They Know How to Caucus
Teresa Vilmain and Other Experts in an Arcane Presidential Art

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

DES MOINES -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had a decision to make. After someone in her campaign leaked a memo late last month suggesting that she skip the Iowa caucuses, the New York Democrat needed to show that she was committed to winning the crucial first contest on the presidential nominating calendar.

Her campaign repeated at every turn that it was serious about Iowa, pointing out that she had been spending a lot of time in the state. But on Tuesday, it offered the ultimate sign of its intentions: It promoted Teresa Vilmain.

Vilmain, 48, has been a near-legend among caucus operatives since she ran Michael S. Dukakis's Iowa campaign two decades ago at the age of 28. She was raised on Iowa politics, watching as her mother held Democratic caucuses in their Cedar Falls home. With her long skirts and her long hair pulled atop her head, she could be mistaken for an English professor. But she strides into rooms as if tilted against a gale, speaks in the staccato delivery of a ward boss, and never ends a meeting without "action items" for everyone present.

Just five months ago, Clinton had a private dinner in Washington with another experienced caucus operative, JoDee Winterhof, and persuaded her to leave her family in D.C. to serve as Iowa campaign director. At the time, Vilmain was working for former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, then a presidential candidate. When he dropped out, Vilmain became available. Now she will be Iowa director and Winterhof will be a senior strategist.

"If you can get Teresa Vilmain, you do it," said John Norris, a longtime Democratic strategist in Iowa who is not working for a campaign now. "You do whatever it takes to get [her] on board."

The battle for the best political talent takes place nationwide every election cycle, but nowhere is it fought as fiercely as in Iowa. Victory in the caucuses held here in January every four years has traditionally been seen as critical in generating what President George H.W. Bush once called the "Big Mo," and the elite group of strategist experienced in producing it are seduced and fought over.

This year the talent hunt has extended to the local level, with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) paying nearly five dozen county-level supporters up to $1,000 each per month, going well beyond the half a dozen regional field staff members whom campaigns typically employ this early in the season.

The arcane ways of the Iowa caucuses are a major reason for the competition. Of the state's 2 million registered voters, a hard-fought battle in either party typically brings out no more than 125,000 participants, who must show up at a specific time on a midwinter Monday evening and are expected to stay at least two hours. The process can drag on even longer, particularly on the Democratic side, where voters must disclose their candidate preference publicly and where complex rules for apportioning delegates can result in revotes.

This means a campaign must know which voters are likely to participate -- and be able to communicate to the troops who are pursuing them where the critical line is between persistence and pestering.

"You can't approach people in Red Oak the same way you do in Philadelphia," said Democratic strategist Jeff Link, stepson of a machinist on the Burlington Northern railroad. "It's just different."

Most in demand are homegrown campaign veterans such as Dave Roederer, the Iowa chairman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), or his counterpart in the Romney campaign, Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross. Both served as chief of staff to Iowa's most recent Republican governor, Terry Branstad, a common background typical of Iowa strategists.

Most senior Democratic advisers come from one of two loosely overlapping networks: the orbs around Vilsack and Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa). Des Moines trial lawyer Rob Tully, the Iowa chairman for former senator John Edwards (N.C.), is a longtime Harkin adviser, as is Winterhof. Link, a former Harkin chief of staff who has also advised Vilsack, is being aggressively pursued by Edwards.

In addition to Vilmain, Clinton has grabbed another top Vilsack strategist, Des Moines lawyer Jerry Crawford, a horse-racing enthusiast who has had a seemingly magic touch, advising the caucus campaigns of every eventual Democratic nominee since 1980.

The Guessing Game

With more than seven months before the caucuses, the contours of the caucus campaign, 2008 version, are anything but certain.

The two candidates ahead in the polls -- Edwards on the Democratic side and Romney on the Republican -- are the ones who have spent the most time and money building an organization here. But the commitment of other candidates to waging an all-out campaign in Iowa has appeared to waver.

The Clinton memo caused a huge stir, though rival campaigns have speculated that the leak may have been deliberate, to allow Clinton to reaffirm her commitment to the state.

Two leading Republicans, McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, announced yesterday that they are opting out of one ritual for GOP candidates in the state: the August straw poll in Ames. No candidate has skipped the straw poll and gone on to win the caucuses in the past 30 years, but their decision is likely to sharply reduce the influence of the poll, which traditionally has winnowed the Republican field in the months before the primary season begins in earnest.

The Giuliani campaign made the announcement first, saying that it is "100 percent committed to winning the Iowa caucuses" but will use the money it would have spent in Ames to campaign later in the year. The McCain campaign then said that because Giuliani would be absent, the straw poll would not be "a meaningful test of the leading candidates' organizational abilities," and so it was opting out, too.

Whether the withdrawals from the straw poll will also diminish this year's GOP caucuses remains to be seen, said Arthur Sanders, a political scientist at Drake University.

But, he said, the flurry of calculations about how hard to play in Iowa serves as a reminder that one of an Iowa strategist's toughest calls is a cold-eyed appraisal of a campaign's prospects in the state. In late 2003, former Vermont governor Howard Dean (D) was riding high in the polls in Iowa and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) was considering pulling back. But his Iowa staff persuaded him to stay, and a few months later, he won a comeback victory that launched him to the nomination and crushed Dean, who finished third, behind Edwards.

The prevailing theory in Iowa is that Dean lacked the state-rooted leadership that his rivals had. His Iowa staff members overstated their support even to themselves and did not effectively deploy the hundreds of volunteers who flocked to the state. Meanwhile, the Kerry and Edwards teams kept up with the basic organizing groundwork.

In the Kerry campaign, this tone was set out by Crawford, the Iowa chairman, and its manager, John Norris, another former Vilsack chief of staff. Norris is heralded for having kept his staff focused despite poor poll numbers, for tracking down veterans by using tax rolls and for getting Kerry to be more succinct on the stump.

Norris, a youthful-looking 48-year-old from Red Oak, in southwest Iowa, is not with a campaign this time because he is head of the state utilities board and because his wife, Jackie Norris, a New Yorker who first came to Iowa to work on Vilsack's 1998 campaign, is working for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

On a recent evening, as he watched his three young sons at a playground while his wife attended a late meeting, Norris had a simple explanation for what worked in 2004. "It's understanding the mindset of how Iowans approach the caucus," he said. "They're not just judging the candidate but the organization of the campaign. If you give them the sense you understand the caucus and the party, they'll respond."

Organization is particularly important on the Democratic side because of the party's caucus rules. The winner is selected not by total votes, but by the delegates accumulated in each of the 2,000-plus precincts. Because there is a predetermined number of delegates in each precinct, who then get apportioned based on the votes for each candidate, campaigns cannot compensate for falling behind in some areas by running up big totals in others.

Instead, they must build a base of support statewide. And because the rules also require that a candidate win 15 percent in a precinct to get any delegates, campaigns must be ready to make a last-minute play for supporters of those who miss that bar. All of this means gathering support precinct by precinct, voter by voter -- campaigning at its most elemental.

Working within such a limited universe of voters presents Iowa campaigns with a perennial challenge: deciding whether to focus on reliable participants, or trying to discover a whole new cohort of voters. Pat Robertson demonstrated the potential in venturing into new territory during the 1988 GOP caucus, when his big draw among religious conservatives who had not caucused before vaulted him to second place.

But few have been able to duplicate his success. As Romney's Gross sees it, it is best to go after party regulars. "What you're getting into here is a college student-council race. You have to get the big sororities and fraternities to show up for you," says the genial 52-year-old, whose 20th-story office looks across at the state Capitol's gold dome. "The rest of the people won't even know what's going on."

To accomplish this, the Romney campaign is, among other things, paying 58 "supervolunteers" in the state up to $1,000 per month, an unheard-of step this early in a caucus campaign. "It's a fairly nominal amount, and we get a better response out of our volunteers," Gross said.

McCain's camp says local Republicans have confided that they would be backing the Arizona senator but are going with Romney because they need the cash. "They're there for the money," said Chuck Larson, McCain's Iowa manager. "I would describe it as shallow support."

The McCain campaign is taking a more traditional approach, with a focus on signing up well-known conservative leaders in the state to win over Republicans who may regard the senator as too much of a maverick. "Activists are going to look under the hood, and it gives us credibility when people they trust are going to make the decisions," said Larson, a former state senator who spent a year in Iraq with the Army Reserve, acting as a liaison to sheiks in the Sunni Triangle.

One big get was Roederer, a wiry 56-year-old who likes to emphasize campaign basics. ("It bothers me to see people put up yard signs wrong, not perpendicular to the street," he says.) A party loyalist, he was initially "not too crazy" about McCain, but Larson persuaded him to fly to Washington to quiz the senator, an exercise he found slightly awkward.

"I said to him, 'You're an American hero, and for me to be asking you these questions is kind of embarrassing,' " Roederer recalled. "He laughed and said, 'Oh, that's part of the process.' "

Giuliani has enlisted Jim Nussle, a former congressman and the 2006 GOP gubernatorial nominee, as his top Iowa consultant, paying his firm more than $33,000 in the first three months of this year. (Most Iowa managers earn around $8,000 per month, while state chairmen tend to be unpaid.) But, having entered the race after Romney and McCain, Giuliani has fewer Iowa-based organizers to choose from. That is a challenge also facing former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who last week took a step toward entering the race. Thompson's camp has been trying to get the Iowa staff members for other candidates to switch, to no avail so far, say advisers with rival campaigns.

As for the risk a campaign takes in using outsiders, Roederer pointed to the headlines Giuliani's campaign suffered last month when it canceled an appearance at an Iowa farm after learning that the owners were not wealthy enough to serve as models for Giuliani's pitch against the estate tax.

"That's a completely out-of-state mindset," Roederer said. "In Iowa, you don't call up people and ask what their net worth is."

Secrets to Success

Edwards, who has made two dozen visits to the state since 2004, is widely credited with having the best Iowa organization. Tully, his Iowa chairman, described the campaign's approach on a recent afternoon while relaxing with a Honduran cigar on a leather couch in the private club he and friends opened in a nondescript Des Moines storefront in response to a proposed state smoking ban.

Edwards was in town to speak to local women at the library, but the garrulous Tully saw no need to be there. His role, he said, is to work behind the scenes at recruiting key backers -- such as Bill Wimmer, a lobbyist who was sitting on the next couch watching "Bonanza" on a wide-screen TV. Wimmer voted for Edwards in 2004 but said he is "enjoying not being tied down right now."

"I'm working on him," said Tully, whose family owned a lumber company in Dubuque. "I'm going to get him before I'm done."

As Tully sees it, this is the secret to success in Iowa: a soft sell over many months, because caucus voters feel obliged to learn about all the candidates.

"The way I do it is to say, 'Listen, we really want you. But I know it's early, so take your time,' " he said. "It's just touching them. It's not a final sale. It's a matter of keeping the process open and trying not to screw it up."

A few blocks from the business park that houses Clinton's and Edwards's Des Moines headquarters, Obama's offices in a converted ice rink are filled with eager young volunteers, evoking a comparison to Dean in 2004. But Jackie Norris and Paul Tewes, the D.C.-based consultants directing Obama's Iowa effort, say they will not repeat his mistakes. As if taking a page from Kerry's playbook, they have adorned a wall with plans for a veterans initiative.

"If we can't build an organization of Iowans who want to talk to other Iowans, that's our own fault," said Tewes, a Minnesota native who helped run Al Gore's 2000 caucus campaign. "If we're putting a lot of attention into bringing out-of-state people in, we're missing the mark."

Vilmain, meanwhile, was on her way from Wisconsin, where she now lives, to Washington last night for meetings at Clinton's national headquarters today. Her relations with campaign upper echelons have not always been the best -- she entered caucus lore in 1988 when, feeling neglected by Dukakis's Boston headquarters, she ordered her staff not to answer Boston's calls for a day, a brassy move at age 28.

The tactic worked, but she sees it as a mistake that she learned from. The philosophy she has developed since, she says, is all about the team, about making sure that everyone knows his or her role and is fulfilling it, and about helping those who are not. It is also about making sure everyone grasps the gravity of the undertaking.

"We have to work hard and work smart. At the end of the day, it's about what's best for Hillary Clinton . . . and about how does your work fit into the overall goal of getting her into the White House," she said. "I don't view this as a game, because it's not always fun. It's hard work. It's a serious business."

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