DES MOINES, IOWA—Tim Connolly should be scared, maybe even terrified, that Howard Dean is going to lose and lose big. Not because of the much-touted polls that show Dean sinking to a four-way tie in Iowa with the caucuses less than 48 hours away, but because Connolly, the Dean campaign’s Iowa state field director, has seen the campaign’s internal numbers. And using traditional Iowa math, the numbers don’t look good.
“We did an analysis of our ‘ones’ “—the voters the campaign has determined are committed to caucusing for Dean (a “two” is a leaner, and a “three” is undecided), Connolly says. “Sixty-five percent of them have never caucused before, which is an extremely high number and would scare the shit out of most campaigns,” because they’d be worried that the voters wouldn’t show up Monday night. But Connolly’s not scared. “Common sense would say I should be, but I’m not,” he says. “We have the organizational strength to meet that challenge.”
Organization. It’s the mantra of every pundit on television and every campaign on the ground two days before the caucuses. At most of the candidate events I’ve attended since arriving in Iowa Thursday, I had the feeling I was watching a sideshow from the real campaign that was taking place somewhere else: on the streets and in people’s homes. The story of the final days of Dean’s Iowa campaign isn’t his bus trip or his stump speeches. It’s his 3,500 out-of-state volunteers who’ve come from all over the country—and farther, including three expatriates from Tokyo—to canvass the state. Over the course of the campaign’s final three days, they’re knocking on more than 200,000 doors. If Dean wins Monday, Connolly and the campaign will have proved that the Internet’s effect on politics isn’t just about fund-raising or Meetup or blogging. The Internet can win the ground war.
“We did an analysis of every precinct that is walkable, which is not a precise science,” Connolly says. Those walkable precincts make up only about a third of the state’s 1,993 precincts, but they include probably 85 percent to 90 percent of the delegate total. The Dean campaign mapped each one using computer software, and it determined the address of every registered Democrat and independent voter in the precincts. Suitably armed with the map, the addresses, and the right amount of Dean paraphernalia, the volunteers are swarming the state. Even if they don’t convert a single voter, they return with important information—who’s supporting Kerry or Edwards or Gephardt, who’s undecided but going to the caucuses, who likes Dean but needs a babysitter to be able to caucus—that the campaign can use to fine-tune its strategy up to the final hours.
What does this have to do with the Internet? The vast majority of the volunteers who make up this weekend’s “Perfect Storm” for Dean signed up online, transmitting their names, their housing needs, their flight information, and more. “We could not do the Storm without the Internet,” Connolly says. Nor could the campaign have been prepared well enough to have specific jobs ready for each volunteer as he or she arrived. “It’s still just the Stormers knocking on a door. But the back end—they would not be here and effectively employed and utilized were it not for the Internet.”
The Net is the tool that’s enabled the Dean campaign to capitalize on the grass-roots energy created by its candidate. In the past, an insurgent candidate like Dean would generate excitement, but he wouldn’t be able to turn it into an organization. “This happened with Gary Hart,” says Connolly, who worked for Hart’s ‘84 campaign. “You got excited about the guy named Gary Hart, you liked what he was saying, but there was no local office to call, you couldn’t go to a Meetup, etc.”
The Internet excels at just keeping people involved with the campaign. “A volunteer who has nothing to do will become discouraged and no longer volunteer,” Connolly says. “You used to do things. You’d have cases of envelopes, and you’d have people address them. And when they’re done, you’d throw them away.” Or you’d have volunteers enter unnecessary data into computers. Just to keep people involved and interested in the campaign and the candidate. The Dean blog serves the same function, while also serving as a communications medium and a fund-raising tool. The role of the Internet and the blog in the campaign’s ground organization is what Dean’s skeptics haven’t understood, Connolly says. “They think that the Dean campaign is simply a cybercampaign. They don’t realize that each of those people also lives in the analog world.”
Just a couple of hours after I finished talking with Connolly, the Dean campaign was hit with its latest piece of bad news: the latest Des Moines Register poll, which shows Kerry in the lead with 26 percent, followed by Edwards at 23 percent, Dean at 20 percent, Gephardt at 18 percent, and a 4 percent margin of error. Connolly told me he doesn’t “lose any sleep over the Zogby poll or any other poll,” because he knows their strength on the ground.
Of course, every campaign hails its organizational strength. Gephardt spokesman Bill Burton told the Des Moines Register of his candidate’s campaign, “This has been an organizational force in the state that has never been seen before by anybody, Democrats or Republicans.” I asked Connolly what he’d be banking on if he were Gephardt’s field director. Organized labor, the fact that he’s won Iowa before, “and just the general denial that goes on in campaigns,” he said. Monday night, we’ll see who’s in denial.