The Final Iowa Push

Searching for Edwards voters door-to-door.

Searching for undecided caucus voters is not easy. This is the conclusion I came to after skidding through the snowy Iowa suburbs for an afternoon with John Edwards volunteers. There is not a suburb for the undecided. They are scattered across many subdivisions, and you can easily get lost searching for them among the winding roads dotted with modular homes. Once you find the house on the campaign target list, the inhabitants don’t always answer the door. In some cases, that was because they were still on vacation—in the front yard, a plastic crèche scene remained half buried in snow or the newspaper sat frozen and unopened. But sometimes when the door didn’t open—even though a dog barked inside or smoke curled from the chimney—I wondered whether those precious late-deciders weren’t cowering behind the breakfront, determined to guard against yet another solicitation.

For months, Iowa caucus voters have been inundated with mailings, phone calls, and door knocks. In the final days before the Jan. 3 event, they are getting one last heavy dose of personal attention that will last until the moment before votes are tallied. I was a part of this blast 30 miles outside of Des Moines with three United Steel Workers members in their 20s who had driven 11 hours from Arkansas to join the cause. Their union has endorsed Edwards, and all three wore navy blue T-shirts that read “Steelworkers for Edwards.”

The campaigns in both parties are using any bodies they can find to fan out across the state, trying to make one last pitch to those who have not made up their minds or who need “a little bit of extra touch,” as one Edwards staffer put it. If a voter needs a ride, the Edwards campaign will provide one. Clinton’s campaign is shoveling walks, and an Obama voter told me the campaign is providing her with child care so that she can make the 6:30 p.m. caucus start time.

Iowa voters are late deciders. Exit polls from 2004 showed that 21 percent of Iowans made up their minds in the last week, and 21 percent made up their minds in the last three days. That appears to be the case this time, too. In Vinton, one week before the big day, Barack Obama asked the crowd of several hundred how many had yet to choose a candidate. Nearly half the hands went up. When Ron Odlman, in a Minnesota Vikings sweat shirt, opened his door to the Edwards volunteers, he said of Edwards, Obama, and Clinton, “I like all three of them. I guess I’m just waiting for one of them to make a mistake.” (Many people in Iowa spend their Sundays wearing NFL sweat shirts.)

Odlman noticed the union shirts and said his postal-carrier union had also joined Edwards. Campaigns would prefer to have Iowans talk to Iowans, but the union affiliation allowed the volunteers to play on that tie instead. A woman who said, “caucusing isn’t my kind of thing” was nevertheless anxious to point out that her husband had been in the union at the Firestone plant and that her plumber son was in a union, too.

Rhonda Carber held back her barking dog and explained that, “Every time I think I’ve made up my mind, I change it.” For her, the choice was between Clinton and Obama. The Edwards volunteers gave her his policy book. “He was the first out there with detailed plans,” said one of them, Amanda Boulden. The pitch is not supposed to be taxing for the volunteers. They have several handouts in their manila binders. If they find someone who is undecided, they hand out a recent Washington Post editorial about Edwards’ response to the recent troubles in Pakistan and a sheet with polls that show Edwards beating Republicans. For those who haven’t already gone for Edwards’ anti-corporate message, his ability to beat Republicans is probably a bigger selling point.

As we walked down Carber’s driveway, we were greeted by an Obama canvasser we’d seen working other houses. “Do I have a chance?” he asked. “You’re not even in the running,” joked Boulden. “Rhonda?” the young Obama volunteer said pleadingly. “How can I convince you? Give me a chance.” As we drove away, he seemed to be making progress. Carber was still standing on her cold porch in her bare feet to listen.

Canvassers know the names of their quarry because they carry packets of highly specific data. For months, the campaigns have been building and tending their lists of voters, culled from rallies, previous interaction with the Democratic Party, union membership, and other high-tech methods. Over the months, each voter has been assigned a number corresponding to the level of their support. Signs on the wall at the United Steel Workers hall where I started my day listed the assignment codes for the two dozen volunteers dialing at the end of hastily installed phone lines that dangled like IVs from the ceiling. A Level 1 is a lock for the candidate; a 2 represents a supporter who has not signed a card pledging their support; 3L is an undecided voter leaning toward Edwards; 3 is a pure undecided; 4C will caucus for Clinton, not Edwards.

For months these lists, updated all day long after volunteer outreach, have provided campaigns with the best idea of what’s going on at the ground level. After a local event volunteers make calls to targeted voters in the area to see if a candidate’s visit has had an effect on support or to check if a rival has had an impact. After Hillary Clinton’s poor performance in the Democratic debate in Philadelphia in late October, her campaign knew it wasn’t just the press that had panned her. Aides started to see the reaction in her daily phone calls. People who had been 2’s moved to 3’s.

My door-knocking group was hunting 3’s and the 4’s who might be persuaded to make Edwards their second choice in the complex caucus-voting process. Obama’s campaign manager says this category amounts to 25 percent of the more than 130,000 who are expected to caucus. Volunteers are repeatedly warned against echoing the Dean campaign’s mistake in 2004. His volunteers listed people as committed (1’s) who were really on the fence (3’s), giving the organization a false sense of its own strength. After we leave one house where a man said he’ll caucus for Edwards, Boulden cautiously put him down as a 3 on the tally sheet.

The volunteers have two GPS navigators, one that volunteer Michael Martin follows while driving to the next house on the list and a second that Boulden programs for the house after that. In the back seat, a third volunteer stays on his cell phone, trying to reach undecided voters the way his colleagues were back in the union hall.

The big selling item of the day was a ticket to John Cougar Mellencamp’s concert in support of Edwards. If a voter wanted to go, all he or she had to do was come down to the union hall for the big pitch. Of course, for a supporter like Kim Miller, no sell was needed. “I’m caucusing for Edwards,” she said in her fuzzy blue slippers and Green Bay Packers shirt. She said she was about to head out to the union hall to get her concert tickets. Behind Miller, her young son yelled out, “John Edwards rocks.”