More on organizing Iowa

A reader with field-organizing experience has some thoughts.

R. Stanton Scott of Foggy Bottom Line writes:

For what it’s worth, I think your analysis of the Iowa caucuses is dead

on. I mostly do IR these days, but I spent a few years doing grassroots

political organizing right after retiring from the Army. I found that

people will act collectively if you make it as easy as possible for

them–or give them some swag (Olson got that part right, at least).

Once supporters are identified (and this is often the hard part, since

people will often voice support out of politeness), it is important to

make the process transparent and then give them the feeling that they

will be letting someone down if they back out (even if it is only a van


I like the tactics you suggest, but I would add two things. First, it

may be a good idea to solicit small contributions (5-10 bucks) during

the “supporter identification” process. This will more accurately

identify them, help defray some costs, and create a committment–people

who have given money to a campaign will probably volunteer in other ways

as well, since they now have a fiscal interest.

Second, I would set up “caucus training classes,” ostensibly designed to

teach citizens about the actual mechanics they will see on caucus

night. As you point out, anything that makes the process understandable

is likely to increase turnout, whether it’s group participation or

practice runs. You will probably not get large crowds at these unless

you can get instructors people know–such as local politicians who

support your candidate–but those who do show up will be committed.

This is where you get, and train, your van drivers, too.

The core point you are trying to make, if I read you correctly, is that

grassroots organization is all about money. There are probably 60-70K

voters–perhaps many more–in Iowa with enough enthusiasm for Obama to

show up at the caucuses and vote for him. Identifying them and getting

them to the meetings is the hard part, and money makes it easier–young

people will, for instance, quit menial jobs for even temporary work like

this, especially if care is taken to suggest to them that success might

lead to later work for the campaign. And I was always astounded at the

power of the free logo coffee mug.

I especially like the idea of using the donor list as a base for recruiting caucus-goers. That suggests a heavy investment now in low-dollar Iowa fundraising.

Just to be clear about the whole idea (discussed earlier here and here: I’m not claiming that anyone can win Iowa by spending money on field organization. I’m claiming that a candidate with the “star power” or an issue that creates a base of enthusiastic supporters can, with the sort of field organization current fund-raising levels will support, overcome the insider-friendly caucus system and win Iowa even without the support of the local notables and the unions.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: