The Dean for America headquarters in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was hardly the posh setup you might expect of the Democratic Party’s presidential front-runner, the five-time former Vermont governor who, thanks to small Internet donations from a devoted supporter base, has managed to out-fund-raise all seven of his competitors.
It was, for one thing, in a bingo parlor.
It also seemed to be staffed solely by guys under the age of 25 named Matt, whose housekeeping skills were such that the entire office appeared to have at one point been turned upside down, shaken, and then set back down again.
This did nothing to allay the enthusiasm of the small horde of UC Berkeley students and other young Bay Area Howard Dean supporters who materialized there one day at the end of December, clutching suitcases, digital cameras, and random articles of snow gear. They were the first squall in the Perfect Storm, the Dean campaign’s code name for its effort to win the Iowa caucuses, and Council Bluffs would be their home base for the next nine days. The concept was simple: Import thousands of out-of-state volunteers and have them troop door-to-door through every last precinct, hammering the get-out-the-vote message and spreading the Gospel of Dean. Walking precincts is hardly revolutionary — as hosts to the nation’s first primary contest, Iowans must tolerate a quadrennial deluge of phone calls and solicitous front porch visits from strangers wanting to know about their vaguest political leanings. And Dean, of course, wasn’t the only one with an army of canvassers — for example, Rep. Richard Gephardt, Dean’s early rival in Iowa and the winner of the 1988 caucuses, had a formidable union-based canvassing operation here.
But what distinguished the Dean campaign this year was the sheer scope of its endeavor. Calling its operation the Perfect Storm after the meteorological phenomenon in which several smaller fronts coalesce into a furious tempest, the campaign’s plan was to bring in an increasing number of volunteers every weekend between Christmas and the January 19 caucuses. Ultimately, they hoped, an army of 3,500 volunteers would knock on 200,000 doors and phone more than 50,000 households. Not only would they call on likely Dean supporters, but any voter registered Democrat, Independent, or decline-to-state. That’s in addition to thousands of handwritten letters the campaign convinced supporters across the country to send to Iowa voters, describing the writer’s personal reasons for backing Dean. Every first Wednesday of the month, at localized Dean get-togethers known as Meetups, the candidate’s backers cranked out more such notes, giving a corresponding nudge to their man’s Iowa poll numbers.
Perhaps it was simply coincidence that the first group of volunteers — call it Storm #1 — was made up largely of Cal students and members of Berkeley’s Meetup group. But more likely it had something to do with the persuasive powers of Cal sophomore Adam Borelli, founder of Berkeley Students for Howard Dean. Adam is soft-spoken and modest, but maintains an air about him that promises, “One day, you will be knocking on doors for my campaign.” It was Adam who spent a good deal of last autumn convincing fellow students they should fly to Iowa on their own dimes and spend their winter breaks hassling strangers in a cold, cold place, with no guarantees of success. “I’m not going to lie; it’s going to be hard work,” Adam had told them.
The job of the volunteers was to get as many Iowans to caucus for Dean as possible. The caucuses, unlike most states’ primaries, are a very public display. The voters show up at a high-school gym or community hall in their precinct, where each corner of the room has been marked for a different candidate. The voters indicate their choice by raising a hand or literally standing in their candidate’s corner, and are allowed to argue and cajole others into joining them. At the end of the evening, a head count is taken, and the percentage of the crowd for each candidate determines how many of the precinct’s delegates will represent that candidate. It’s such a time-intensive process that only a fraction of registered voters show up, and, since Dean’s support is so heavily invested in new voters — the young or the previously apolitical — the campaign deemed it critical that volunteers convince these people to turn out. A popular poster of Dean somewhat awkwardly holding an electric guitar made this point to the youth of Iowa: Rock Us to the Caucus.
And so, convinced they would play a crucial role at a critical time for Howard Dean — and also, perhaps, by their desire to attend what was expected to be a raging Dean campaign New Year’s Eve party in Des Moines — the East Bay kids signed on for Storm #1. Some of them had experience working on state and local campaigns; others were totally new to politics, drawn to Dean after getting involved in last year’s antiwar protests.
In addition to Adam, the Cal contingent included students Tom De Simone, Amanda Pedvin, Noreen Byrne, Ari Sugar, Eli Davidson, Mike Eidelson, and Mike’s younger brother Joel, a high-school senior. Also from the Bay Area came Stanford student Gina Bateson, Cal alum David Weinreich — who works in the Assembly Speaker’s office in Sacramento — Albany software engineer Jordan Brinkman, and even one volunteer named Matt, Mountain View engineer Matt Ettus. None was older than 26. And although they came to Iowa to help the campaign, they also wanted to meet Howard Dean, shake his hand, and pelt him with questions. A few wanted hugs.
Dean was out there, his campaign staffers promised, somewhere in Iowa, covering as much ground as possible. Maybe our paths would cross, they hinted. The campaign was an unpredictable point in a complicated seven-candidate race — Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark were sitting it out — and the future looked as wide open as the Iowa horizon, upon which, the TV weathermen promised, a massive storm was brewing.
Day 1, December 27
Late afternoon. We arrive in Council Bluffs not long before the sun sets behind local landmarks, including the barn-shaped Brewski’s Drive-Thru Liquor. Although the volunteers are tired from their flight to a place none of them has ever visited, the mission begins almost immediately. The various Matts on Dean’s campaign staff dispense eyestrain-inducing fluorescent orange ski caps embroidered with the Perfect Storm logo, volunteer badges, flashlights, maps, cellphones, lists of voter addresses called “walk sheets,” and the only training the volunteers will get.
The rules of engagement:
1. Tell people you’ve come all the way from California to support Howard Dean, and try to engage them in positive conversation about the candidate.
2. If they’re for Dean, urge them to caucus for him.
3. If they’re undecided, load them up with Dean leaflets.
4. Once you’ve left the doorway, rank them on a scale of one to five (a one is someone who will caucus for Dean; a five is solidly in enemy camp).
5. Hustle. Hit as many houses as possible.
We load up into a series of red, white, and blue rented Dodge vans and head for Glenwood, a small nearby suburb. By the time we arrive, it’s completely dark and the temperature has nosedived from merely cold to bone-chilling. The group splits into pairs and divides the walk sheets. “Let’s do it for Dean!” someone yells, and everyone breaks.
I tag along behind Adam, who has been paired with Barry and Joab Cochran, a father and son team from Texas — the only non-Californians in Storm #1. They arrived yesterday, which makes them seasoned precinct walkers. Their advice: Forget using “I came from Texas to tell you how to vote” as an opening line. Adam wisely concludes that “I came from California to tell you who to recall” is probably a nonstarter, too.
The evening starts out hopefully. At the very first house, an elderly man with a huge collection of porch wind chimes takes the time for a pleasant chat and announces he’s leaning toward Dean. The canvassers exuberantly mark him down as a two, and set off in a good mood.
It’s all downhill from there. The second set of homeowners say they already have more campaign literature than they can read, and moreover, we’re interrupting Christmas dinner — it’s technically two days after Christmas, but whatever. Third house: nobody home. The folks at the fourth say we’ve got the wrong address, and are so shifty about it that we’re pretty sure they are lying. The fifth house is vacant, with a “for sale” sign. At the sixth, the guy says he can’t vote. We back away slowly, thinking he may be a convicted felon. The next homeowner tells us grumpily that she’s long been divorced from the guy on our list. At the eighth house, a man tells us point-blank: “I don’t like Howard Dean’s personality. I don’t think he has one. I don’t want him in charge.”
And on and on. We learn the hidden dangers of canvassing at night: tree branches that leap out from nowhere to gouge eyes, sidewalks that abruptly dissolve into muddy embankments, disapproving stares from Iowans who can’t figure out why strangers are patrolling their streets late at night in freezing weather.
But there’s one happy ending to the first night out. Eli and Ari have reeled in Storm #1’s first undecided voter, a former Bush supporter who, after going through three jobs in a year, is unemployed and soured on the GOP. “We chilled with him in his house,” Eli reports. The pair answered the man’s questions about Dean’s position on health care and Iraq, visited his mother at the nursing home next door, and eventually got his promise of support. “He essentially was a Dean supporter; he just didn’t know it,” Eli says.
As we drive toward our sleeping quarters for the next week — a Girl Scout camp that’s technically in Nebraska — the volunteers decide they’re getting the hang of it. Everything, they figure, will be much easier by day.
Day 2, December 28
It isn’t. Our destination is Missouri Valley City, but by day’s end, it’s been redubbed “Misery Valley.” Never a bustling metropolis, this town is completely empty on a Sunday; the Dairy Queen is boarded up and the small-time punks hanging out in front of the movie theater hardly blink when we troop by. It’s mind-numbingly cold, with a sky as gray as John Kerry’s hair.
Never mind: Everyone is feeling optimistic, since along the way we’ve picked up a Channel 7 News crew. They’ll be airing a spot tonight on the Californians who’ve come to stump for Dean. The group splits up, Adam and Noreen taking the camera crew and Tom and Amanda taking me. “At least this town has sidewalks,” Amanda comments brightly. But the day’s theme quickly emerges: Nobody’s home, and when they are, it might’ve been better if they hadn’t been.
At one house, Tom’s knock is greeted by dogs the size of buffalo, which throw themselves at the door. When an angry-looking man in a flannel shirt finally answers, he takes one look at Tom’s Dean poster and yells: “Oh, God! Gun grabber!” and closes the door in our faces. “But Howard Dean has a 100 percent rating from the NRA,” Tom retorts as we beat a hasty retreat.
We start down a long driveway toward a white farmhouse in the distance. Before we’ve gotten more than a few yards, a skinny guy in a trucker’s hat emerges. “I’m not buying anything, so you might as well turn around,” he yells with such ferocity that nobody bothers to argue.
Even when friendly people are home, nobody has any luck persuading them to caucus. The seniors complain that the weather’s too cold, and many of the women say they’ll be following their husbands’ leads. At one such house — where the colors of the USA, Iowa, Operation Desert Storm, POW/MIA, and the Marines fly from a neat line of flagpoles in the front yard — Amanda finally has had enough. “Haven’t you read Simone de Beauvoir?” she mutters, walking away.
After four frigid hours, the group reconvenes at the vans to swap stories. Nobody had much luck, although the pair with the news crew says people would at least appear interested for the camera’s sake. Still, at one point they stooped to canvassing a snowman. “It was a little depressing,” Eli admits of his own rounds. “Not only were there not many Dean supporters, but there weren’t many Democrats, or if they were registered Democrats, they were really Republicans. A lot of doors slammed in the face.”
Noreen reports that one woman answered the door without any pants, asked the canvassers to wait a minute, retreated into the house, and then re-emerged a few minutes later still not wearing pants. “I was like, ‘Would you like a flyer?'” Noreen says. “Then I turned around and ran away.”
Barry, Joab, and Gina, who’ve been walking the nineteenth precinct, have encountered not only the underwear-clad, but people who swore at them, and stoners who answered the door with joints in hand. “The nineteenth? That’s the Viper Pit of Angst,” one of the Matts tells us knowingly. “Do you realize one of the houses we went to was surrounded by cops?” Barry asks incredulously. “We just walked by it. I wrote it down on the walk sheet: ‘House surrounded by cops.'”
It is a dog-tired group that heads back to the Girl Scout camp that night, its enthusiasm for face-to-face politicking somewhat eroded. “All of our hard work today, all of our talking to people, all of our dropping literature isn’t even going to make nearly the impact of those few seconds of video that the local television station caught of us,” Tom sighs.
Days 3 and 4, December 29 and 30
Walk. Drive. Walk. The days are resolving into a steady rhythm. The volunteers campaign from noon to eight p.m. without breaking for meals. Although the vans are stocked with bottled water, miniature candy bars, chips, and granola bars, the kids often are hungry. There’s rumbling that a campaign for a candidate who is, after all, a medical doctor, might pay more attention to nutrition, and a dark conspiracy is afloat that the Dean campaign is subtly trying to win votes in Cedar Rapids, which reportedly has a big oat processing plant, by ratcheting up granola consumption.
Because of the grueling schedule, people have learned to hoard food. When a bowl of fruit appears at the Girl Scout camp breakfast table, its contents are spirited away to re-emerge hours later from people’s ski jacket pockets. Tom, in fact, has developed some Rules of the Road. “When you can eat, eat a lot. When you can shower, shower. When you can sleep, sleep a lot,” he says. “Because you never know when you’re going to have the opportunity to do those things again.”
As we roll from city to city, Adam is putting in serious time on his cell phone, trying to grease the wheels with Des Moines to get us into the campaign’s New Year’s Eve party. Everyone cheers whenever he gets done making a call; it’s rumored that Dean himself may be there, and besides, the volunteers are looking forward to a break.
The days, after all, don’t simply end when the vans return to Council Bluffs. Usually the volunteers spend the evening phone banking. You can find them curled up with their cell phones in the bingo parlor’s odd hallway corners, seeking a spot away from the strange polyphony of a dozen volunteers repeating the same questions in unison. Gina claims the women’s bathroom as her personal call center. It’s painted a shocking hot pink, but at least it’s quiet. By the time everyone makes it back to camp, it’s typically well past midnight.
Despite the grind, the volunteers seem to be enjoying themselves. They are engaging in spirited policy debates and staying up late around the camp fireplace to talk Dean. They’ve adjusted to the canvassing routine, even creating their own tactics. For example, Eli, who is very tall, has politely resolved to never stand on the top porch step, where he might intimidate short homeowners.
Other hard-won wisdom:
Adam: Independent or decline-to-state voters with nativity scenes in their yard are backing Bush.
Joel: Every ten degrees colder it gets, the people are that much more nasty and that much more likely not to answer the door.
Ari: If you run the first four sentences of your spiel into one big sentence, it’s harder for people to interrupt you.
Dan Lesh, a Grinnell College student from Alaska who joins the group midway through the week, nails down what is probably the firmest unwritten rule of all: If you really want to impress a family, don’t step on the front lawn.
These volunteers have endured trauma. They’ve been lunged at by snarling dogs of all sizes. They’ve seen scary door signs, such as “Due to risk of infection, we are requesting absolutely no visitors at this time,” or the excessively blunt: “I’m a biker. If you knock on this door and you’re not blind, I’m going to assume you’ve read this sign and I’m going to punch your lights out. So go the fuck away.” They’ve encountered the scantily clad (“There was boobage,” Eli reports of one woman’s unconventional shirt), the extremely confused (“Is Dean a Republican or Democrat?” and “What’s a caucus?” are not uncommon queries), and voters highly skeptical of Californians’ political judgment (“Didn’t you guys vote for Arnold?”). They’ve chatted up seniors who seem far more interested in hosting company than talking politics. And Noreen, who seems to get all the weird ones, had one man tell her he won’t caucus. His excuse: “That’s my birthday — I’m going to be drunk.”
They’ve also learned to roll with the punches. “I had people yesterday who were like, ‘Well, I support Gephardt because Dean supports gay rights and I don’t like gays,'” Gina recalls. “I was just kind of like, ‘Okay, nice to talk with you, bye.'” Ari, an incredibly sweet-natured person, simply refuses to acknowledge that people have stopped listening. During phone-banking sessions, he often can be heard saying things like: “I just called to ask you if you’re planning to support Howard Dean in the caucus and to tell you that it’s not polite to hang up on people.”
But on a pleasant day, when the temperature stays above thirty and the sky is clear, the door-to-door routine lulls the volunteers into an almost Zen-like state. Not every neighborhood is a Viper Pit of Angst, after all, and they enjoy chatting with the locals and waving to kids on bikes. And Dean’s troops have, in fact, gotten a little juice from Channel 7’s news spot, which has gone a long way in some communities to warm people to the orange-hatted college students on their doorsteps.
The small victories begin to pile up. Some homeowners ask for dozens of Dean lawn signs to distribute to their neighbors. Others heartily thank them for their hard work, or offer to put the canvassers up for the night. Best of all, a few undecided voters let themselves be won over — voters such as Kenneth and Verena Coenen, a lovely couple of senior citizens from Harlan, Iowa, who are torn between Gephardt and Dean when Adam and Eli trudge up to their door.
Not wanting to offend Gephardt supporters who’ve been kind enough to invite them in, Eli says he believes the congressman is a good person who’s done a lot for the party, but that he’s just not the right man for president. When Verena mentions that she’d rather move out of the country than endure four more years of George Bush, the volunteers argue that Dean’s strong national polling numbers and sizable war chest make him the most likely to beat the incumbent. The couple listens intently, asking questions and offering comments. Finally, as the volunteers prepare to go, Adam says he has to note how people intend to vote and asks Kenneth if he should put him down as “undecided.”
“No, you’ve convinced me,” Kenneth says. The Berkeley guys raise their mittened hands in a victory salute. But that was only half the battle. Now there’s the matter of caucus attendance. Verena reminisces fondly about how much fun the gatherings used to be, but says she has no plans to go. “Oh, we won’t make a difference,” she says.
“If there was ever a year to go, it’s this year,” Eli urges, and before long the Coenens have agreed to caucus for Dean. There are handshakes all around, and the couple sends off its visitors with victory in their hearts and peanut butter Rice Krispies Treats in their mitts. “I could do this all day,” Eli says triumphantly. “This is the kind of door-to-door that I like. The kind that gives us snacks, that lets us in their house …”
“… that changes their minds,” Adam interrupts emphatically.
“It’s a great feeling,” Eli says. “This is what we’re out here for, to convince people that Howard Dean is the man to beat Bush.”
At door after door, the Stormers highlight the same point: Iowa is crucial for those who want Bush out of office. Because Dean isn’t depending on federal campaign funds, they say, he’s the only Democrat who can sustain a campaign through November. And the ex-governor, they point out, has a formidable grassroots organization — after all, here they are going door-to-door eleven months before the election.
But they are also sensitive to the precariousness of their mission. Rival get-out-the-vote machines are about to ramp up, and, in the words of the volunteer Matt: “If someone’s convinced by you showing up at their door, they have nineteen more days to be convinced by somebody else showing up at their door.”
Most of all, the students are certain they are changing history for the better. “What can the Dean campaign do for me?” Eli asks thoughtfully one night as he sits in the van waiting for the others. “Well, I’m going to Iowa so I can get help for paying for my education, health care, jobs. When I get out in four years I want Dean to get this economy going so I can get a job. I have a future that I’ve got to be looking after, and if I have four more years of Bush, what are my odds of getting a job?”
He peers through the windshield into the Iowa night. “There’s just so many things that ride on this campaign.”
Day 5, December 31
It’s official: No New Year’s Eve in Des Moines. Despite Adam’s eloquent pleas, Dean’s people handed down one lame excuse after another — there was no place for the volunteers to stay; the party was in a bar and most of the students were too young; the vans had to remain in Council Bluffs. Instead, Storm #1 is being shunted to Sioux City two hours south to set up for a Dean rally in a local high-school gym. The volunteers try and temper their disappointment: If they can’t party with Dean in Des Moines, at least they’ll stand a chance of meeting him in Sioux City.
Our pending departure means a morning off from canvassing, and someone comes up with the bright idea of touring the local headquarters of Dean’s rivals. The plan coalesces with such rapidity that a posse is soon out the door, and all the Matts can do is beg the volunteers to remove their Dean badges and buttons before entering any other candidate’s digs.
John Edwards’ campaign office is already familiar to us — a squat garage directly behind Dean HQ — so we set off instead to examine the much snappier Kerry headquarters. Everyone has heard rumors that the senator’s campaign is in tight financial straits and that Kerry has mortgaged his own home to stay afloat, but you’d never know that from his local base, a trim downtown storefront with an expensive-looking red-and-blue “John Kerry for President” marquee and front windows plastered with posters portraying his past as an antiwar activist.
But no one’s home, so we drift across the street to Gephardt turf, a comparatively dingy used-office-furniture store. No one there, either. The furniture sales guys tell us that Gephardt’s people are just now installing the phone lines. The Dean kids gloat. “They’re not even set up, and the Dean campaign is bringing in volunteers from out of state,” Gina says gleefully.
But the rejoicing is cut short by the awesome sight of Kerry’s campaign bus rolling down the street. His “Real Deal Express” is covered in stars and stripes, all red, white, and blue. It features a talking George W. Bush doll on the dashboard, and emblazoned on its rear is a promise that Kerry will change America in his first one hundred days in office. The Dean kids take off running, following the bus to a nearby community center where the candidate has taken the stage before an enthusiastic crowd.
We squeeze into the back, and although many would like to hear Kerry’s speech, we’re only there for a few minutes before the Dean staffers pull us out and dispatch us to Sioux City. Still, Noreen has managed to score an address and time for the Kerry campaign’s New Year’s Eve party which, by sheer coincidence, will also be in Sioux City.
Dean’s Sioux City office turns out to be everything Council Bluffs is not: neatly organized, housed in a real office building, and staffed mostly by women. But the staff is clueless about what to do on New Year’s Eve with a small army of out-of-town volunteers who are still wounded over their Des Moines snub. They assign the volunteers a few hours of phone-bank duty to drum up attendance at tomorrow’s Dean rally, then depart with a warning: no drinking in the office.
Now alone, the volunteers exchange looks. What to do? They, after all, have wheels. “It’s really silly that we can’t just drive to Des Moines and then come back,” Gina says.
“So why don’t we?” Matt asks.
“Because we’re not invited.”
“I think I’m just gonna switch to the Kerry campaign, because they don’t want us here,” Dan chimes in.
He’s only joking, but the idea of crashing Kerry’s New Year’s bash is tempting, particularly for Noreen. “You know, we’re all on the same team in the grand scheme of things,” she says, trying to sell the crowd. “Let’s just say things happen, so he could be the next president. I want to shake his hand and say ‘Happy New Year.'”
“He’s a Democrat, you know,” she insists.
Not long afterward, we’re strolling into the enemy party as if we own the place. We’d expected our entrance would be greeted with cold stares, but the Kerry people fawn over us, delighted to see young people presumably flocking to their candidate. Indeed, the presence of the undercover Bay Area crew has pretty much halved the average age of the crowd — largely silver-haired supporters who sit politely as the DJ trots out such chestnuts as “Wake Up Little Susie.” Dean’s kids are welcomed so warmly, in fact, that Adam and a few others begin to question the ethics of it all, and rather than lying to the Kerry folks or misrepresenting the Dean organization, opt to hang out in the vans instead.
The others, meanwhile, are engaging in a full-fledged infiltration mission. Dan has hooked up with the only other young people here, a table of teenage Kerry volunteers wearing silver tiaras decorated with pink fur. Dan at least has a plausible reason for being in the state. He is, after all, a student at Grinnell, which is here in Iowa. But as Gina, then Matt, then Ari, then Eli, then Noreen pull up chairs, their presence becomes harder to rationalize. The extremely convoluted explanation they offer has something to do with being step-siblings on a road trip. And although the kids had carefully “de-Deaned” the vans before arriving, they’d been a little sloppy about stripping themselves of all Dean paraphernalia. So when one of the eagle-eyed Kerry supporters spots Gina’s volunteer badge, she has to think fast. She comes up with a story about visiting Dean headquarters on her road trip and having millions of trinkets foisted upon her by an overeager staff.
“So, what do you think of Dean?” Eli asks the girls disingenuously.
“Oh, I hate him,” one of the tiara-wearers responds.
“He’s so arrogant,” she says, making a face.
“Yeah, he’s such a hothead,” Eli says, playing along.
“And why does his campaign have no women? What’s up with that?” says Noreen, voicing a few things that really do concern her about the Dean campaign. “And where’s his family? I want to support someone like Clinton: the dad, the family man.”
Incredulous stares from her tablemates.
“Clinton the charmer,” she insists.
Noreen is saved only by the arrival of Senator Kerry, who works the room as the DJ pumps up the music and the crowd goes nuts with paper horns and noisemakers. He’s a tall, patrician presence in a somber gray suit, and Noreen is right there behind him. Dodging television cameras and party donors three times her age, she follows Kerry until he finally turns and throws his arm around her for photos. Click, click, click, the cameras flash. Back at the table, Noreen’s fellow infiltrators howl with laughter.
They stay to hear Kerry speak, applaud him enthusiastically, and are out the door before the balloons drop at midnight. They are red-faced with excitement, giddy over how well their excursion turned out. The reunited group heads downtown to watch the fireworks, but gets a little lost. We welcome 2004 with horns and streamers, taking in the pyrotechnics from the cold sidewalk between a tire yard and a scrap-metal recycling facility.
Day 6, january 1
The treachery hasn’t been discovered. Anyway, nobody in the Sioux City office is really interested in hearing where we spent last night because they are frantically dealing with one of campaigning’s X-factors: sports. The Iowa Hawkeyes are playing the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl today, and interrupting that football game to advertise tonight’s Dean rally would be a fatal faux pas.
We’re sent out to breakfast to wait out the game, and then are hurriedly ordered back mid-meal as the match ends. While the Dean kids are used to the laid-back style of the Matts back in Council Bluffs, who largely let the volunteers call their own shots, they are already chafing under the stricter Sioux City staff. This morning the staff seems especially edgy, perhaps worried that the game has cost too much canvassing time. Finally, one staffer goes too far. “Line up and count off!” she barks at the volunteers, who look back in shock.
“Isn’t that a bit militaristic?” a fellow staffer asks.
“I don’t care!” the woman snaps.
The kids don’t seem to know how to respond. Some shuffle into an awkward line, others resolutely freeze in place. Dan refuses to do anything until he’s addressed more respectfully. After some awkward negotiating, eventually everyone pairs up and heads out. But as soon as the group is out of staff earshot, Noreen phones one of the Matts to complain. “I’m not going to be treated like I’m nine and told to line up,” she says hotly, adding that she’s using her own money and vacation time to be here. “You don’t treat people that way and I hope you don’t treat voters that way.”
Her complaints carry weight, because after only a few hours of precinct-walking the volunteers are called back to the office at the unheard-of hour of 5:30, thanked profusely for their work, and let off early — leading them to grumble that Sioux City isn’t as “hard-core” as Council Bluffs. But you can’t argue with a night off. In one of those amoebic group decisions nobody seems to remember making, we soon find ourselves at WinnaVegas, a casino on the nearby Winnebago Indian Reservation. WinnaVegas has a giant fiberglass groundhog dressed as Elvis out front, and is happy to take money from anyone over eighteen.
It is here the young volunteers develop a revolutionary new tactic: campaign through osmosis. “It’s subliminal messages,” Adam explains brightly above the din of five hundred slot machines, “conversations that people are going to have behind other gamblers.”
“Would you like to see us in action?” Gina asks.
We creep up behind two totally desiccated old guys playing quarter slots, and the kids launch into an impromptu skit, with Gina as the Dean proselytizer and Mike the willing convert. “I think this is an important election, but I don’t know if I’m really convinced,” Mike says loudly enough so the players can overhear.
“So, what questions do you have about Dean?” Gina offers helpfully.
“What’s his position on the war?” Mike asks. Then, eyeing his target audience, he decides Dean’s antiwar stance won’t win him any converts. He frantically starts over. “No, let’s talk domestic policy,” he says. “Who cares about the war? What about the economy?”
“He’s done a lot to create new jobs in Vermont when he was the governor,” says Gina. No reaction from the slot players.
“What kind of jobs?” Mike says, desperate to keep the conversation going.
Gina flails. “I have no idea,” she admits.
Joel, who is watching his older brother’s act, shakes his head sadly. “This sounds like one of those cheap little ads that they show in ninth grade health classes. Like, ‘So, Sally, don’t get any STDs,'” he says.
The gamblers haven’t so much as looked up. They may not even be breathing.
New strategy. The volunteers decide to try their act on a younger crowd, people more likely to be swayed by amateur theatrics. Gina’s plan involves roping in the journalist. “We’ll wander up to you,” she tells Mike and Joel. “You’re brothers and we’re friends, and you’ll start flirting with Kara and we’ll turn the conversation toward Howard Dean.”
The plan agreed upon, we sidle up to the craps table, where a bunch of college-age guys are watching the bets. “That guy’s hot. You should go talk to him,” Gina announces loudly, indicating Mike.
“Hey girls,” Mike says, equally loudly. Indeed, people’s heads do whip around, but they turn away again when they hear Mike’s pickup line: “Have you heard about Howard Dean?” By the time he gets to the part where he’s enthusiastically endorsing Dean’s social progressivism and conservatism on fiscal issues, he’s lost the crowd entirely.
The evening’s only political jackpot comes courtesy of Dan, who runs into an undecided voter whose house he’d canvassed earlier that afternoon. “She said if I gave her my Dean button she’d vote for Dean,” reports Dan, who’d promptly handed it over. “It’s that easy,” he shrugs.
Day 7, January 2
Busted. In the biggest way, too. The Sioux City Journal has run a story about Kerry’s New Year’s party and there she is. Noreen. Right next to Dean’s rival. “My political career ended at age nineteen,” she wails.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we’re being shipped back to Council Bluffs today, much to the disappointment of the volunteers who’d hoped to meet Dean tonight. Four lucky stiffs get to stay behind and work the rally. For the rest, it’s back to canvassing. Noreen wisely decides to take the first van out.
The Council Bluffs office has undergone a magical transformation in our absence. It is now possible to see the floor. There are hand-drawn charts on the walls tabulating the number of doors knocked in each precinct. The adjoining storefront, which usually houses the Pottawattamie County Genealogical Society, has been turned into an official “Emerging Storm HQ” for the next batch of volunteers. It’s clear that Storm #1 was a bit of an experiment, while Storm #2 is expected to be a much bigger deal.
In deference to the “hard-core” vibe of Council Bluffs, the volunteers embrace their precinct walking with renewed energy. They resolve to beat the streets until they’ve hit every single house on their lists. Better yet, they are going to do it in T-shirts. All week, the kids have toted snow gear around. And although the big snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow, today it’s a freakish sixty degrees.
Coup of the day: Adam gets a group of kids sitting on a stoop to chant “Howard Dean! Howard Dean!” after he answers their pressing questions about the candidate’s hair color (“Kind of gray”) and whether or not George Washington can be president again (“Sorry”). But as the kids stump, the bad news arrives from Sioux City: Dean never made the rally — there was a problem de-icing his plane’s wings in New Hampshire, and he never got off the ground. Most of the volunteers’ work in Sioux City was for nothing.
In addition, the troops are beginning to get restless about ever catching up to Dean. After all, they’ve already seen Kerry twice. But the Matts renew their promise: We’ll meet him tomorrow. They’re sending the Bay Area group to staff another rally in Boone, Iowa, two hours east.
Once again, Howard Dean is just over the horizon.
Day 8, January 3
On the road to Boone, we make a quick campaigning stop in Carroll, Iowa. The Dean office there shares space with a laboratory that’s reportedly making a vaccine for something and contains petri dishes full of what may or may not be salmonella; the staffers aren’t quite sure. “Don’t touch anything,” they warn us. The place has the added charm of two life-size cutouts of the Clintons, placed in dark corners so as to be as startling as possible, and giant letters on the roof that are supposed to spell out “DEAN” but sometimes blow over, leaving passersby to wonder whether the building houses the DEA or D AN, whatever that is.
A whirlwind round of Boone precinct walking reminds us of everything there is to love and hate about the job. A kindly mechanic invites us into his garage to show off his restored cars and have a spirited chat about NAFTA, and then pledges to support Dean. A drunk toothless man drives us off his property, inexplicably yelling: “Fuck Bush! Fuck the Republicans!”
Then it’s back on the road to Boone, where the long-promised snowstorm is starting to roll in. It’s well past sunset and the temperature has plunged to zero. The volunteers have to be prodded from the cozy vans for a final round of flyering, a last-ditch attempt to draw a crowd for tonight’s rally.
It wasn’t necessary, and this time Dean actually makes it. Every seat in Boone’s recreation center is filled, and the candidate gets an enthusiastic reception. He gives his standard stump speech — almost exactly the same one, in fact, that the Berkeley students heard only a few months prior when Dean visited Oakland. It’s the one in which he insists America is no safer after Saddam Hussein’s capture than before it, and where he socks it to “Ken Lay and the boys.” But the candidate is a passionate speaker; he’s hitting every single argument the volunteers have been making all week, and they are rapt, elbows on knees, hideous orange hats snuggled proudly on heads. When Dean talks about his grassroots support, he mentions the Perfect Storm and informs the crowd that there are volunteers from California in this very room. He even has them stand up.
The kids stand shyly, but you can tell they’re digging it. A little acknowledgment from the main man is like a warm embrace after a very cold week. As soon as Dean’s Q&A session ends, the volunteers surge over to him, hands outstretched, cameras flashing. Dean is gracious. He thanks them again for their hard work and dispenses tidbits of advice about precinct walking. He shakes their hands and poses for pictures, and when some of them demand hugs, replies, “I forgot you guys were from California,” and gamely dispenses hugs all around.
And then, all too soon, Dean’s handlers have spirited him away through a back door. He’s gone. The hall is empty except for the Bay Area group, which is still amped. “We’ve been staring at his picture all day, every day, talking about him all day, and then, like … he’s human,” Noreen says.
“That was just absolutely incredible. It couldn’t have been better,” Mike agrees. “He’s just like a rock star, the way he leads and has such a presence.”
“He’s smart, he’s honest, he’s a politician — can you believe it?” says Jordan. “It’s amazing, really.”
“I wasn’t shaking when Kerry gave me a hug, but I got a hug from Dean, like, ten minutes ago, and I’m still shaking,” Noreen adds.
A few minutes later, she issues a follow-up report.
Day 9, January 4
The storm finally arrived. It snowed all night long, and today Western Iowa is coated in a six-inch blanket of white. Even Misery Valley would look beautiful.
But it’s now time to go. The volunteers have contacted thousands of households, but there are still two weeks left before the caucuses and tens of thousands more to go. Dean leads the polls this week, but both Time and Newsweek are running critical cover articles about him, and the other Democrats have him in the crosshairs. Things are about to get nasty. Subsequent Storms will be bigger and more widespread than this one, but they’ll still be made up of people just as inexperienced and disoriented as this group was nine days ago. Anything can happen.
Epilogue: January 19, Caucus Night
Anything does happen. Back in Berkeley at Ari’s place, most of the Iowa crew is watching the results on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” It’s all over fast. Kerry is the surprise winner, with 38 percent to Dean’s 18 percent. Senator John Edwards — barely a presence in the race until the final week — is a strong second at 32 percent. Richard Gephardt is history, and Dennis Kucinich barely registers a pulse.
The kids take their candidate’s loss in stride. They’re surprised, though, that Kerry could have pulled ahead so resoundingly, even if he was the most visible candidate they encountered in Iowa — and Edwards simply came out of nowhere. Dean’s drop in popularity, they figure, was partly the result of negative media and two weeks of relentless bashing by his rivals. “It was seven on one against Dean,” Gina says. “You can’t defend against that.”
And what of all the volunteers’ hard work. A waste? Not necessarily, they say. Who knows what Dean’s numbers would be like if they hadn’t knocked on doors for him? But the students say that Dean’s people-power was overshadowed by greater forces — splashy spending by the other candidates, and the media’s sudden turn against their candidate. “It seemed like, going into this, none of the rules applied. Dean was breaking every rule and winning,” Tom says. “But in the end, what looked like it was going to be kind of a revolution in the way politics is run came down to the same old thing.”
Gina points out that the two campaigns with the most grassroots organizing — Dean and Gephardt — finished third and fourth. “The ones that were the most glib and the most put-together and had the Real Deal Express and the fancy signs did the best,” she says.
Furthermore, the kids point out, the past week’s mudslinging between Dean and Gephardt only made things worse for both. “They killed each other. They got into stupid things,” Noreen says. “Nobody knew about Edwards, but he was nice.”
Sure, the East Bay crew is disappointed, but they aren’t discouraged. As Dean himself is saying, a third-place finish for him would have been an unimaginable triumph just one year ago. And losing the pole position, Tom and Ari say, may be a blessing in disguise. Dean has always performed best as the underdog; now he can go back to being the insurgent while victors Kerry and Edwards take their turns drawing fire. Dean still has his war chest, his grassroots organization, and plenty of time.
There are, after all, 49 primaries to go. As Eli puts it, “It’s only Iowa.” There’s plenty of turf left to cover, and a lot of it is more Dean-friendly than the Midwest. There’s next week’s primary in New Hampshire, where Dean maintains a comfortable lead in the polls. In two weeks, on “Super Tuesday,” seven more states will vote, and once again Dean’s Bay Area crew will be shipping out to knock on doors, this time in Arizona. “Bring the tape recorder,” Gina urges. “And the granola bars.”