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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ground Beef

We’ve arrived at an interesting stage in the Democratic presidential contest. The chattering classes have all pretty much come to agreement that (1) it’s All About Iowa, (2) Iowa’s too close to call, and (3) in a close race, field organization totally rules. So naturally, there’s a huge appetite for insight into the Real Story, i.e., Iowa field operations, or “the ground game.”
Efforts to feed this beast are popping up all over the MSM, with mixed results.
The most overt “peek inside” piece is by Jay Newton-Small for Time, entitled “Inside Obama’s Iowa Ground Game.”
Newton-Small focuses on anecdotal information from mid-level Obama staffers and volunteers, not the high command, and his basic question is whether Obama is another Jimmy Carter or Howard Dean in terms of mobilizing new Caucus-goers. Carter basically put the Iowa Caucuses on the national political map with a big 1976 showing. Dean proved you could finish third with a head start in the polls, all the money and endorsements imaginable, and hordes of hyper-energized volunteers.
The reporter doesn’t really answer his own question, but instead lets Obama’s folk make the case that he’s doing outreach right, with particular emphasis not only on college students, but on indies and Republicans, and on supporters of lower-tier candidates whose second-round support on Caucus Night could be crucial. Without third-party verification, who knows how intensive or effective Obama’s field organization really is?
If Newton-Small’s piece illustrates the shortcomings of microanalysis of the Iowa “ground game,” the perils of macroanalysis are on display in a big Washington Post article on Clinton’s Iowa campaign by Anne Kornblut. A quick read of the piece conveys the impression that Clinton’s campaign is in panic mode, and is just now coming to grips with the harsh realities of Caucus politics. But in her effort to provide a big-picture look at the challenges facing HRC’s campaign, Kornblut telescopes many months of developments.
The Clinton campaign’s “crisis summit” over Iowa that leads the piece occurred back in October, light years ago in campaign terms. Moreover, the employment of battle-tested Iowa pros by HRC began last spring, when she picked up Tom Vilsack’s endorsement and placed her Iowa organization under the consummate field pro, Teresa Vilmain. And the internal struggle over Iowa that’s the subtext of the entire piece was about candidate time in Iowa and the need for additional field personnel, not the Iowa organization’s Caucus savvy. By all accounts, these internal issues have been resolved, so it’s not clear how germane they are to the current environment, unless you think Clinton could have crushed all opposition with an earlier start (hard to believe, since no one could beat John Edwards’ head start in Iowa).
I don’t mean to sound too critical here; there are real insights to be gleaned from both Newton-Small’s and Kornblut’s essays. And we’d all like to get a glimpse behind the veil of the Iowa campaigns.
But here’s the real problem: all of the Big Three have highly competent Iowa managers, excellent field operations, and all the money they need for the home stretch. One may prove to be better than others, but it’s a probably a matter of degree, and if one campaign is doing something really revolutionary, they’re probably not going to tell us about it. Perhaps in the end, Obama’s outreach and microtargeting program; the HRC/Emily’s List effort to radically boost turnout by women; or Edwards’ focus on rural precincts, will make a crucial difference. Maybe there will be a last-minute tactical agreement between candidates for second-choice support. And yes, the weather could matter a lot. But nobody knows right now, best I can tell from a sounding of my own contacts among political reporters and Iowa veterans.
We may just have to wait until Caucus Night to discover the real Ground Game story in Iowa.

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