Grassroots armies reshape Iowa contest

Joe Bidentook heat for not taking Iowa seriously enough. And Kamala Harris so lacked a presence here Democrats assumed she was skipping the first-in-the-nation caucus state altogether.

That’s all changed.

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As the Iowa State Fair and the Iowa Wing Ding — a marquee Democratic political dinner — get underway this week, both Biden and Harris have upended the landscape by bulking up their field organizations, adding more frequent visits and in Harris’ case, even airing TV ads.

Harris’ campaign, after downplaying her Iowa prospects earlier this year, is now confident enough about her positioning in the state that a senior aide described an Iowa win as “within reach.”

The surge of attention and resources into the state has helped scramble the existing pecking order. Since January, state Democratic insiders have speculated that Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker owned Iowa in terms of organizing, with Warren leading the field in the number of paid staffers on the ground. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, was recognized as a force for his quick reactivation of his 2016 grassroots army.

A Monmouth University poll released Thursday seemed to confirm the movement within the top tier of candidates. In the last Monmouth poll in April, Biden led with 27 percent, followed by Sanders at 16 percent and Harris and Warren tied for third at 7 percent. In the latest Monmouth survey, Biden retained his lead with 28 percent but Warren held second place with 19 percent and Harris was in third place with 11 percent. Sanders occupied fourth place with 9 percent.

The burst of investment in Iowa from Harris and Biden is a reflection of renewed attention to a key question of early voting state strategy: How many tickets will there be out of Iowa?

“Even with a historically large field, I highly doubt a candidate would be able to sustain the needed fundraising and voter support without a top four showing in Iowa,” said Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s campaign manager in 2012. “Democrats are like everyone else; they want to vote for something with a chance to win. If you can’t prove that early, history teaches us that it’s very unlikely a candidate could survive for very long after Iowa.”

As recently as June, Biden was criticized for the infrequency of his Iowa appearances. And after a shaky first debate performance that month, the former vice president’s numbers began to slide, in Iowa and nationally.

Now, however, Biden is in the midst of a four-day tour that comes on the heels of a separate tour by his wife, Jill, last week. He spoke at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday, took questions from reporters afterward and then strolled across the fairgrounds. Later that evening, the former vice president traveled to Des Moines’ south side where he spoke and took questions from Asian and Latino leaders for more than two hours.

His campaign staff is now the biggest in the state, with 75 full-time staffers on the ground, 60 of whom are field organizers. That doesn’t include another 20 unpaid Iowa “fellows,” products of an eight-week training program for organizers. By the end of the week, the campaign will have opened 10 offices in the state with a goal of 12 by summer’s end and a total of 25 by the caucuses on Feb. 3.

The campaign’s growing muscle was evident Thursday at the state fair, where Biden’s team was deployed en masse. When a supporter called out “Way to go Joe!” as Biden passed by her, she was pounced on within moments with a request to sign a caucus card to commit her support.

“We have so many people signing up online, to either volunteer or support Biden, the biggest challenge is the logistics of figuring out how to contact them — tens of thousands, literally,” said Jake Braun, Biden’s Iowa state director.

Harris is likewise committing heavily to Iowa — after first raising doubts about her attentiveness among the local political class. Her campaign initially held off on growing its Iowa team, mostly for budgetary reasons but also to time its build-out to the summer when Iowans traditionally start paying attention to the race in greater numbers.

On Thursday, the California senator kicked-off a five-day bus tour and became the first major candidate to air TV ads in the state — centered on her kitchen table agenda including a middle-class tax cut, “Medicare for All,” and an equal pay for women plan.

She now has nearly 50 full-time paid staffers on the ground and is considering another staff hiring push.

More build-out is no guarantee of success when voters caucus in February. A handful of other candidates are also continuing to grow their local operations, including cash-flush South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Sanders is among those with a formidable on-the-ground staff presence, in addition to 26,000 volunteers across the state.

It is Warren’s organization, however, that draws the most respect. In conversations with more than a dozen veteran Iowa activists and local party leaders, the Massachusetts senator’s campaign is frequently mentioned as having established the deepest presence in the state, in part because it began organizing long before most other campaigns.

“Iowa caucuses, in particular, are a relationship-building operation. An important part of the strategy is getting out to build these relationships,” said Emily Parcell, an Iowa-based senior adviser to Warren.

Parcell said Warren’s team used its head start to cultivate deeper loyalties, holding book clubs, coffees, gardening and running events tied to Warren’s candidacy. By the time caucus night comes, she said, “We want them to be proud of standing in that candidate’s corner. And that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Warren is so disciplined that when Polk County Democratic officials made a recent call to all 2020 campaigns for help in filling 40 stubbornly empty caucus-night volunteer slots, Warren’s campaign stepped up and filled more than half of them in 48 hours.

“They are so organized, they have not just people but extra people in the hardest precincts even for us to organize,” said Polk County Democratic Party Chairman Sean Bagniewski. “All of us want to read the book of how they’re doing what they’re doing after the caucuses. It’s a level of organization like we’ve never seen before.”

Jeff Link, a longtime Iowa Democratic political strategist, is among those who counts himself as impressed by the Warren operation. But he notes there is still plenty of time for other campaigns — like Harris’ or Biden’s — to catch up.

“The State Fair is like half time. We’ve had the first two quarters of the game. We have the third and fourth quarters to play still. If you’re a fan of the NBA, nothing happens until the fourth quarter,” he said. “I wouldn’t be satisfied being ahead at half time.”

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