EAST AMANA, Iowa — Anna Navin stepped out of her Honda, grabbed a large pink backpack from the passenger seat of her car and knocked on the door of Glenn Goetz, a 68-year-old retiree.
Navin, a 28-year-old organizer for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was meeting with Goetz to see if he would take on more duties as a precinct captain, including knocking on doors in other nearby communities and helping recruit volunteers.
As she stepped inside, Navin and Goetz greeted each other like old friends, and after a few months of running into each other at county parades and at volunteer events she had hosted on Warren’s behalf, they were. He offered her a cup of tea and a plate of freshly baked cookies as they sat down at his kitchen table to strategize about an area he was planning to canvass.
He had already been to the neighborhood, and he wondered if it was too aggressive. “You know, the more we talk to these caucus-goers, the better,” Navin assured him. “People will know you as the Warren guy.”
Navin was careful not to ask too much. Democrats here tend to resist the “big, structural change” central to Warren’s campaign. Many work with fans of President Trump, or live next door to them. In this environment, even some of Warren’s most loyal supporters are reluctant to come out.
“You want to be respectful of what people are comfortable with and what they aren’t comfortable with,” she said. One of the biggest parts of her job, she said, was holding people’s hands and gently leading them further.
It is one of the many lessons Navin has learned while trying to forge the human connection that often determines a voter’s willingness to turn out on a cold winter night to caucus. She has made the argument for her candidate face to face, house to house, going to places politicians often don’t to rally support She is one of the hundreds of young staffers and volunteers who descend on Iowa every four years like an invading army and are the vital backbone of presidential campaigns here.
Many Democratic presidential candidates, such as former vice president Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have robust organizations. But among locals, Warren’s organization stands out.
While the campaign has declined to release exact numbers, the Massachusetts senator is believed to have more than 100 field staff fanned out across the state, including some who have been on the ground for the better part of a year. Warren staffers have become deeply embedded, showing up at high school sports games, book clubs, bingo nights and potluck dinners dressed in the campaign’s signature liberty green attire. In Fairfield, Iowa, a family recently named their newborn goat Herb, after the Warren field organizer who has prolifically canvassed that town for months. In Mason City, an organizer who was in the hospital for emergency surgery used his recovery time to pitch the ER staff on Warren’s candidacy.
The stories about Warren staffers in Iowa and how far they go to sell her candidacy regularly circulate among rival campaigns, eliciting both eye rolls but also grudging admiration. “It’s like, where did they find these kids?” marveled a longtime Iowa Democratic activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she endorsed another candidate in the race.
As Warren’s poll numbers slip amid attacks from rivals over her embrace of Medicare-for-all and the costs of her various policy plans, she is counting on her organization to help her finish on top in Iowa, propelling her to New Hampshire and beyond.
Navin, organizing in a part of Iowa Democrats seldom go, is part of that plan.
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An English major in college, Navin got involved in politics three years ago, after Trump’s election. Back then, she was living in the Bay Area, working for the Oakland chapter of Habitat for Humanity. She quit her job and moved to Arizona, where she worked as a field organizer for a few Democratic campaigns, including Kyrsten Sinema’s successful U.S. Senate bid.
After that, she thought she had retired from organizing — “I’m old for this job,” she said, pointing out that many of her colleagues are in their early 20s. But earlier this spring, Navin heard Warren speak about affordable housing, the issue she cared about most, describing it as a human right. “I just fell in love right there,” Navin said. “I thought, we have to elect a woman like that. … And that is what got me out to Iowa.”
For the last seven months, she has become intimately acquainted with the rolling landscape of Iowa and Tama counties, a rural area in eastern Iowa that has grown increasingly conservative over the years. The counties were among the 31 in the state that backed Barack Obama before supporting Trump three years ago. There are about 5,900 registered Democrats here, about a quarter of the electorate according to the state voter roll, spread out over some 1,300 square miles. Most voters are registered as “no party.”
Navin is often decades younger than the voters she meets. Still, in a sparsely populated rural area where a few votes could determine a candidate’s viability in what many here expect to be one of the most competitive caucuses ever, Navin takes every chance she gets to talk to people about Warren.
She ran a 5k race in July, huffing and puffing through the hilly countryside of tiny Toledo alongside a pair of Trump supporters who jogged with her because they worried she might pass out. More recently, she pulled her car off the road to wave down a farmer driving his tractor in a field to talk to him about the election. He signed a card committing to caucus for Warren.
She fixates on the missed opportunities. Recently, Navin’s car died, and she flagged down a man in a truck to ask him for a jump. Afterward, as the man drove away, Navin realized she had missed a chance to ask who he was planning to caucus for. “Normally I would have, but I didn’t,” she said. And on the hour drive back to Grinnell, where she lives, she gripped the wheel and obsessed about it, vowing not to make that mistake again.
Navin makes about $700 a week, about the same amount she was earning in California. But the money goes much further here, especially since she is doing little besides working. She regularly pulls 12-hour days on Warren’s behalf, seeking out undecided voters, holding supporter meetups and doing whatever else she can do. She lives off gas station pizza or bags of cheddar-flavored Chex Mix, her go-to snack. “I have bags in my trunk,” she said.
For fun, she and her roommate — a fellow Warren organizer — will sometimes watch videos of Warren’s events from that day. “I wake up thinking about Elizabeth Warren,” Navin said. “And I go to bed thinking about Elizabeth Warren.”
Navin’s days usually begin around sunrise, when she reads emails and catches up on what is happening with the campaign.
Before she heads out for the day, she has calls with other Warren staffers and launches into what is a near-constant stream of texting with volunteers she has recruited and other prospective supporters, setting up meetings or going over canvassing schedules. Navin is out the door by 9 or 10 a.m., making the hour commute to one of her two counties to meet with voters and knock on doors.
Navin often finds herself driving down long dusty roads to remote farms, unsure of what reception she will get. While she has a list of Democrats and independents she is tracking down, she has occasionally found herself face to face with a spouse or family member who backed President Trump in the last election, or talking to a Democrat who believed Warren was way too liberal.
People had never been rude or unkind, she said. No one had ever slammed a door in her face. If people did not want to talk, they told her so. But to her surprise, many often did and invited her inside their homes, in part because they were shocked that she had come knocking at all. “You get to know people in these more intimate settings,” Navin said. “Because it’s these one-on-one meetings. … You get longer to talk to people, to get to know them.”
After meeting with Goetz, Navin went to the public library in Williamsburg to meet with Callie Reynolds, 29, a young mother who had started volunteering for the campaign after meeting Navin at a coffee shop in North English, where she lives.
Reynolds, along with her 2-year-old son Kohner, regularly knocked doors. As Navin produced crayons and a coloring sheet featuring Warren’s golden retriever Bailey to keep Kohner occupied, Reynolds excitedly told her she had sent more than 3,000 text messages to voters the day before on the senator’s behalf. “They are talking about me in the chat rooms,” Reynolds said excitedly, referring to a mobile app used by Warren volunteers. “They don’t understand how I’m so fast.”
Reynolds had been working on voters far closer to home too, including her mother and her fiance, who were registered Republicans. She was close to convincing her fiance, and her mother just had just committed to caucus for Warren, in part because of her plan to revitalize rural America. “One more down!” Reynolds said.
Even when Navin finds Warren supporters, they are often reluctant to openly identify as Democrats. During an afternoon meeting in North English, Jason Lightfoot, 45, agreed to canvass on Warren’s behalf — as long as it was not in the city where he lives. “Everyone knows where I lean politically, based on Facebook. I don’t hide it,” he said. “But signs in the yard, knocking on doors, I know I probably shouldn’t do that.”
Part of the reluctance was his wife’s job as principal at the local high school, which he worried could be complicated by politics. But he also admitted he did not want to get into it with his neighbors, who tend to be more conservative than he is.
“People don’t feel comfortable. I get it,” she said about Lightfoot’s hesitance. “You can’t make people do something they don’t want to do.”
Navin drove back to Williamsburg, where she presided over a phone bank with four female volunteers she had recruited from the region, including Reynolds. The group had lists of registered Democrats and independents in Iowa and Tama counties, and as they drank tea and nibbled on candy and sandwiches, they went row by row, calling the voters.
Tina Becerra-Hensley, a 55-year-old volunteer from Amana, had brought a bell rattle, which she loudly shook when she spoke to a voter who said they were supporting Warren. Each time, the women cheered wildly.
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But on a few of the calls, voters voiced some concerns. One questioned Warren’s Medicare-for-all proposal and its impact on private insurance. Another bluntly said he did not believe a woman could beat Trump and could not support Warren because of that.
As Olivia Doehrmann, a 24-year-old special education teacher from Amana, tried discuss this opinion with the man, the women grew quiet and listened to her end of the conversation. The joy and energy in the room slowly deflated. The issue had come up before.
After Doehrmann hung up, Rosetta Mason, 60, shook her head. “When I hear a man say that, I say to them, ‘What if it were your daughter? Are you going to tell your daughter she can’t run for president?’” Mason said. “I don’t understand why people think we’re not ready for a woman. It should be about what job skills you have.”
Across the table, Navin nodded. She had heard this same argument from other voters during her months traveling the back roads of this rural county, how they just were not convinced that a woman could win. Every time it came up, Navin had the same answer, pointing to the record number of women elected to Congress in last year’s midterm elections and how Warren had made history as the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.
Now Navin tried to raise the spirits of these women, her most loyal volunteers, who had sacrificed hours of their time approaching friends and neighbors on behalf of Warren, a woman they would probably never meet, because they believed in her and her cause.
“People said Barack Obama wasn’t electable. People said Donald Trump wasn’t electable,” Navin said. “If anyone can [break barriers], it’s Elizabeth.”
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Since June, Navin has put more than 12,000 miles on her car on behalf of Warren. She’s met the politician just a handful of times, mostly in passing.
But on a Saturday morning in September, Navin was out knocking on doors in Williamsburg when her cellphone rang. The call was from a blocked number. Taking a deep breath, she answered.
“Happy birthday!” Warren called out.
Navin froze on the street. Clutching the phone, she listened as Warren thanked her for her work. But the candidate also wanted to talk business. She had just released a new Social Security plan.
“She just started giving me talking points … my plan is going to do this, this, this and this. And I was like cool, cool, cool, thanks for the talking points because I’m actually knocking doors right now,” Navin recalled.
The experience, she said, was “kind of surreal.” “It was like, oh my god, I talk about you every day, like all day.”
Photo editing by Natalia Jimenez. Design and development by Allison Mann.