaigns call Karen Armstrong.
Each day she scoops a handful of campaign postcards from her mailbox. Emails don’t stop, she says.
Eight days before the first 2016 ballots are cast, Armstrong is the most important target in the political universe — an undecided Iowa voter. Right now, scores of political operatives and candidates are wrangling in a frantic effort to get her to a caucus Feb. 1.
This final run to the caucuses could be even wilder than in past years.
Republican and Democratic races remain competitive. What’s more, both parties could break dramatically from their old guard.
“The last week in Iowa is like nothing else in presidential elections,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University.
It’s fiendishly hard to find the precise mix of message and motivation that will reach Armstrong — and thousands of other Iowans — in the closing hours of the campaign before the caucuses convene on that Monday night.
Speeches matter, but so do endorsements, TV ads and half-minute radio spots. Tweets and Facebook posts. Polls. Pundits.
Calls from campaigns.
“I don’t always answer the phone, but I do listen to the messages later,” said Armstrong, a Republican businesswoman who takes her caucus vote quite seriously. “I really want to get this right.”
While they’re reaching out to voters, candidates must also motivate their volunteers for the exhausting final push. Call more friends. Knock on the doors of more strangers.
And they must respond to a lightning-quick news cycle, where Web headlines change by the minute.
Is it going to snow? That can change the outcome too.
“It takes a lot of command, focus and balance,” said Bill Lacy, who helped Bob Dole win the 1988 Iowa Republican caucus.
Some candidates will make the right decisions, catch the right breaks and live to campaign another day. Some will drop out of the race once Iowa is over.
One candidate will be the next president of the United States.
At Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Des Moines headquarters on a chilly evening, volunteer Federico Chavez sits in a large room furnished in what’s best described as ancient college fraternity house — old sofas, scattered papers and coffee cups, hand-drawn signs.
Chavez is the nephew of legendary labor organizer Cesar Chavez. He flew here from California to help Sanders’ candidacy.
“I’m trying to do as much as I can with the Latino community,” he said, including phone calls and coordination of bilingual outreach.
It’s a 12-hours a day, seven-days-a-week effort.
“I was calling up to 90 people a night,” he said.
Across town, volunteers for Hillary Clinton occupy a strip mall office that Barack Obama’s campaign used in 2012. Local volunteers and young staffers from out of town use campaign flip phones to reach out to prospective supporters.
“Do you need a ride or anything? … Because I just live down the street. … So you’re just not politically active?”
Shelley Velman reaches out to Democrats in her precinct. Some are eager. Some too busy. Some with whom she shares how the Children’s Health Insurance Program, launched with help from then-first lady Hillary Clinton, changed her life.
Each call reveals more data: Who’s coming to see the candidate. Who’s leaning in support, but isn’t quite there. Who’s going to be out of town on caucus night.
The work in these two offices, and others like them scattered across Iowa, is enormously important to campaigns — more so than in any other electoral contest in the nation. Campaigns must identify supporters, then work relentlessly to get them to turn out — for evening caucuses that can last hours.
“It’s tougher to go to a caucus,” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford, who has studied the system for two decades. “You’ve got hope there’s no blizzard. Nobody’s sick.”
At virtually every campaign appearance, volunteers solicit names, postal and email addresses, and phone numbers at the door. Campaigns catalog and cross-reference the data in hopes of rallying and directing voters to the right caucus.
Sen. Ted Cruz is thought to have the most extensive volunteer organization among Republican front-runners in Iowa. He’ll get an added boost from the state’s conservative religious community, which broadly backs his candidacy.
Turnout by evangelicals is predictable and critical in Iowa. But Cruz’s effort is also aided by the campaign’s deep reliance on data and polling.
Donald Trump, who was slightly ahead of Cruz in Iowa in the latest poll, looks less focused on the get-out-the-vote game. He hopes his outsized personality can convince voters to turn out.
Still, he uses every speech here to urge supporters to go to the Republican caucuses.
“You have to get out and caucus or we've wasted a tremendous amount of time,” he said Saturday in Pella.
Like most candidates, Trump relies on 21st-century technology to locate voters. People attending his rallies obtain tickets online. Those ticket requests yield phone numbers — which leads to a phone call from a New York-based volunteer, often the next day.
Republicans with less money or popularity — Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Rand Paul, others — will turn to a smaller ground operation, hoping enthusiasm can overcome a lack of money and people.
On the Democratic side, Clinton appears better organized on the ground than Sanders, largely because of her experience here. (She lost to Barack Obama in 2008 after he outflanked her on the new digital battlefield.) At a rally near Des Moines last week, the pre-speech pop tunes paused.
“Everybody, please get out your cellphones,” an announcer said, using a line unheard of 20 years ago. “I’ll give you a minute.” He then asked the audience to text “caucus” to a number that will provide them updates and reminders to caucus, as well as locations.
Sanders will rely on an army of largely student volunteers in the final week. He’s popular in precincts near college campuses, but he needs to extend his turnout into rural and blue-collar precincts.
On any night in Des Moines, political advertising clogs the airwaves. There are ads for Sen. Marco Rubio and Cruz, for Sanders and Clinton, for Trump, for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, for Paul.
The Guardian newspaper estimated candidates and political action committees have already spent $6.5 million for TV ads just in the Des Moines market. That’s about 10,000 political commercials.
But the number may not account for all TV ad spending planned for the final week, when prices for ads escalate dramatically.
Some candidates use television as a substitute for campaigning in the state.
Bush has not campaigned extensively here, but ads from the political action committee backing him make it seem is if he’s ubiquitous. Gov. Chris Christie is spending time in New Hampshire, but he has bought Iowa commercial time.
At the same time, signs appeared late last week that candidates were adjusting ad spending plans, based on polling reality. Rubio, for example, was said to be scaling back his buy, turning his attention to other states.
The effect of all the TV ads remains in dispute, however.
“Television ads mean less here than in a typical campaign,” said Aaron Trost, Iowa campaign director for Huckabee, “because the voters in Iowa are very much used to going to events and seeing the candidates.”
Meanwhile, The Des Moines Register endorsed Clinton and Rubio in its Sunday edition.
Events and rallies
Rick Young of Jewell stood in line at the Donald Trump-Sarah Palin event in Ames.
“I’ve seen a lot of the other candidates,” he told a reporter. “I’m down to two.”
Politically involved Iowans say that a lot. They take the caucuses seriously, often attending multiple speeches and rallies — and they make their choices late, often in the final week.
Campaigns stand keenly aware of the chance of major shifts in the final hours before the caucuses. That’s why most plan major in-person events in Iowa, starting Monday.
“Candidates know caucusgoers often reward the most energetic and committed candidates to the Iowa process,” Beatty said. “They ramp up their energy levels and campaigning in the last week to frenzied levels.”
Cruz will travel the state throughout the next week. Trump is coming back. Sanders and Democratic hopeful Martin O’Malley will stump Monday.
Clinton will not only campaign in Iowa, she’s sending surrogates — former president Bill Clinton, movie star Jamie Lee Curtis, even tennis great Billie Jean King.
At the same time, the calendar remains in flux. Candidates go where staffers think their support is weak, knowing a personal appearance in the last hours can prompt a handful of caucusgoers to shift their views.
They’ll also head to media markets, hoping appearances on local news can extend the message. Free media can make a critical difference in the campaign’s last week.
Some candidates will reach the opposite conclusion. They’ll abandon Iowa in the final week, content to campaign in New Hampshire — or contemplate dropping out altogether. Those decisions come after brutal self-scrutiny of poll numbers, perceived enthusiasm, cost and other factors. Pulling out can also lower expectations and reduce the painful cost of falling short of them.
In 1988, then vice president George H.W. Bush abruptly left Iowa when it became clear he could not win. He finished third, behind Dole and TV preacher Pat Robertson.
But he beat Dole in New Hampshire, and Bush eventually became president.
So campaigns must also assess their actual chances in the final week and adjust spending and appearances accordingly. Third place would be a victory for Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, but a disaster for Cruz.
The Iowa landscape still boils down partly to whether a candidate’s message resonates with the civically dutiful — the person, rare even in leadoff Iowa, who bothers to caucus.
Stop at a campaign event anywhere in the state and you’ll find the window shoppers like Karen Armstrong. She’s made a point to see six or seven candidates in person this season. After listening to Carly Fiorina talk at a weekday gathering, she was still unsure.
Likewise, retired state revenue worker Jim McNulty of Norwalk caucused for John Edwards in 2008 and switched to the Republican side in 2012 to vote for John Huntsman. Now he’s vacillating between Clinton and Sanders. He’s seen both speak in person and found himself largely in agreement with both.
He’s looking for a Democrat who will get things done.
“I want someone who can get things through Congress, can get along with the Republicans and get over the gridlock,” McNulty said before Clinton spoke at Simpson College in Indianola on Thursday.
He worried about “Clinton fatigue” and whether her presidency would just keep the country split.
He added: “I’m not sure if Bernie would be more electable or not. It’s hard.”
When Clinton took the stage, it was as if the campaign knew about McNulty’s misgivings. She talked about her past political successes and suggested Sanders’ track record of accomplishment had little to show.
“ ‘In theory’ isn’t enough,” Clinton said. “A president has to deliver in reality.”
After the speech, McNulty said her pragmatic pitch “definitely resonated” with him.
Still, time remains for tweeting, knocking on doors, running radio commercials and, perhaps, some luck in the last moments before the first vote.
“The motto in Iowa is ‘organize, organize, organize,’ ” Goldford said.
“Then get hot at the end.”