DES MOINES — When Teresa Mihaylov first set foot in the temporary housing provided here to volunteers for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, “I really did feel like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this does remind me of a dorm.’ ”
That’s because it is one. Mihaylov is bunking at what is known as Camp Cruz, a decommissioned college dormitory where volunteers have been living while canvassing and making calls to bolster Cruz’s campaign across the nation’s first voting state. It’s like MTV’s “Real World,” rebooted for a presidential campaign: a lot less drinking and drama, and a lot more door-knocking and dialing the telephone.
It has been decades since Mihaylov lived in a dorm with a roommate. But, at age 56, she agreed to travel back in time a little bit — leaving her job, home and friends in Texas for a few weeks to pitch in for Cruz.
“I would give it a half a star, maybe a whole star,” she said of her accommodations, which were previously home to students of the AIB College of Business.
The brick and beige aluminum-sided dorm may not be luxurious, but it is an efficient way to house those among Cruz’s more than 9,000 volunteers who have descended upon Iowa from elsewhere — some from more than 1,000 miles away.
The volunteers don’t seem to mind. They are all there for the same purpose — to fight the crucial ground war that historically determines the winner of the state’s caucuses. And they are, for the most part, focused on that task, said Ken Brolin, a 64-year-old who came to Iowa from Long Island and runs the dorm.
“We’ve had only a few times where we said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, who are we representing here? Oh, yes, Senator Cruz. Very, very good,’ ” Brolin said. “And then everybody stops after their second drink.”
The tradition is not a new one. In 2004, former Vermont governor Howard Dean brought in nonIowans to campaign for him, outfitting them in bright orange knit hats and purple wristbands and sending them to knock on doors. “The Iowa Perfect Storm: Grassroots for Dean,” the hats read.
But in Dean’s case, the ploy backfired; instead of unifying the 3,500 volunteers, the hats signaled that they were not from Iowa and didn’t know much about caucusing.
About 60 Cruz volunteers are living in the three-story dorm, Brolin said, and the campaign has plans to open another, with 48 beds, in the building next door. Cruz has also opened dorms in New Hampshire and South Carolina, states with voting after Iowa.
People sleep two or sometimes three to a room, with someone on an inflatable mattress. The beige carpets and sofas are well-worn. Campaign paraphernalia gives the place an added college feel; doors and hallways are decorated with U.S. and Texas flags and signs that read “Fight with Cruz” or “Cruz Country.”
The schedule is brutal — and the weather is cold. The volunteers gather each morning for an optional prayer at 7:45 a.m. and are briefed on their day at 7:50. There is a meeting for new arrivals at 7 each night.
On a recent Thursday morning, a group of volunteers huddled in one of the dorm’s stairwells; a feather boa in red, white and blue was draped around a doorway. Brolin looked up at the group and explained today’s task: knocking on the doors of undecided voters and persuading them to caucus for Cruz.
“Iowans absolutely love to stay undecided until the last minute they walk in the door,” he said. “We need to pray about that tomorrow.”
The volunteers then made their way to a dorm room where they were matched with their walking partners for the day. Jerry Dunleavy of Columbus, Ohio, stood with a whiteboard that broke down each group, their names and where they would be walking on a morning when the temperature hovered around 23 degrees. The groups were to be dispatched to Dallas and Boone counties, about 30 and 60 miles away.
It felt like campus orientation.
“Hi, Duane, I’m Teresa,” Mihaylov said to one of her partners this day, shaking his hand. Some trail mix and a copy of the book “Unbroken” sat on a nearby table.
Volunteers are equipped with tablets or given a program to download onto their phone to guide them on where to go and whom to talk to. Cruz’s campaign employs a sophisticated system that uses psychological data and analytics to target and profile potential voters.
“When we send people out in the cold we don’t want to say, ‘Here’s a list of Republicans; go knock on their door and see what they have to say,’ ” said Bryan English, Cruz’s Iowa state director. “We want to make sure that they go to houses that either have somebody who’s leaning our direction or very likely to lean in our direction if we could talk to them.”
Canvassers use the campaign data to know who lives at the home. When a person answers the door, English said, the canvasser hits his or her name and a script pops up that is targeted to their interests. English urges canvassers to answer specific policy questions but to otherwise stay on message.
“We just periodically remind folks . . . there are other campaigns that would like to see us fail, and so they will throw narratives into the mix that are intended to get us off message,” he said. “Don’t take the bait.”
Coleman Griffin, 19, a volunteer from Georgia, said he has been asked by many voters about Cruz’s stance on ethanol; Cruz does not support subsidies, and Iowa’s governor has said he should not win the caucuses because of it.
For Iowa’s notoriously icy winters, Griffin packed the few winter clothes he owns. Mihaylov said she brought several items purchased for an Alaska cruise that she never thought she’d use again, including a fake fur coat, lined leather gloves and a fuzzy wrap for her ears. “They are coming in handy,” she said — as is her new pair of snow boots with good traction for the ice.
Volunteers are responsible for their own meals and transportation to and from Camp Cruz — from their homes and for canvassing each day. The dorm rooms have kitchens, but typically, the volunteers eat out. Mihaylov said most folks just snack to get through the day since they have to pay for their own food.
Beth Avery of Gambrills, Md., drove to Iowa over two days. She now ferries people to and from canvassing locations. Bundled up in a puffy, maroon coat and a knitted scarf with an American flag pattern, Avery, a 32-year-old who works at an engineering services company, said many in the dorm have become fast friends; someone made her biscuits and gravy for breakfast. She said she is exhausted at the end of the day and in bed no later than 11.
“We’re here for a common purpose,” she said.
Brolin said his room is a common area, and he’s basically the resident assistant, usually kicking everyone out at 10 p.m.
But life outside inevitably intrudes. On New Year’s Eve, Brolin sneaked out from a dorm bowling night to have dinner with his girlfriend — and to propose marriage to her.