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Into New Political Space

2012 OFA door hanger

Two new people, one man and one woman, decided to represent Big Grove Township on the county Democratic central committee. I’m thankful and moving on to new engagement in society beyond politics.

The presidential selection process this cycle was tainted by a bad finish. The caucus results reporting system failed. This weekend the Iowa Democratic Party is re-canvassing some of the caucus results twelve days after the event. It is a futile effort because we know the result. We had many great candidates and a few clinkers. The number of candidates continuing to March 3 Super Tuesday has been winnowed, and for the most part the best survived Iowa. There are really only four who seem viable: Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Today’s re-canvassing won’t change that.

Big Grove Township went Obama – Obama – Trump during the last three general election cycles. In the caucuses those years, we advanced Clinton, Edwards and Obama in 2008; Obama in 2012; and Clinton, O’Malley and Sanders in 2016. This year we advanced Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren with Klobuchar and Warren each having 39 people, Buttigieg 35, and Biden 29, with everyone getting a single delegate to the county convention. Sanders was not viable here, his support from 2016 was cut roughly in half.

The best comparison in presidential campaigns is between 2008 and 2020. Both years we had a significant field of candidates with an unpopular president. We came out of 2004 with a new understanding of how to run a campaign thanks to the ground-breaking work of Howard Dean and his campaign manager Joe Trippi. Dean wasn’t viable in our precinct caucus that year but the lessons stuck, particularly around fund raising, use of databases to target specific voters, and what they called open source campaigning — using the internet to expand a campaign’s voter base. Trippi wrote about his campaign innovations in his underappreciated book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything.

The campaign techniques pioneered by Trippi in 2003 and 2004 were consolidated, refined, and advanced by David Plouffe who managed Barack Obama’s successful campaign. In The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Win, Plouffe details the process which included integrating diverse databases to micro-target potential voters. He re-booted how traditional door knocking was done, changing from the knock every house process my father followed during the 1960 John F. Kennedy election to a specific and highly targeted list of potential voters. The results showed it worked in 2008, less so by Obama’s re-election campaign when locals were feeling some buyer’s remorse.

Beginning in 2016, with wide adoption of social media, campaigns changed again and produced an environment where media personality Donald J. Trump thrived. Hillary Clinton had a strong background in policy development and relationships with key figures in the Democratic Party. She also had a vast donor network from her family’s long history in American politics. It turned out those things didn’t matter as much, and in retrospect, she had those advantages in 2008 and Obama was able to catch up and pass her. Trump won the election in the electoral college, which is the win that mattered.

In 2020 campaigning changed again. I focused my work on assuming responsibility for running our caucus for the first time since my neighbor who was previously caucus chair moved out of the precinct. I canvassed fewer voters this cycle than I had since 2008 and 2016. The presence of a large field of candidates and my understanding of and maturity in the precinct led me to believe door knocking was not as important. The solid turnout at caucus validated my belief, or maybe confirmed my bias.

The lack of a clear winner in the Iowa caucus is evidence of a breakup of Democratic support. Campaigns bought access to the party voter database and those who used it mailed campaign literature, phoned me, or knocked on our door. Not only has the electorate been divided by repeated computer profile targeting such as I experienced, the campaign process supported more candidates being viable beyond the precinct than in previous cycles. This had two tangible effects: it made the Iowa caucuses less relevant by advancing five candidates, (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren) and it created division that needs mending for the electorate to join together long enough to support the nominee at the Democratic National Convention, at least through the general election.

As we turn toward November, what is the role for someone like me? I see these things:

  • I’m done with targeted voter lists. There is a bad assumption that there is not enough time to contact everyone, so the list of targets is reduced. We have to contact everyone we can about this election because winning it will not be based on party affiliation, but on person to person contact. We must change our thinking as some candidates already did this cycle.
  • If we elect a Democratic president, the work is only a third done. Democrats must retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and flip the U.S. Senate to Democratic control. In Big Grove precinct this means getting people to participate in the process and turn out for the June 2 primary. I favor Rita Hart for congress in Iowa’s second district and the best of five Democratic U.S. Senate candidates. There will be more work to be done on this front.
  • As a writer I have a platform, and I will use it to promote Democratic and progressive causes. Here I mean Blog for Iowa which gets better traffic than this space.
  • I’ll volunteer with the county party, especially after the national convention when we expect to have a full slate of candidates.
  • I’ll donate what I can to favored candidates. It seems unlikely I’ll hit the federal maximums.

The election of two neighbors to the central committee is a positive development for me. It frees me to think differently about our future and to put politics on a lower shelf in the pantry. That may be the best outcome of the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

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