Iowa ’04: A glance inside the Dean team’s headquarters

By Isaac Wolf

AMES, IOWA—At noon on the day of the Iowa Democratic primary, the Howard Dean campaign headquarters—Operation “Perfect Storm”—looked like a cross between Penn Station at rush hour and a high-school pep rally. Seventy-five people crowded into the front room, with a few congregating to sign in or distribute materials. Most, however, socialized, and the buzz of conversation overrode all other first impressions—including the biting cold.

The few dozen orange skullcaps, the insignia of the Dean canvassers, guided an unfocused eye through the room, which was strewn with papers and propaganda. In interior rooms, glass windows showed workers huddling over tables to make phone calls and fold papers into packets. A half-dozen television crews conducting interviews added to the atmosphere. With pins and hats, college-age students drew the television spotlight with as much frequency as the other main demographic of supporters—baby boomers who could easily have been, and indeed in some cases were, their parents.

Past the bustling front of this converted office that was, a time ago, used as the Bob Graham campaign headquarters, were several off-limits rooms for interns and staff only.

Soaking in the atmosphere, we met Christy Setzer, spokeswoman for the Perfect Storm. Setzer, who appeared to be in her mid- to late-20s, carted us upstairs into the off-limits area. With a few college grads shuffling between the central room and open offices, we were in the nucleus of the behemoth door-to-door campaign.

The room was strewn with empty Pepsi bottles and 64-oz Big Gulp plastic cups, sprawled with detailed, albeit perhaps outdated, voter demographic information. On the wall was a white dry-erase board split into a checklist of perhaps 40 or 50 rows of names, with precincts, districts, and transportation arrangements handwritten and checked off in blue marker. Along the other side of the wall sat a six-foot map of Iowa, with important districts charted, circled, and highlighted. Inside one of the opened office rooms, the walls were plastered with these maps, each perhaps focusing on a different region or flirting with a different strategy for getting out the vote. If Dean’s campaign was the Perfect Storm, we were definitely in the “war room.”

Conducting our interview on folding chairs and a ratty couch that confirmed the headquarters’ feel as a college lounge, Setzer ticked off positive details of the Dean campaign. Over 3,500 out-of-state volunteers, in total, had been to Iowa to help garner votes. This weekend alone, over 2,000 were here for a last push, a push that hoped to include knocking on 200,000 doors and 50,000 last-minute phone calls. “Every precinct that’s walkable,” Setzer said proudly. But what wasn’t clear was whether the superciliousness in her voice came from a belief that Dean was a superlative Democratic candidate, or whether, perhaps, it was a statement confirming that Dean’s campaign had been the most bedazzling. “None of the other candidates have anything close to us. Nothing on this magnitude.”

Drawing gasps and guffaws for its unprecedented size, Dean’s juggernaut volunteer campaign in Iowa has spurred some supporters of the Vermont governor to believe they are at the helm of a revolution in political campaigning. The degree to which Dean’s innovative use of meet-ups, online financing, and savvy outreach efforts will impact the overall future of the political campaign is not clear, but what has emerged leading up to the Monday night caucus is that his legions of volunteers have not lifted him head and shoulders above the other candidates.

Polls in Sunday’s Des Moines Register show a surge of support for John-squared—Edwards and Kerry—revealing a slip in Dean’s command of the polls. Leading into the weekend, there have been unconfirmed whispers that, in some places, there are more Dean canvassers than actual undecided voters to be swayed. Conversations with countless Iowans bolster the published statistics—that a decisive fraction (47 percent) of Iowan Democrats, many of whom have already answered their doors to a swarm of orange caps, are still undecided.

One Dean volunteer, Spencer Sheehan, said he had not had much luck knocking on doors. Sheehan, a graduate student of international studies at Johns Hopkins University, wasn’t certain how much the canvassing efforts were impacting Iowans’ preferences. But he held that the strong showing was important in and of itself.

“It shows that we have the infrastructure to campaign, the strength to go door-to-door,” he said.

The amount of unprecedented attention, money, and effort that Democrats have poured into Iowa—the number has been estimated to be $100 per caucus participant—over the last several months has magnified the scramble to gain an edge in the race for the party’s presidential candidacy. The caucus has become, in the media’s eye, the most heated primary in history, replete with a layer of political excitement bordering on romanticism.

“It may be the story of our lifetime,” said Joe Jensen, a Dean activist. Jensen, a Chicago-area filmmaker, had swooped in to film us with Setzer, and we began to talk when she rushed off mid-interview to deal with a CNN television crew. “We are witnessing a change from a top-down process of campaigning to a true grassroots story. I haven’t seen anything like this since the ’60s.” But, he qualified, “Who knows? You can’t tell yet.”

Setzer attributed the enormous showing to a confluence of events: extreme dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, a feeling that the presidency had been stolen in the last election, and the excitement of believing that supporters could have a significant hand in replacing the President. “We are changing the way politics is going to work.”