Senator Barack Obama is on the hunt for Iowans who have never participated in the state’s presidential caucuses, including independent voters under 50 and students who will be 18 by the general election.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is searching for Iowans who have skipped the caucuses in the past and who, because of age, sex or other characteristics, seem likely to support her, starting with independent women over 65 and under 30.
John Edwards is taking a more traditional approach, working through the official list of Democrats who showed up to choose a candidate in 2004, as his campaign tries to ensure that it has the name of every likely voter who might be on his side when Iowans gather in 1,781 precinct caucuses across the state on Thursday night.
The ground war — the laborious, unglamorous process of identifying supporters and making sure they show up to make their preference known when it counts — has always been a critical part of the contest in Iowa. But the turnout effort among Democrats this time around has exploded into the most ambitious and costly in the history of this state’s presidential caucus system, and it puts on display the sharply diverging strategies the candidates are pursuing as they hurtle toward the first real test of the 2008 campaign.
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are trying to expand the tiny universe of caucusgoers, a fundamental shift in the way candidates have approached the Iowa caucuses. Mr. Edwards is focusing mainly on voters who have reliably voted in the past.
Tight race = big efforts
The developments reflect the tightness of the race — another poll Friday found Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama effectively tied — and the dynamics of an unusual contest where so few people vote: about 125,000 in the Democratic caucus of 2004. Aides to the candidates said this contest could be determined by a swing of as few as 1,000 voters.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat who has not endorsed anyone in the race, said in an interview in his office on Friday. “The get-out-the-vote efforts are going to be the best ever.”
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney is also making an intense effort to turn out his supporters to stave off Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who polls suggest has made a late surge that gives him a chance of victory. Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has spent more than a year building a turnout organization that proved its effectiveness at the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames this summer and that he is now counting on to turn back a stiff challenge from Mr. Huckabee, who is relying largely on word-of-mouth and a network of volunteers, his aides said.
Many of the other Republican candidates are making only token efforts here. So most of the on-the-ground organizing is being done by the leading Democrats, and that was becoming increasingly visible as the candidates and their supporters fanned out across the state this weekend.
Mrs. Clinton’s office here is filled with hundreds of new green snow shovels that were being strategically distributed on Saturday to precinct captains to clear the walks of older women who might be particularly wary of going out to the caucuses in bad weather. The campaign has printed doorknob hangers with caucus locations printed in extra-large type, also to accommodate these older first-time caucusers.
“We have had a significant challenge here in that our people are older and mostly new,” said Karen Hicks, a senior campaign adviser for Mrs. Clinton. “But we’ve understood what our challenges were for a long time. This is not a problem you could have dealt with at the last moment.”
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has contracted with a local supermarket chain to deliver platters of sandwiches for pre-caucus parties at caucus sites late Thursday afternoon. The idea is to entice people to arrive early and thus give Clinton aides time to see who has not shown up and get them to the caucus before the doors close at 7 p.m.
This city is teeming with Democratic strategists who are renowned in their party for knowing how to organize the caucuses or use sophisticated computer models and consumer data to find people who might not otherwise vote but could be open to backing particular candidates.
Mrs. Clinton is banking on Teresa Vilmain, who has worked in Iowa presidential caucuses for over 20 years, and Ms. Hicks, a former national field director for the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards have similarly respected operatives running their caucus operation, including David Plouffe and Steve Hildebrand for Mr. Obama. Jennifer O’Malley Dillon is running Mr. Edwards’s Iowa campaign for a second time.
Mrs. Clinton, of New York, and Mr. Obama, of Illinois, are betting that they can use computer-driven research to expand the relatively small pool of caucusgoers. But all the Democrats have built large staffs, with members knocking on doors, making phone calls and keeping detailed records of which Iowans have pledged their support and which might be open to persuasion.
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, in particular, are spending lavishly on door-to-door canvassers, repeated and often elaborate mailings and novelty items to help hook potential supporters. The Clinton campaign has mailed refrigerator magnets marked with the caucus date to the women they have identified as first-time caucusgoers who might determine her fate. Mr. Obama has promised baby-sitting to any parent who needs it caucus night.
“It is definitely the most highly organized caucus of all time,” said Michael Whouley, a veteran Iowa caucus organizer, who is supporting Mrs. Clinton but is one of the few major Democratic strategists who have not come to Iowa for this fight.
As part of their effort to find first-time caucusgoers, the Clinton and the Obama campaigns have brought to Iowa the type of sophisticated voter identification models, using detailed demographic and consumer data, employed by the Republican National Committee beginning in 2002. Starting in the summer, the campaigns used that data to find Iowans who had not caucused before and who might be inclined to support their candidate.
It was that kind of research that led Mrs. Clinton to determine, for example, that women over 65 were inclined to support her, in particular widows or married women, but only those married to a Democrat or independent. Using that model and state election records, they searched for Iowans who had voted in regular elections but had not caucused. Mr. Obama did much the same thing with, for example, independent voters under 50.
They dispatched canvassers to make multiple personal visits to the homes of those people, a decision reflecting the determination by both campaigns that Iowa voters have been so deluged with telephone calls that they could not rely on telephone banks typically used. Because research conducted by her campaign found that many Iowans who supported Mrs. Clinton but had never caucused before found the process intimidating or baffling, her aides showed up at the homes of those voters with DVD’s that explained how the caucuses work.
“It’s always hard to expand the base,” Mr. Culver said. “But if there was ever a year when we could have another 20,000 people turn up, this is it.”
At the Edwards headquarters, Ms. Dillon said she doubted there would be a significant increase in voters. She expressed skepticism that her rivals’ expenditures on mailings, gifts and personal contacts would bear fruit. “Iowa voters are not going to say, ‘Oh my God! I got a bumper sticker. I should caucus!’ ” she said.
The intensity of the effort is fueled by the decisions of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama to decline public campaign financing. They are thus not constrained by the spending ceilings of the campaign finance system that restrict Mr. Edwards, of North Carolina, who is using public money.
'Maniacally' focused on turnout
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, in the first mailing to first-time caucusgoers who pledge to support her, includes porcelain lapel pins identifying them as Clinton supporters. Mrs. Clinton looks for women wearing those pins at her events and praises them for caucusing for the first time.
Mr. Obama is focusing on younger voters, who have brought considerable energy to his campaign but who as a group have not tended to turn out to vote in large numbers in past presidential elections. As supporters walk into a campaign stop for Mr. Obama, separate lines are designated for high school and college students to receive specific instructions for caucus night. After his speech, he holds a brief meeting and photograph session with his young supporters who belong to a program called Barack Stars.
Obama supporters of all ages receive a yellow slip of paper — a “Ticket to Change” — with directions to their caucus site and a telephone hot line (one for each of Iowa’s five area codes) to answer questions.
To expand the universe of caucus participants, the Obama campaign hired Ken Strasma, one of the leading Democratic specialists in finding voters through microtargeting. Maps of Mr. Strasma’s efforts hang throughout the campaign’s state headquarters on Locust Street here, color-coded with shades of prospective pockets of supporters
To find its supporters, the Obama campaign spent months developing models of who their likely supporters would be, focusing particularly on previous caucus voters as well as Iowans who voted in the 2006 governor’s race but had never caucused. Months ago, strategists saw one of the biggest areas of potential supporters to be independent voters under 50, as well as men registered as Democrats.
“What’s the one thing that will determine this election? The campaign that does the best job of turning out the highest percentage of their supporters,” said Mr. Plouffe, the campaign manager for Mr. Obama. “We’re maniacally focused on that.”