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Inside Warren’s battle plan to win Iowa — and the nomination

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren says of Iowa: “Iowa is a chance to do the kind of face-to-face campaigning that I think all the Democrats oughta be doing.” | Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

2020 elections

‘They established a beachhead very early and they built on it and that matters,’ said one veteran of the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

NEWTON, Iowa — Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign is obsessed with stickers.

At a half-dozen events in rural Eastern Iowa over Memorial Day weekend, paid organizers and volunteers swarmed every attendee, affixing brightly colored circles to them as proof their contact information had been secured. The sticker patrol circled the room before Warren spoke — and afterward in the selfie line — just in case anyone happened to slip through.

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The campaign’s hyper-vigilance about capturing data on every potential supporter isn’t unique to Iowa, but the sheer number of people dedicated to the task certainly is. Warren has made an early wager on the state unrivaled by other Democratic hopefuls, aiming to strike early in the nomination contest by out-organizing the competition.

She already has more than 50 staffers in Iowa, and more are coming: A “significant” number of hires will be announced on June 15, according to Jason Noble, her Iowa communications director. The national campaign said its Iowa payroll would total at least 60 after the additions.

Plenty of other Democrats are investing heavily and ramping up their presence in Iowa, including Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, and Kamala Harris. But no candidate has hired nearly as many staffers or made the Hawkeye State as central to their hopes for the nomination from the very start.

“Look, Iowa is a chance to do the kind of face-to-face campaigning that I think all the Democrats oughta be doing,” Warren told reporters after a town hall in Newton in explaining her focus on the state. “This is our chance to build a grassroots movement and that happens one person at a time.”

This account of Warren’s Iowa battle plan is based on interviews with more than a dozen campaign advisers, organizers, and volunteers, as well as voters who came out to see the candidate in person.

Warren and her campaign aren’t predicting victory here, but they are gunning for the kind of performance that would catapult her to front-runner status for the nomination. A win over Joe Biden and other rivals could also dispel doubts about her electability among some Democrats still traumatized by 2016. As some of her staffers have noted, the best way to erase concerns about whether she can win is to win.

But the up-front investment by Warren — who so far has lagged behind Biden, Bernie Sanders, Harris, O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg in fundraising — isn’t without risk. Committing to so many salaries from the outset could leave the campaign without much cash for TV and digital advertising in the critical weeks before voting begins. That danger is even greater given that Warren has sworn off high-dollar fundraisers.

Warren’s camp says she’ll be fine, pointing out that she transferred $ 10.4 million from her Senate reelection account to give her a healthy financial cushion.

“Some people will raise money from, you know, whatever source and then dump it all into TV. But Elizabeth Warren has made a conscious effort to hire a lot of staff here in every corner of the state,” campaign aide John Russell told voters at a rural issues roundtable.

In fact, the campaign is replicating its Iowa model in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Aides say they’ll have more than 50 staffers in New Hampshire by mid-June, and more than 30 on the ground in both Nevada and South Carolina by then as well.

Other campaigns, of course, are also hiring staff and collecting voter data. What’s distinct about Warren’s Iowa effort is how early she built out an infrastructure here — embedding people in communities throughout the state who are organizing all manner of activities to draw voters into the fold.

Kirsten Gillibrand

If the rural issues roundtable didn’t strike one’s fancy, the campaign hosted a 5k run nearby that same morning. Warren aides and volunteers have also organized slam poetry sessions, movie nights, and a book club. (First up: “This Fight is Our Fight,” penned by Warren in 2017.)

Warren has appeared at more campaign events in Iowa, 34, than any other state. The campaign has held an additional 200-plus events without her there, and dozens more are scheduled.

“They established a beachhead very early and they built on it and that matters,” Matt Paul, the head of Hillary Clinton’s Iowa caucus operation in 2016, said of the Warren campaign. Observing how different campaigns have run their events, he added, “Warren is doing it in the most organized fashion. They are capturing all that data and it’s very smart.”

The campaign thinks its head start will pay dividends come caucus time.

Elizabeth Warren poses with fans in Iowa

Elizabeth Warren poses with local residents during a March event in Dubuque, Iowa. | Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

“By getting out of the gate so early, we have added exponential days to our calendar and that was a very deliberate decision,” said senior adviser Emily Parcell, a veteran of Iowa politics. “The organizers are here for almost a year and so they have time to become part of the community.”

“Be a real human being, don’t be a voter contact robot,” she tells organizers.

Some events are earnest and activism-oriented, such as a weekly “Persist Party” and trash clean-ups. On the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend in a fluorescent-lit sideroom at the Drake Community Library in Grinnell, Iowa, just over a dozen people gathered for the “Rural Issues Roundtable” as they chomped on chocolate chip and M&M cookies.

For over an hour, three Warren organizers went around the room soliciting thoughts and adding to two white poster-sized sheets of papers taped to the wall, one labeled “The Issues” and the other “The Plans.” When one person left early, a Warren organizer ran out to make sure the person filled out a “Fight Card” — the campaign’s voter contact form.

“It doesn’t seem like any of the other campaigns have as much of a presence or as many boots on the ground in Iowa,” said Vivienne Kerley-de la Cruz, a 20-year-old Grinnell College student who attended. She said she’s undecided on which candidate she’ll back but is leaning towards Warren. She has also seen O’Rourke at a town hall and attended “Camp Kamala,” the grass-roots organizing program for Harris’ campaign.

Or as Morgan Sperry, a 2018 NYU grad who worked on Warren’s Senate reelection campaign before moving to Iowa earlier this year, put it: “If you can do all these events, people are like, ‘This is lit.’”

Praying for the Virginia Beach victims

The face-to-face events and embedded organizer approach isn’t novel. Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign drew buzz for in-person campaign get-togethers set up via MeetUp.com. Barack Obama’s 2008 Iowa operation, for which Parcell served as political director, leaned into Obama’s community organizing evangelism and struck an early blow against Hillary Clinton by winning the caucus.

The Warren campaign is hoping that their hiring-early-and-often organizing approach will be similarly rewarded. Warren is polling third in most Iowa surveys, behind Biden and Sanders and just ahead of Harris and Buttigieg.

Biden’s lead here looks less commanding than elsewhere: Most polls have him in the 20’s here, compared to his much larger advantage in national polls. His late entry puts him well behind Warren organizationally in a caucus contest that has rewarded robust organization in the past.

Some caucus-goers have taken notice of Warren’s heavy presence in Iowa.

“When it comes to their presence, their organizing, and their reaching out to people,” said Jennifer Pryke, 64, a retired special-ed teacher who attended a Warren event but remains undecided, “it’s very impressive.”

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