“So I rushed past the pretty girls, and the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”
– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”
What's a precinct captain? A year ago, Jane Brower didn't know. Now she captains her West Des Moines precinct like an veteran. She's built her own pyramid.
As both Republican and Democratic field organizers know, effective precinct captains are the single-most important volunteers a campaign can have. They are responsible for maintaining their own stable of volunteers that they participate in recruiting.
But when Jane first walked into an Obama field office during the pre-caucus period last September, she came to help address envelopes or generally help in what way she could. Slowly but surely, a skilled organizer named Caroline turned her into a precinct captain. Jane now manages 10 "block captains" who are responsible for their own slice of the precinct.
"I didn't know what a precinct captain was," said Jane. The first step was hosting a Barack Obama house party with her Republican husband Steve. Twenty of her neighbors, only about five of whom she'd met before, showed up. No donations were solicited, and the group met for an hour or so, asking questions of Jane, Steve, and a couple staff organizers. Though she was nervous at first and skeptical that such a party would have any effect, her organizer convinced her to give it a whirl.
The biggest impact was made, Jane said, by having each Obama supporter explain to the undecided but curious voters why they personally felt attracted to Obama's candidacy. Because Steve had been a longtime Republican and several Republicans were in the house, Jane talked about her excitement for a candidate willing to be fiscally responsible. There were no requests at the end of the party for commitments to vote for Obama, but Jane reported that when those houseguests attended an Obama foreign policy Q-and-A a week later, they came away completely sold.
After that, Jane began signing up for bigger and bigger volunteer commitments, and now she works a minimum of 40 weeks on the campaign out of her house. Her block captains, including her neighbor David Basler, another former Republican (and huge Baseball Prospectus fan), each have specific responsibilities and deadlines to accomplish a certain number of voter contacts. Most of the time, Jane says, is spent either helping voters with logistics like making sure far-flung college kids can be registered and get ballots in the correct precinct, or beating back heavily financed coordinated smear efforts such as this one, reported on the front page of the Des Moines Register Wednesday.
Two or three times a day, Jane pipelines her newly-collected voter file info back to Obama's paid organizers in the West Des Moines office. In this way, the campaign stays on top of who's a supporter, who's undecided and why. Jane showed us her personalized notes to undecided voters who had requested information on a given issue. She and her block captains follow up with each voter in a personal way, and that's important, Jane says, because it's a following through of a promise: "We're representatives of Barack Obama, and when we say we'll get a voter information, we're giving our word."
The last time Jane remembers feeling excited about a presidential campaign was when she was a girl and saw Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy campaign in her state. This time, she's the bread and butter of Barack Obama's ground game.
Early voting began in Iowa yesterday morning, and we were there to capture the opening bell. Barack Obama's campaign has been putting an enormous emphasis on early voting and absentee voting by mail where applicable. The lower the burden on county clerks on Election Day, the shorter the lines, the fewer people who remain uncrossed off the GOTV lists for doorknocking and phonebanking reminders, then the greater efficiency with which campaigns can operate.
Both campaigns see the numbers of people who vote early in a given precinct. Each campaign knows exactly the history of that precinct, and they can determine when an individual has cast their ballot. If that voter is identified as a supporter, or is suspected by other patterns to be a likely supporter, then the campaigns know where they are hitting their targets or are falling short. That's a huge advantage for a well-organized campaign.
Consider a situation with no early voting. A campaign simply has to monitor the turnout throughout the day in targeted precincts to model what they expect to happen. The numbers get pipelined up to the boiler room and campaign staff makes decisions about where to throw ground troops to knock the final doors. But that is an extremely compressed period -- one day.
Now add in a multiday early voting period. When Executive Director Zach Moyle told us that the Republican Party will know several days in advance of November 4 whether they're going to win or lose Nevada, he wasn't kidding. That's what early voting/mail-in ballots do for a campaign. They can't actually see the tabulated vote, but they know if Joe Smith is a supporter of John McCain and Joe Smith has voted already, they don't have too much guessing what the score is.
The ground game is extraordinarily numbers-based. For both campaigns, every single precinct in every state has a vote goal -- a specific number of votes the campaign has determined it needs to stay on pace with its overall path to victory in the state. By voting early, a supporter of a given candidate are giving his or her candidate a kind of donation. The sacrifice is the feeling of having participated in a vote on Election Day -- it feels like giving up a little bit of tradition. But campaigns are less concerned with tradition than with winning.