Organizing Iowa

Looks as if the job could be done for $6 million. Cheap, by today’s standards.

Given the amount of money sloshing around the primaries, can a candidate such as Obama win despite not picking up endorsements from local notables by using a combination of charisma to excite the voters and paid field organizers to get them to the caucus locations?

The arithmetic seems workable. Last time around, 125,000 Democrats turned out for the Iowa caucuses; that matched the previous high, from 1988. So a candidate who turns out 100,000 of his own supporters is going to blow the field away.

Say a field organizer can be hired for $750/week. Starting with precinct-level lists of supporters, an organizer hired for the last two weeks before the caucuses ought to be able to round up 50 attendees. So 2,000 organizers ought to be able to turn out those 100,000 voters. That assumes, of course, a candidate who generates enthusiastic rather than tepid support.

Let’s say a field organizer has to be paid $750/week, which might be on the high side. Then 2000 organizers for two weeks would cost $3 million. Double that to include supervisors and supervisors-of-supervisors (say, 100 supervisors managed by ten senior supervisors; presumably these folks would have to be paid better and hired for longer periods), 10,000 vans and drivers for the actual night of the caucuses, and office space. So it looks to me as if the whole thing could be done for $6 million. At the fund-raising levels now being established, that’s chump change.

Of course, more than one candidate could try to play that game, in which case 100,000 caucus votes might not be enough. But in any case the rather closed and cozy caucus campaign style of the past, where endorsements from state legislators and public-employee unions were all-important, may be obsolete.

Update Kevin Drum doesn’t believe it. And neither do several email correspondents, who know the Iowa process better than I do. One pointed out that in the tight Iowa labor market it’s hard to hire 2000 people for two-week stints at relatively low wages. Another remarked that out-of-state canvassers with nose rings aren’t really likely to persuade Iowans.

Kevin says:

And as Howard Dean discovered in Iowa last year, there’s a limit to what money and sheer numbers of ground troops can do. Ringing someone’s doorbell five times just isn’t going to do any good if you haven’t been able to make the sale after ringing it twice.

All of that may be right. But let me be clear on what I was trying to say. The job of my imaginary organizers wasn’t to “make the sale.” I’m assuming that the Obama campaign will, using rallies and the internet, have already “made the sale” to many more voters than he actually needs to win. I was imagining the organizers as overcoming inertia and helping turn out those already-committed voters. The Iowa process is designed to de-mobilize ordinary citizens in order to empower the party and union insiders. The question is whether there’s a way to spend money to reverse that.

My proposition is that, if you call an already-sold Obama voter two weeks before caucus night and say,

Can we count on you to turn out? Yes? Great! Where would you like to be picked up? The van can be there at 5:15

and get a cell phone number, and follow up with two calls and two emails in the meantime, and the van shows up on time, that person (1) will feel committed to going to the caucus (2) won’t have to worry about finding it (3) won’t forget and (4) can go over caucus tactics during the ride, and will therefore, with high probability, show up and act in concert with the other Obama folks at the same caucus. Just knowing that you’re going with a group of people and won’t feel like an idiot when you show up and have no idea what to do next ought to make a big difference.

Doing that would cost money. It wouldn’t necessarily all have to be spent in-state; personal visits are better than phone calls for persuasion, but everything above except actually driving the van (including arranging for volunteers to drive the vans, or their own cars) could be done from Chicago, or for that matter from Los Angeles. (Note also that Obama has a strong following in downstate Illinois, which is culturally close to parts of Iowa, so he can probably recruit non-Iowans who don’t look too exotic to Iowa voters.)

As far as I know, this sort of thing hasn’t been done before. Dean had a gazillion supporters identified, but they mostly didn’t show up. (One rude right-winger said that Dean’s problem was that his voters wouldn’t put their bongs down long enough to go to the caucuses, which was unfair and exaggerated but which made the point.)

There’s a huge assumption here: that Obama will, by a couple of weeks before the caucuses, have enough Iowans sufficiently committed to his cause that they will agree to show up when the organizer calls or emails. But that seems like a reasonable assumption. He doesn’t just have supporters; he has fans. The problem is just to manage the logistics of hundreds of fan-club meetings.

Kevin says that the candidates won’t want to spend huge amounts of money in Iowa; I think they will, if they can see a way of spending it that actually has an impact. It’s quite possible that the major candidates will all have raised enough money by the first of the year so that they don’t really have good uses for all of it. The value of being first rather than second in Iowa is likely to be much greater than the value of spending the equivalent amount of money on TV ads in California.

Again, I’m not convinced this would work, and it’s been a long time since I’ve done campaign fieldwork, a task at which I was supremely lousy. But I think it might work, and if it did the old calculations about how to win Iowa will have become obsolete.

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: