Writing to friends and family from GOTC (Get Out The Caucus) Creston, Iowa. My first time volunteering in politics; I had no idea what I'd be doing when I got on the plane. Turns out this trip changed my life in many ways.
I arrived safe and sound late last night.
Saw a fox safely crossing snowy highway 34.
I'm staying in supporter housing in a beautiful, nice, huge
house owned by two progressive bankers and lifetime
Iowans. One is for Barack the other for
Edwards (but I think she's leaning). They are
amazingly nice people.
This town seems to me like any other half-abandoned heartland
town you pass through on the road getting from one
place to another. And it's cold. In the low 20s,
snowed last night. Windy. Frozen fingers.
The Obama crew here is four people, all in late 20's
early 30's, working out of a cluttered office with
boxes of donated crackers and old pamphlets in the
cramped hallways. I'm the only one walking door to
door. I think more of them should be on the streets,
too. Everyone works 14-18 hours each day. I'll do 12 a day.
9-5 door to door, 6-9 phones.
I'm good at going door to door. Had some apparently
big successes today, according to them. I told them
that's why I came. I came to get this guy elected. A
few people were for Barack but weren't going to
caucus. Now they will. A family of 5 now totally for
Barack and caucusing. A woman shoveling her driveway
asks me about his health care policy. She's undecided.
I bring back material and leave on her door with a
note. A few doors shut quickly. Very poor here. People
are hurting and kind.
I am way out of my comfort zone. Had a feeling like a
high school panic dream for some of the early part of
today and my late night training last night. What am I
doing here? What do I know about Iowans? Feeling more
More soon –
Happy New Year's Eve everyone
This will be a close one. I think Hillary's in
trouble, but Edwards is as strong, perhaps, as Barack.
But we've got the momentum. It is clear that the work
ethic and man hours that are behind Barack are greater
than any of the other candidates. And the quality of
people contributing to his campaign here is something else.
Harvard, Columbia, etc. etc. all young, all hungry.
More hours spent freezing, door to door. Some doors
shut quickly. Most stay open long enough to talk
briefly – “are you going? Do you have a candidate? Do
you know there's soup at 5:30? Edwards? Oh, I like him very
much - would you consider Senator Obama as your second
choice? John Edwards? He's great. I had to decide
between him and Senator Obama as well. It's tough. I
ended up deciding that I want a democrat in the white
house first and foremost and I don't think Edwards'
fundraising and organization is strong enough to match
up well in a fight with the Republicans. He's
restricted to public funds, after all. And he's spread
so thin everywhere but Iowa...”
A door bell is a dog alarm.
I see two kids on the street walking in the snow
(streets are snow and ice with pavement underneath)
and ask if they know the kid playing drums in the
house down the hill. I tell them to tell him to keep
playing. One boy is a bassist. I recommend reggae.
I make yellow snow again, this time behind a shed.
Barack's sisters came in today and hugged me. They are
powerful humans and hilarious. Elise said that's how
the Dalai Lama was when she saw him speak.
My knee started hurting today and my ears burned for
the first time - weather in the low teens is tough on the body.
It's New Year's Eve, hope everyone is having fun -
we're close to doing something historic here
The top Iowa daily shows Barack up more than the
margin; the widest lead here so far.
As nice as this is to hear, it's scary for us. People
might become complacent. Barack only wins if the new
people he's inspired to participate actually show up to caucus.
We will not let up one bit. We attack the snow and
wind and dial the numbers without fear, with fierce purpose.
Snot freezes in the nose when it's in the single
digits. The eyeballs burn in the windchill. This
morning was the toughest yet. I drove between houses
for the first time. Blunt curse words each time back in the car.
Barack spoke to us on a conference call this morning.
He sounded very tired. The sound of his voice when he
said he was so proud of us made me feel a little
choked up. Silly, but I can't explain the sound, I
only know I've never heard it before. I actually think
this guy is channeling something special - I can't
explain it any more than that.
Dreamt I was co-singing with Robert Plant for Led
Zeppelin last night. Heard a special Van Halen song on
the radio today that I loved as a boy, that was very uplifting.
In a day that was very uplifting. In a week that has
been very uplifting.
Peed in two small water bottles in the car.
Too many houses around.
Again, door to door 10-5, calls 6-9. If I get three or
four people committed, it's a great day. I've done
that each day and then some. We all have. The team is
six young men all my age, two women younger than me
running the show, and then a few part time volunteers.
These are brilliant young people - I'm amazed at the
high caliber of individuals this campaign has
attracted. The work ethic is off the charts. Everyone
is fierce and determined - again, I think we all feel
like this might be a once-in-a-lifetime shot. The
energy and excitement is restrained and professional
but intense and building by the hour.
Today, a young mother reading to one year old, whose
grandmother sits on the couch nearby. They invite me
in. I'm not supposed to enter houses, but I do because
otherwise their heat escapes.Grandmother is inspired
by daughter, will caucus for Obama. Their house sags.
Stuffy and in terrible disrepair. Looks like a shack from the outside.
The young mother says she'll try to bring a carload of
friends to caucus. She is beautiful and sweet and
living hard. Three generations of women.
An older man, lives alone (as so many people do...
waiting out the days), and seems scared to caucus. Has
never done it. I have visited him twice. Will go back
a third time on my own to help him overcome that fear if I can.
A woman on the phone, doesn't know what caucus means.
By the end, I ask her to please find me caucus night
so we can meet and I can congratulate her in person.
I am now going to the same houses I visited on days
one and two, so relationships are being formed. Barack
has talked from the very beginning about how this is
really the campaign of his volunteers and staff -
empowerment of supporters is a principle. I have
collected my own data all along, intended for my own
purposes. People with whom I've connected in some way,
who showed me kindness, who were glad to have me
invite them to do something, who might just
participate for the first time but need a hand, I'll
be visiting once again on my own before Thursday,
on my own terms.
A girl asks if I can give her a t-shirt if she brings friends. I say yes.
An older couple invited me in and though I’m not supposed to,
I sat in their living room for 30mins on day two.
They are forEdwards. I stop back by today.
They are still for Edwards and not budging.
They like me. I tell them today that I won't be upset
if they stand with us in the Barack corner.
I speak with many people on the phone - all campaigns
call them. They get many calls each night. Most are
gracious but annoyed; will hear you out. Some hang up.
Some data is wrong - I call for Brittany please and
the mother asks just who is calling her 14 year old
daughter? Or "I've told you people three times - Jim
does not live here and I'm a Republican for Romney."
Sorry. But have you given any thought to Senator
Obama? I like him in large part because of his sound
One woman today who loves Barack - worked for him for
a while, likes his values and policies more than
anyone and even got her daughter an afternoon tagging
along with him - says she can't caucus for him because
Oprah cratered the beef industry in the 90s. She's a
cattle rancher. And very angry. Even though the voice
took on the loveliest, warmest qualities when she
spoke of Barack. A staffer in the office overheard and
asked "So if I hate Kevin Bacon's band, I won't vote
for John Edwards?"
I'm not afraid of driving in the ice and snow anymore.
Not afraid of approaching scary looking houses. When
trick-or-treating as a kid, beaten down houses were scary.
Coming from such privilege, I had conflated poverty with threat.
What I know now is that extreme poverty only indicates extreme poverty.
Don't want to sleep.
John Edwards is coming by the house where I'm staying
at 2am. Don't care enough to stay awake for an hour to
Going to try to sleep now.
The finish line is close. There will be no let up.
We are tired. But the fight is coming from a deep
place and so we are fierce and there will be no let up.
82 doors knocked 10-5:30, 84 calls made 5:30-9.
Potential caucus-goers ranked 1's mean that they
have signed a pledge to caucus for Barack. 1's are
like gold nuggets. 2's are verbal commitments. And on.
Today I converted or discovered 11 2's in the snow and
5 1's. Several not even in the database. The total
doors and large quantity of 1's and 2's was a big deal
when I turned in my numbers tonight. I knew it was a
special day. The intensity of today - the feelings I
had - were extraordinary.
Walk up into a very neglected apartment building.
Started to think it was squatter territory. Trashed. I
hear three young voices, they invite me in. 18 years
old each. Moving into the place at the moment. It's
filthy. They light cigarettes and ask me what a caucus
is. Is that the black guy? They start with questions.
What does he think about the war - because we're
joining the military. What about guns? The main one
talking is sharp, a girl named Colleen. In and out of
trouble, very opinionated, giant belt buckle and shirt
that says "I'm with the tall blonde". Owns guns and
horses. They end up going from not knowing what a
caucus is to being 1's. We talk for quite some time. I
will see them tomorrow. I hope. Who knows.
The list of personal contacts that I will be following
up on tomorrow has grown to a dozen. A few single
mothers (we can babysit); a few old women (we can
drive); several first time caucus-goers (you can do it).
Hillary actually said "We're fired up and ready to go
for change" today in Des Moines.
For people paying attention this is a an embarrassing moment for her.
Her campaign at the caucus wants to put up as many signs as they
want and have their own food at the soup supper.
Rubbing everybody wrong and this town talks. She will not do well here.
Three soups planned - vegetable, chili (not spicy),
Rapid, machine gun staccato obscenities getting back
into the car only in the morning.
Snot frozen only at dusk.
Tomorrow should be in the 20s, best weather since I arrived.
I have spoken with perhaps 500 people, and can say
that my stake in this campaign is perhaps that I have
brought in conservatively 10-15 people to caucus for
Barack, which could be the difference. Who knows if
they show up.
The fight continues tomorrow. Up at 6am and over to a
grocery store / breakfast diner till 9:30. Sit there
and maybe will get some questions. Then out into the
snow, door to door until caucus.
I will wake up on the 4th and want to walk door to
door again. And on the 5th I assume the fight will
numb a little and on and on.
I will miss what happens in me while I'm on those streets.
Can I make that happen to me in other parts of my life?
1/3/08 CAUCUS DAY
I run this morning. The goal is to hit every leaner or
supporter in the remaining three precincts not yet hit
for a second time. I have a lot of ground to cover. So I run.
The snot isn't frozen but the wind burns the ears.
Frozen dog shit on the ice.
I stop into one house and a woman in her 60s invites
me in. She's for Hillary and we have possibly the best
talk I've had with a Hillary supporter. I ask a number
of questions - does it bother her that Hillary's taken
more lobbyist money? Yes. Does it bother her that
Hillary voted for the war. Yes. Is Barack Muslim? No.
He doesn't have the experience - yes he does, it's
just not been in Washington. etc. etc. A familiar
pattern. She clearly lines up with Barack way better
than with Hillary. Finally after a good back and forth
and lots of talking, she lets slip that she wants a
woman president. Fair enough, so do I. But does that
trump everything else? I leave her Barack's policy
book and say I hope this helps you make your decision
today. And I leave. When I arrived there was no
decision for her to make. When I leave there might
just be. And she might be the difference, who knows?
That morning I was placed at HyVee supermarket in the
diner where there are breakfast regulars. I'm there
for visibility - sit and have coffee in the Barack
shirt and see what happens. The cook says he's a
supporter but thought the caucus was all the way in
Des Moines. I give him the information and he gets
enthusiastic - says he'll be there. Will I see him
later? Will I see anyone who I've met with and who
have told me they'll come? What percentage of #1's
will skip out? No one else talks with me. When I
leave, a guy asks me for a John Edwards sign,
jokingly. I laugh warmly and leave. He says he's
voting republican anyway and I wish him the best of
luck with his candidate. The 12 or 14 old men eating
breakfast are all staring at me as I leave and I feel so nervous.
My personal list of follow-ups for today include 22
houses. So I work in stops to those houses into the
route that I've been handed. I leave long notes for
several people. I stop and see Anna, the single
mother. She says she may not make it - I offer all the
reasons in the world why she can bring her daughter,
etc. but have a sad feeling that she won't. I don't
think she made it after all, but I can't tell exactly.
Marilyn, the frightened older woman who I've been
checking in on trying to carefully nudge her toward
accepting a ride got her own ride and caucused. This
is a major victory. She overcame a lot of inertia to participate.
By mid day I'm in the car driving from house to house
and feeling sluggish. Really tired. I think the wind
took it out of me in the morning and the night before
was a late one.
I drank a beer in the shower at 2am after speaking
with Joanna, I cried a couple times when, for the
first time, I allowed myself to think and say that,
well, we might actually do this thing...
At 5:30pm, it's time to stop contacting people and
time to start preparing for caucus.
I pick up the three smoking teens from the abandoned building
and drive them there. They smoke in the car and talk about how two of
them, Colleen and the other girl, will be getting
tattoos later that night that will celebrate the life
of a guy named Wild Bill, a friend of theirs. This is
their first caucus. I want to make absolutely sure
they show, so I drive them.
I start thinking I made two or three missteps with my
contacts. Panic a little. I should have called that
younger metal head. I should have been insistent that
the beautiful young mother Amanda and her mom get a
ride from me. I left them a note, but will they get
it? Will Cassandra show up?
It turns out that several of these key people did not
show up. I didn't see them. But later two of the other
Barack volunteers mention that a number of people were
asking about me in the other caucus rooms. So maybe
some were there. Who knows.
I'm in charge of putting Barack stickers on supporters
as they enter the middle school auditorium. My first
thought was of the Hillary staffers - up tight, out of
touch, old. The organizer asks us to all move away
from the registration tables to sticker - it's getting
crowded. So I move well away. The Hillary people stay.
Oh brother. So then I ask the organizer, loud enough
for the Hillary people to hear - "so where do you want
the Hillary people to be?" In a nice,
non-confrontational way, but enough to get the point
across. They keep rubbing everyone the wrong way here.
The caucus for Creston is for five precincts. Each
precinct in its own room. We are able to observe
precinct 2, the largest one, and the one that I've
worked extensively. So I see many familiar faces; lots
of people come and say hello.
Step 1: Count everyone in one group in the middle of
the room. The total count is 160, including the two
mummies the Hillary people rolled in and posted in
their section who, when it came their turn to count
themselves off verbally, did not. They could not, actually.
Step 2: Break into preference groups, take a count.
Based on 160 people, a preference group must have 24
people for a candidate to be viable. Barack gets 39,
Edwards 43 (including one of the metal heads I was
working on - damn!), Hillary 45 (including the
mummies), no one else is viable.
Step 3: Re alignment. People can move from one group
to another. Some haggling and persuasion ensues, but
it's mild. Except for the Edwards folks trying to
physically keep an old man from going to the Biden
group. That got weird. Biden gets the Richardson
people and a couple Edwards people and a couple
Hillary people to become viable.
Step 4: Final tally, assignment of delegates. Barack
gets 4 delegates, Hillary and Edwards both get 5, Biden gets one.
Then everyone goes home. I talk with new friends, then
drive the teens back.
I learn on the ride home that Colleen has been in and
out of juvenile hall and has drug addicts for parents.
She somehow got custody of her sister when she was
only 10 years old. No other family at all. She has a
tattoo from jail. That's what's going to get covered
up tonight. They invite me to drink with them and I
say I may. I congratulate them on being a part of the
process. It's our fucking country. They agree. Where
is Colleen headed?
I have no idea how Barack has done in the town as a
whole nor state-wide until I overhear a woman while
leaving the caucus that Hillary and Barack both got 19
delegates and Edwards 15 for the Creston town as
whole. Not bad at all. This is old, rural, white Iowa after all.
I get back to the office and Peter, one of the Harvard
guys who came out on vacation from work to volunteer
stops me right as I walk in to say: They've called it
for us. We won.
White Iowa sent Barack to a commanding victory.
Turnout was 89% greater than 2004. 50% of attendees
were first-time caucus goers. The youth vote actually
finally showed up. Hillary is dealt a deadly blow and
gives yet another forgettable speech. Edwards uses
Barack's words on his podium sign and talks about the
mills again. And then Barack speaks it's a breath of
fresh air.... riveting, magical.
Woke up early and left Creston at 9am. I drive to
Omaha through the open fields covered in frost and
snow. It's grey out - everything white and grey.
Crying a bit here and there as the landscape changes
and the radio scans and other Americans drive by and
wave to me. To ME. I wave back.
And so begins a catharsis for myself and for America.