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).
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