AMES, Iowa — In Phyllis Peters’s garage, there is a snow shovel. A nice one: green, shiny, with an ergonomic steel handle. It came from Hillary Rodham Clinton.
And it plays a part in a modern-day political legend, about some of the strangest money a candidate has ever spent.
Eight years ago, Peters was a volunteer for Clinton’s first presidential run. She had been an admirer of Clinton since her time as first lady. But just before Clinton lost the Iowa caucuses, her staffers did something odd: They bought shovels for Peters and the hundreds of other volunteers.
“If you’re in Iowa, you have a snow shovel” already, Peters said. But she accepted. To be nice. This is Iowa. “We’re not rude people,” Peters said.
Today, the story of Clinton’s snow shovels is being told again in Iowa, as supporters worry that her second campaign could repeat the mistakes of the first. For both those who gave out the shovels and those who received them, they came to symbolize a candidate who never quite got their home state.
Clinton doesn’t face near the same challenge in Iowa in 2016. But the state still matters as a test of basic politics, a gauge of whether she has gotten any better at connecting with the people she wants to vote for her.
Last time around, Clinton tried to win over Iowans with bloodless logic, touting her résumé and her grinding work ethic. When that fell short, Clinton’s well-funded campaign — unable to buy her love — started buying everything else.
An expensive chartered “Hill-a-copter.” A $95,000 order of deli sandwiches. And 600-odd new snow shovels, some of which still sit, unused, in basements and garages across Iowa.
The idea behind them seemed to be that Clinton’s own voters might be so old, or so un-enthused, that they wouldn’t leave the house if it snowed. And that Clinton’s own Iowa volunteers — if sent on a voter-rescue mission — might not be prepared for . . . winter. In Iowa.
“It’s sort of like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take a snow shovel,’ ” said Marisue Hartung, one of Peters’s fellow Clinton volunteers in Ames. “But why?”
The story of the snow shovels starts way back in the fall of 2007. At that time, Clinton — a second-term senator from New York — was crushing Barack Obama in national polls,up 20 points. In Iowa, she was up by a handful.
But already, Clinton staffers were discovering a problem here:
There were large numbers of elderly people. Shift workers. Single mothers. All people who might be too tired, or too busy, to come out and vote the way Iowans vote: with their feet, in a gym, in a long caucus night of speechifying and waiting around.
“We left, and we all wanted to go drink. It was like, ‘I don’t know what a caucus is,’ ” said one Clinton staffer from the 2008 campaign. “We realized that, like, we were going to lose because we weren’t going to be able to get out all of these Hillary supporters” to stay as long as it took to be counted.
So Clinton needed more people. New people. She was pouring resources into Iowa. But so was Obama, and his soaring message of hope and change was spreading among the kind of people who really would come to a caucus and stay.
To Clinton, by contrast, politics was not about soaring. It was about grinding — a constant, incremental struggle — and she was the candidate who could succeed at it. That might have been true. But it was hardly the stuff of joy.
“We all want change,” she would say. “Some people believe you bring it about by hoping for it. I believe you bring about change by working really, really hard for it.”
The other problem was Clinton’s distance — both emotional and real. Even when she was in Iowa, it felt as if she wasn’t.
Obama “would get on a bus, and he would go from town to town to town, and people would ride on the bus with him. People would get to know him,” said Chris Gowen, who was part of Clinton’s advance team. “Whereas we would fly into Des Moines . . . then dart back to the airport, and fly to northern Iowa, then dart back to the airport.”
“We were spending all this money,” he said. “And you’d never really connect with people.”
As the Jan. 3 caucuses approached, Iowa seemed to be slipping away from Clinton. But her campaign still had money coming in — on some days, more than $1 million.
And money is for spending. With Iowa still theoretically in play, there would be no prizes for saving it.
“The reality is, the closer you get to an election day, the harder it is to spend money in a smart way,” said Karen Hicks, a senior adviser to Clinton’s 2008 campaign. It was getting too late to buy ad time on television, or print up new fliers, or train new staff, before the caucuses. “It gets harder to spend in a way that you can tie to an incremental vote or caucus victory.”
At a time like that, Hicks said, “you probably should stop spending.”
The campaign didn’t.
Even when it worked, this was not a perfect idea. Clinton — seeking to project a common touch — would meet voters by descending from the sky.
An even more last-minute purchase was the $95,384 order of deli sandwiches from the Hy-Vee grocery chain. The Iowa tradition was to bring munchies, not meals. But the Clinton people were worried about their young mothers and shift workers. Would they skip the caucuses if it meant waiting hours to eat?
And then: the shovels.
“I remember when they were ordered. There was an actual conversation about is there anything else, you know. ‘We are sure that we can’t purchase any more phone time?’ ‘Are we sure that we can’t purchase any more flights of mail?’ ” said the former Clinton campaign staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relations with the current campaign.
The shovels were bought, and they were distributed to offices and precinct captains by campaign staff. It’s not clear, from campaign-finance records, what they cost — but it seems certain to have been at least $10,000.
In hindsight, there is debate about why snow shovels appeared to be a better choice than nothing.
Some people saw them as a metaphor: a physical reminder that Clinton’s volunteers were needed to get their people out, come hell or high water — or snow.
“I think the same thing could have been accomplished by giving out a key chain with a snow shovel on it that costs 30 cents,” said the former Clinton staffer.
Hicks said this was a preemptive maneuver, grabbing a valuable resource before the enemy did. And if voters didn’t stay home, there was another worry: caucus sites. Snowy walks. Voters might not make it to the door.
Maybe. But, again, if you live in Iowa, you probably have a shovel.
Neither Obama nor Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), the other two top contenders, seem to have bought snow shovels. Did they laugh when Clinton did? “I’m not going to answer that on the record,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon, Edwards’s Iowa state director.
To the Iowans who got them, they did not make much sense. Either as a metaphor or as a shovel.
“All down the hallway in the office are these brand-new snow shovels,” said Justin Sharp, then a University of Iowa student volunteer. He asked. Somebody explained. Sharp thought it was the same kind of thinking that had led Clinton’s campaign to tell him to knock on doors in Iowa City on Saturdays, during Iowa Hawkeyes football games.
“If they’re going to go to the caucus, they’re going to go,” Sharp remembered thinking. “And if they’re not, they’re not going to go — even if you shovel them.”
In West Des Moines, Clinton volunteer Tom Laughead, who admired the candidate for her work on health-care reform, actually tried to put his gift to use. A few days before the caucuses, he cleared old snow off a walkway at one woman’s house.
Just to show that he, and Clinton, were serious.
“She said, ‘Oh, well, thank you very much,’ and then she just kind of like, uhhh,” Laughead said, miming a woman trying to avoid eye contact with a Clinton volunteer.
“I just hope to see you there,” Laughead remembered saying.
“I don’t remember seeing her there.”
When caucus night came at last, Clinton’s volunteers saw what Clinton’s staff had feared. Their well-funded campaign — so flush it could give shovels to people who had shovels — was going to lose.
“It was like, ‘This half of the room is where the Obama delegates are going to be, and everybody else go in this half of the room,’ ” said Sharp, the University of Iowa volunteer. In his college town, Clinton’s supporters were in the “everybody else” part, lumped in with the other losers. “They never told us that this could happen. We were just expecting that the support was going to be there.”
The sandwiches didn’t seem to help much. “The Obama people, and the Edwards people, I think they ate as many as the few Hillary people did,” Sharp said.
And the shovels didn’t help much, either. On caucus day, it did not snow anywhere in Iowa.
“The Obama people had these shirts. And everyone loved these T-shirts, and people were running around like madmen to get these shirts,” said Gowen, the advance man. In the caucus environment, where people can watch each other vote, the red T-shirts signaled to undecided voters that Obama’s strength was strong and catching. “Had we gone with T-shirts over shovels,” Gowen said, “we might have had a different president right now.”
Okay maybe that’s a little strong.
“Had we gone with T-shirts, I think we would at least have come in second,” Gowen said.
Instead, Clinton came in third, behind Edwards.
Now, Clinton is back in Iowa. Some supporters here say she doesn’t need to change her logical, résumé-based appeal. The problem in 2008 was Obama and the wellspring of frustration with the Bush administration that he tapped.
Both are out of the picture now.
“It’s sort of an urban myth that the Clinton campaign didn’t do well in Iowa in 2008. The truth is that she got more votes than anybody in the history of the Iowa caucuses,” said Jerry Crawford, her Midwestern co-chair in 2008 and still a close adviser. “It just wasn’t as much as the other two.”
But many in Iowa, and on Clinton’s campaign staff, say they are determined to do some things differently.
For her first Iowa event, in April, she arrived in her “Scooby” van, not in a Hill-a-copter. And she has held a series of small events — house parties and roundtables — to emphasize her desire to start small and listen first.
“Hillary made it very clear to us that she wanted to have a conversation with Iowans and hear their thoughts, concerns and ideas for the future,” Matt Paul, Clinton’s Iowa state director, said in an e-mail interview. “The caucus is about relationships, and to build those, you’ve got to listen — and that’s exactly what she’s been doing.”
But elements of the old approach remain.
For one thing, Clinton’s small events have still been stiffly staged, with attendees often pre-screened by staff or by the Secret Service. “We passed the deadline for a security clearance, so we didn’t get to go,” said Nancy Sweetman, a green-shovel owner who saw too late an invitation to a “house party” with Clinton in Mason City. “But you know, living in Iowa, we’ll see her again.”
Clinton still focuses on her résumé and work ethic, casting herself as “a champion” for the middle class. That means her appeal can still be tied to the idea that politics is a grind.
“She’s got the strength to take the criticism right now from the press on avoiding questions from the press,” said Dean Genth, a Clinton supporter who hosted the Mason City house party.
“She’s going to have to connect at a very different level if she wants to be president,” said Janelle Rettig, a Clinton precinct captain in 2008 who is now a county supervisor in Johnson County. “It’s very hard for me to go against a woman who’s smart, who’s qualified and who’s experienced. But I also need somebody who I’m passionate about. And that’s not there, yet.”
A few weeks ago, one of Clinton’s new campaign staffers came to Ames to ask advice from three locals who had seen the last campaign up close. All three owned green snow shovels. Whatever else happened, they wanted Clinton to know that they didn’t need more.
“The snow shovels aren’t necessary,” Hartung said. Iowans come to caucus, whether it snows or not. “We were going to get there anyway.”
Hartung recalled the staffer’s response: “She sort of said, ‘You know, I’ve heard other comments about this. . . . ’ ”
Alice Crites and Anu Narayanswamy in Washington contributed to this report.