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Re: Mellman on the IA Electability Myth

Topics: Iowa

I ran out of time yesterday, but want to amplify one more point from Mark Mellman's column about Iowa Caucus myths. Mellman writes:

Myth 2: Iowa is all about organization. The theory here is simple but misleading: turnout is small, the demands on caucus-goers great and therefore organization is king. In truth, while organization is vitally important, it is not sufficient; message matters as much in Iowa's caucuses as it does in New Hampshire's primary.

Mellman goes on to cite two examples -- Dick Gephardt in 1988 and his client John Kerry in 2004 -- that succeeded largely because of a persuasive message communicated largely though late television advertising campaigns. To that let me add a third, from personal experience: The surprise second place finish by Gary Hart in 1984.

In 1984, as a 20-year-old college student, I spent three glorious weeks in Iowa as the sole full time organizer assigned to rural Grundy County. At that point, as far as we knew, Hart was mired in the single digits in the few Iowa polls available, competing for a second or third place finish against Senators John Glenn, Alan Cranston and former Senator George McGovern. However, things were starting to look up. Hart had been credited with a strong debate performance in late January. More important, the Hart campaign had decided to roll the dice on a late media buy, cutting off all money for field organizing and other expenses.

When I arrived at our Waterloo office, I remember feeling deflated by the lack of funds and the tools necessary for organizing (cirica 1984): cars, phones and campaign literature. The Hart field organization was a lean, mean operation that depended mostly on the enthusiasm of inexperienced young volunteers like me.

My task for the three weeks was essentially to try to contact, by phone, the 700 or so registered Democrats in Grundy County, identify and personally visit those who seemed to be leaning to Hart in an attempt to designate a caucus leader in Grundy's 18 precincts. I also tried to identify those who seemed to be undecided. The "literature" was a photocopied news clipping of Hart's stop in the town of Grundy Center, a one page summary of his farm policy (the glossy phamplets were long gone), both accompanies by a handwritten note stuffed in a hand-addressed envelope. Though I plugged away for 20 days, by caucus night I had identified less than a dozen Hart supporters in the entire county.

The journal I kept records my experiences at the caucus site in Grundy Center, a school cafeteria that would host six precinct caucuses in one room. Four years before, 78 registered Democrats had participated in caucuses in these six precincts, but going into the room, my "hard count" of known Hart supporters stood at just 7. As such, I had good reason to fear not reaching the "viability" level (at least 15% in each precinct) necessary to win delegates to the county convention. But turnout was down that year, and only 50 registered voters showed up. More importantly, another 8 Grundy voters walked in ready to vote for Hart - people I had certainly not identified. We not only easily made viability but picked up additional support on the "second round" of voting and walked away with 11 of 31 county delegates.

I cannot locate the totals for Grundy County for 1984 (if anyone reading this has them, please email me), but my recollection is that Gary Hart received in excess of 30% of the delegates there, nearly double his statewide total and one of his strongest performances in the state.

How did this happen? Hart's performance in Grundy had a lot less to do with my organizational skills than the message delivered by his television advertising and a "free media" story that had Hart the "hot" candidate among the second tier competitors to Mondale. John Glenn, who just weeks before had been the first choice of many rural voters, like those in Grundy County, had received increasingly negative coverage of his sputtering campaign. So in the final weeks, a lot of Glenn's rural supporters simply shifted to Hart. I am sure my own efforts played some role. The mere presence of a field organizer in Grundy, and all of my handwritten notes and personal visits, helped provide first hand reinforcement of the notion that Hart was "hot" and "doing better" - in other words, that he was a viable candidate worthy of support. But the decisive factor in Hart's Iowa surge was message, not organization.

PS: Just yesterday, Carrie Dann of NBC/National Journal interviewed with Gary Hart on his perspective on the 2008 race.

Typos corrected

 

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