Dean for America headquarters in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was hardly the
posh setup you might expect of the Democratic Party's presidential front-runner,
the five-time former Vermont governor who, thanks to small Internet donations
from a devoted supporter base, has managed to out-fund-raise all seven
of his competitors.
It was, for one thing, in a bingo parlor.
It also seemed to be staffed solely by guys under the age of 25 named
Matt, whose housekeeping skills were such that the entire office appeared
to have at one point been turned upside down, shaken, and then set back
This did nothing to allay the enthusiasm of the small horde of UC Berkeley
students and other young Bay Area Howard Dean supporters who materialized
there one day at the end of December, clutching suitcases, digital cameras,
and random articles of snow gear. They were the first squall in the Perfect
Storm, the Dean campaign's code name for its effort to win the Iowa caucuses,
and Council Bluffs would be their home base for the next nine days. The
concept was simple: Import thousands of out-of-state volunteers and have
them troop door-to-door through every last precinct, hammering the get-out-the-vote
message and spreading the Gospel of Dean.
Walking precincts is hardly revolutionary -- as hosts to the nation's
first primary contest, Iowans must tolerate a quadrennial deluge of phone
calls and solicitous front porch visits from strangers wanting to know
about their vaguest political leanings. And Dean, of course, wasn't the
only one with an army of canvassers -- for example, Rep. Richard Gephardt,
Dean's early rival in Iowa and the winner of the 1988 caucuses, had a
formidable union-based canvassing operation here.
But what distinguished the Dean campaign this year was the sheer scope
of its endeavor. Calling its operation the Perfect Storm after the meteorological
phenomenon in which several smaller fronts coalesce into a furious tempest,
the campaign's plan was to bring in an increasing number of volunteers
every weekend between Christmas and the January 19 caucuses. Ultimately,
they hoped, an army of 3,500 volunteers would knock on 200,000 doors and
phone more than 50,000 households. Not only would they call on likely
Dean supporters, but any voter registered Democrat, Independent, or decline-to-state.
That's in addition to thousands of handwritten letters the campaign convinced
supporters across the country to send to Iowa voters, describing the writer's
personal reasons for backing Dean. Every first Wednesday of the month,
at localized Dean get-togethers known as Meetups, the candidate's backers
cranked out more such notes, giving a corresponding nudge to Dean's Iowa
Perhaps it was simply coincidence that the first group of volunteers --
call it Storm #1 -- was made up largely of Cal students and members of
Berkeley's Meetup group. But more likely it had something to do with the
persuasive powers of Cal sophomore Adam Borelli, founder of Berkeley Students
for Howard Dean. Adam is soft-spoken and modest, but maintains an air
about him that promises, "One day, you will be knocking on doors
for my campaign." It was Adam who spent a good deal of last autumn
convincing fellow students they should fly to Iowa on their own dimes
and spend their winter breaks hassling strangers in a cold, cold place,
with no guarantees of success. "I'm not going to lie; it's going
to be hard work," Adam had told them.
The job of the volunteers was to get as many Iowans to caucus for Dean
as possible. The caucuses, unlike most states' primaries, are a very public
display. The voters show up at a high-school gym or community hall in
their precinct, where each corner of the room has been marked for a different
candidate. The voters indicate their choice by raising a hand or literally
standing in their candidate's corner, and are allowed to argue and cajole
others into joining them.
At the end of the evening, a head count is taken, and the percentage of
the crowd for each candidate determines how many of the precinct's delegates
will represent that candidate. It's such a time-intensive process that
only a fraction of registered voters show up, and, since Dean's support
is so heavily invested in new voters -- the young or the previously apolitical
-- the campaign deemed it critical that volunteers convince these people
to turn out. A popular poster of Dean somewhat awkwardly holding an electric
guitar made this point to the youth of Iowa: Rock Us to the Caucus.
And so, convinced they would play a crucial role at a critical time for
Howard Dean -- and also, perhaps, by their desire to attend what was expected
to be a raging Dean campaign New Year's Eve party in Des Moines -- the
East Bay kids signed on for Storm #1. Some of them had experience working
on state and local campaigns; others were totally new to politics, drawn
to Dean after getting involved in last year's antiwar protests.
In addition to Adam, the Cal contingent included students Tom De Simone,
Amanda Pedvin, Noreen Byrne, Ari Sugar, Eli Davidson, Mike Eidelson, and
Mike's younger brother Joel, a high-school senior. Also from the Bay Area
came Stanford student Gina Bateson, Cal alum David Weinreich -- who works
in the Assembly Speaker's office in Sacramento -- Albany software engineer
Jordan Brinkman, and even one volunteer named Matt, Mountain View engineer
Matt Ettus. None was older than 26. And although they came to Iowa to
help the campaign, they also wanted to meet Howard Dean, shake his hand,
and pelt him with questions. A few wanted hugs.
Dean was out there, his campaign staffers promised, somewhere in Iowa,
covering as much ground as possible. Maybe our paths would cross, they
hinted. The campaign was an unpredictable point in a complicated seven-candidate
race -- Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark were sitting it out -- and the
future looked as wide open as the Iowa horizon, upon which, the TV weathermen
promised, a massive storm was brewing.
Day 1, December 27
Late afternoon. We arrive in Council Bluffs not long before the sun sets
behind local landmarks, including the barn-shaped Brewski's Drive-Thru
Liquor. Although the volunteers are tired from their flight to a place
none of them has ever visited, the mission begins almost immediately.
The various Matts on Dean's campaign staff dispense eyestrain-inducing
fluorescent orange ski caps embroidered with the Perfect Storm logo, volunteer
badges, flashlights, maps, cellphones, lists of voter addresses called
"walk sheets," and the only training the volunteers will get.
The rules of engagement:
1. Tell people you've come all the way from California to support Howard
Dean, and try to engage them in positive conversation about the candidate.
2. If they're for Dean, urge them to caucus for him.
3. If they're undecided, load them up with Dean leaflets.
4. Once you've left the doorway, rank them on a scale of one to five (a
one is someone who will caucus for Dean; a five is solidly in enemy camp).
5. Hustle. Hit as many houses as possible.
We load up into a series of red, white, and blue rented Dodge vans and
head for Glenwood, a small nearby suburb. By the time we arrive, it's
completely dark and the temperature has nosedived from merely cold to
bone-chilling. The group splits into pairs and divides the walk sheets.
"Let's do it for Dean!" someone yells, and everyone breaks.
I tag along behind Adam, who has been paired with Barry and Joab Cochran,
a father and son team from Texas -- the only non-Californians in Storm
#1. They arrived yesterday, which makes them seasoned precinct walkers.
Their advice: Forget using "I came from Texas to tell you how to
vote" as an opening line. Adam wisely concludes that "I came
from California to tell you who to recall" is probably a nonstarter,
The evening starts out hopefully. At the very first house, an elderly
man with a huge collection of porch wind chimes takes the time for a pleasant
chat and announces he's leaning toward Dean. The canvassers exuberantly
mark him down as a two, and set off in a good mood.
It's all downhill from there. The second set of homeowners say they already
have more campaign literature than they can read, and moreover, we're
interrupting Christmas dinner -- it's technically two days after Christmas,
but whatever. Third house: nobody home. The folks at the fourth say we've
got the wrong address, and are so shifty about it that we're pretty sure
they are lying. The fifth house is vacant, with a "for sale"
sign. At the sixth, the guy says he can't vote. We back away slowly, thinking
he may be a convicted felon. The next homeowner tells us grumpily that
she's long been divorced from the guy on our list. At the eighth house,
a man tells us point-blank: "I don't like Howard Dean's personality.
I don't think he has one. I don't want him in charge."
And on and on. We learn the hidden dangers of canvassing at night: tree
branches that leap out from nowhere to gouge eyes, sidewalks that abruptly
dissolve into muddy embankments, disapproving stares from Iowans who can't
figure out why strangers are patrolling their streets late at night in
But there's one happy ending to the first night out. Eli and Ari have
reeled in Storm #1's first undecided voter, a former Bush supporter who,
after going through three jobs in a year, is unemployed and has soured
on the GOP. "We chilled with him in his house," Eli reports.
The pair answered the man's questions about Dean's position on health
care and Iraq, visited his mother at the nursing home next door, and eventually
got his promise of support. "He essentially was a Dean supporter;
he just didn't know it," Eli says.
As we drive toward our sleeping quarters for the next week -- a Girl Scout
camp that's technically in Nebraska -- the volunteers decide they're getting
the hang of it. Everything, they figure, will be much easier by day.
Day 2, December 28
It isn't. Our destination is Missouri Valley City, but by day's end, it's
been redubbed "Misery Valley." Never a bustling metropolis,
this town is completely empty on a Sunday; the Dairy Queen is boarded
up and the small-time punks hanging out in front of the movie theater
hardly blink when we troop by. It's mind-numbingly cold, with a sky as
gray as John Kerry's hair.
Never mind: Everyone is feeling optimistic, since along the way we've
picked up a Channel 7 News crew. They'll be airing a spot tonight on the
Californians who've come to stump for Dean. The group splits up, Adam
and Noreen taking the camera crew and Tom and Amanda taking me. "At
least this town has sidewalks," Amanda comments brightly. But the
day's theme quickly emerges: Nobody's home, and when they are, it might've
been better if they hadn't been.
At one house, Tom's knock is greeted by dogs the size of buffalo, which
throw themselves at the door. When an angry-looking man in a flannel shirt
finally answers, he takes one look at Tom's Dean poster and yells: "Oh,
God! Gun grabber!" and closes the door in our faces. "But Howard
Dean has a 100 percent rating from the NRA," Tom retorts as we beat
a hasty retreat.
We start down a long driveway toward a white farmhouse in the distance.
Before we've gotten more than a few yards, a skinny guy in a trucker's
hat emerges. "I'm not buying anything, so you might as well turn
around," he yells with such ferocity that nobody bothers to argue.
Even when friendly people are home, nobody has any luck persuading them
to caucus. The seniors complain that the weather's too cold, and many
of the women say they'll be following their husbands' leads. At one such
house -- where the colors of the USA, Iowa, Operation Desert Storm, POW/MIA,
and the Marines fly from a neat line of flagpoles in the front yard --
Amanda finally has had enough. "Haven't you read Simone de Beauvoir?"
she mutters, walking away.
After four frigid hours, the group reconvenes at the vans to swap stories.
Nobody had much luck, although the pair with the news crew says people
would at least appear interested for the camera's sake. Still, at one
point they stooped to canvassing a snowman. "It was a little depressing,"
Eli admits of his own rounds. "Not only were there not many Dean
supporters, but there weren't many Democrats, or if they were registered
Democrats, they were really Republicans. A lot of doors slammed in the
Noreen reports that one woman answered the door without any pants, asked
the canvassers to wait a minute, retreated into the house, and then re-emerged
a few minutes later still not wearing pants. "I was like, 'Would
you like a flyer?'" Noreen says. "Then I turned around and ran
Barry, Joab, and Gina, who've been walking the nineteenth precinct, have
encountered not only the underwear-clad, but people who swore at them,
and stoners who answered the door with joints in hand. "The nineteenth?
That's the Viper Pit of Angst," one of the Matts tells us knowingly.
"Do you realize one of the houses we went to was surrounded by cops?"
Barry asks incredulously. "We just walked by it. I wrote it down
on the walk sheet: 'House surrounded by cops.'"
It is a dog-tired group that heads back to the Girl Scout camp that night,
its enthusiasm for face-to-face politicking somewhat eroded. "All
of our hard work today, all of our talking to people, all of our dropping
literature isn't even going to make nearly the impact of those few seconds
of video that the local television station caught of us," Tom sighs.
Days 3 and 4, December 29 and 30
Walk. Drive. Walk. The days are resolving into a steady rhythm. The volunteers
campaign from noon to eight p.m. without breaking for meals. Although
the vans are stocked with bottled water, miniature candy bars, chips,
and granola bars, the students are often hungry. There's rumbling that
a campaign for a candidate who is, after all, a medical doctor, might
pay more attention to nutrition, and a dark conspiracy is afloat that
the Dean campaign is subtly trying to win votes in Cedar Rapids, which
reportedly has a big oat processing plant, by ratcheting up granola consumption.
Because of the grueling schedule, people have learned to hoard food. When
a bowl of fruit appears at the Girl Scout camp breakfast table, its contents
are spirited away to re-emerge hours later from people's ski jacket pockets.
Tom, in fact, has developed some Rules of the Road. "When you can
eat, eat a lot. When you can shower, shower. When you can sleep, sleep
a lot," he says. "Because you never know when you're going to
have the opportunity to do those things again."
As we roll from city to city, Adam is putting in serious time on his cell
phone, trying to grease the wheels with Des Moines to get us into the
campaign's New Year's Eve party. Everyone cheers whenever he gets done
making a call; it's rumored that Dean himself may be there, and besides,
the volunteers are looking forward to a break.
The days, after all, don't simply end when the vans return to Council
Bluffs. Usually the volunteers spend the evening phone banking. You can
find them curled up with their cell phones in the bingo parlor's odd hallway
corners, seeking a spot away from the strange polyphony of a dozen volunteers
repeating the same questions in unison. Gina claims the women's bathroom
as her personal call center. It's painted a shocking hot pink, but at
least it's quiet. By the time everyone makes it back to camp, it's typically
well past midnight.
Despite the grind, the volunteers seem to be enjoying themselves. They
are engaging in spirited policy debates and staying up late around the
camp fireplace to talk Dean. They've adjusted to the canvassing routine,
even creating their own tactics. For example, Eli, who is very tall, has
politely resolved to never stand on the top porch step, where he might
intimidate short homeowners.
Other hard-won wisdom:
Adam: Independent or decline-to-state voters with nativity scenes in their
yard are backing Bush.
Joel: Every ten degrees colder it gets, the people are that much more
nasty and that much more likely not to answer the door.
Ari: If you run the first four sentences of your spiel into one big sentence,
it's harder for people to interrupt you.
Dan Lesh, a Grinnell College student from Alaska who joins the group midway
through the week, nails down what is probably the firmest unwritten rule
of all: If you really want to impress a family, don't step on the front
The volunteers have endured trauma. They've been lunged at by snarling
dogs of all sizes. They've seen scary door signs, such as "Due to
risk of infection, we are requesting absolutely no visitors at this time,"
or the excessively blunt: "I'm a biker. If you knock on this door
and you're not blind, I'm going to assume you've read this sign and I'm
going to punch your lights out. So go the fuck away." They've encountered
the scantily clad ("There was boobage," Eli reports of one woman's
unconventional shirt), the extremely confused ("Is Dean a Republican
or Democrat?" and "What's a caucus?" are not uncommon queries),
and voters highly skeptical of Californians' political judgment ("Didn't
you guys vote for Arnold?"). They've chatted up seniors who seem
far more interested in hosting company than talking politics. And Noreen,
who seems to get all the weird ones, had one man tell her he won't caucus.
His excuse: "That's my birthday -- I'm going to be drunk."
They've also learned to roll with the punches. "I had people yesterday
who were like, 'Well, I support Gephardt because Dean supports gay rights
and I don't like gays,'" Gina recalls. "I was just kind of like,
'Okay, nice to talk with you, bye.'" Ari, an incredibly sweet-natured
person, simply refuses to acknowledge that people have stopped listening.
During phone-banking sessions, he often can be heard saying things like:
"I just called to ask you if you're planning to support Howard Dean
in the caucus and to tell you that it's not polite to hang up on people."
But on a pleasant day, when the temperature stays above thirty and the
sky is clear, the door-to-door routine lulls the volunteers into an almost
Zen-like state. Not every neighborhood is a Viper Pit of Angst, after
all, and they enjoy chatting with the locals and waving to kids on bikes.
And Dean's troops have, in fact, gotten a little juice from Channel 7's
news spot, which has gone a long way in some communities to warm people
to the orange-hatted college students on their doorsteps.
The small victories begin to pile up. Some homeowners ask for dozens of
Dean lawn signs to distribute to their neighbors. Others heartily thank
them for their hard work, or offer to put the canvassers up for the night.
Best of all, a few undecided voters let themselves be won over -- voters
such as Kenneth and Verena Coenen, a lovely couple of senior citizens
from Harlan, Iowa, who are torn between Gephardt and Dean when Adam and
Eli trudge up to their door.
Not wanting to offend Gephardt supporters who've been kind enough to invite
them in, Eli says he believes the congressman is a good person who's done
a lot for the party, but that he's just not the right man for president.
When Verena mentions that she'd rather move out of the country than endure
four more years of George Bush, the volunteers argue that Dean's strong
national polling numbers and sizable war chest make him the most likely
to beat the incumbent.
The couple listens intently, asking questions and offering comments. Finally,
as the volunteers prepare to go, Adam says he has to note how people intend
to vote and asks Kenneth if he should put him down as "undecided."
"No, you've convinced me," Kenneth says. The Berkeley guys raise
their mittened hands in a victory salute. But that was only half the battle.
Now there's the matter of caucus attendance. Verena reminisces fondly
about how much fun the gatherings used to be, but says she has no plans
to go. "Oh, we won't make a difference," she says.
"If there was ever a year to go, it's this year," Eli urges,
and before long the Coenens have agreed to caucus for Dean. There are
handshakes all around, and the couple sends off its visitors with victory
in their hearts and peanut butter Rice Krispies Treats in their mitts.
"I could do this all day," Eli says triumphantly. "This
is the kind of door-to-door that I like. The kind that gives us snacks,
that lets us in their house ..."
"... that changes their minds," Adam interrupts emphatically.
"It's a great feeling," Eli says. "This is what we're out
here for, to convince people that Howard Dean is the man to beat Bush."
At door after door, the Stormers highlight the same point: Iowa is crucial
for those who want Bush out of office. Because Dean isn't depending on
federal campaign funds, they say, he's the only Democrat who can sustain
a campaign through November. And the ex-governor, they point out, has
a formidable grassroots organization -- after all, here they are going
door-to-door eleven months before the election.
But they are also sensitive to the precariousness of their mission. Rival
get-out-the-vote machines are about to ramp up, and, in the words of the
volunteer Matt: "If someone's convinced by you showing up at their
door, they have nineteen more days to be convinced by somebody else showing
up at their door."
Most of all, the students are certain they are changing history for the
better. "What can the Dean campaign do for me?" Eli asks thoughtfully
one night as he sits in the van waiting for the others. "Well, I'm
going to Iowa so I can get help for paying for my education, health care,
jobs. When I get out in four years I want Dean to get this economy going
so I can get a job. I have a future that I've got to be looking after,
and if I have four more years of Bush, what are my odds of getting a job?"
He peers through the windshield into the Iowa night. "There's just
so many things that ride on this campaign."
Day 5, December 31
It's official: No New Year's Eve in Des Moines. Despite Adam's eloquent
pleas, Dean's people handed down one lame excuse after another -- there
was no place for the volunteers to stay; the party was in a bar and most
of the students were too young; the vans had to remain in Council Bluffs.
Instead, Storm #1 is being shunted to Sioux City two hours south to set
up for a Dean rally in a local high-school gym.
The volunteers try and temper their disappointment: If they can't party
with Dean in Des Moines, at least they'll stand a chance of meeting him
in Sioux City.
Our pending departure means a morning off from canvassing, and someone
comes up with the bright idea of touring the local headquarters of Dean's
rivals. The plan coalesces with such rapidity that a posse is soon out
the door, and all the Matts can do is beg the volunteers to remove their
Dean badges and buttons before entering any other candidate's digs.
John Edwards' campaign office is already familiar to us -- a squat garage
directly behind Dean HQ -- so we set off instead to examine the much snappier
Kerry headquarters. Everyone has heard rumors that the senator's campaign
is in tight financial straits and that Kerry has mortgaged his own home
to stay afloat, but you'd never know that from his local base, a trim
downtown storefront with an expensive-looking red-and-blue "John
Kerry for President" marquee and front windows plastered with posters
portraying his past as an antiwar activist.
But no one's home, so we drift across the street to Gephardt turf, a comparatively
dingy used-office-furniture store. No one there, either. The furniture
sales guys tell us that Gephardt's people are just now installing the
phone lines. The Dean kids gloat. "They're not even set up, and the
Dean campaign is bringing in volunteers from out of state," Gina
But the rejoicing is cut short by the awesome sight of Kerry's campaign
bus rolling down the street. His "Real Deal Express" is covered
in stars and stripes, all red, white, and blue. It features a talking
George W. Bush doll on the dashboard, and emblazoned on its rear is a
promise that Kerry will change America in his first one hundred days in
office. The Dean kids take off running, following the bus to a nearby
community center where the candidate has taken the stage before an enthusiastic
We squeeze into the back, and although many would like to hear Kerry's
speech, we're only there for a few minutes before the Dean staffers pull
us out and dispatch us to Sioux City. Still, Noreen has managed to score
an address and time for the Kerry campaign's New Year's Eve party which,
by sheer coincidence, will also be in Sioux City.
Dean's Sioux City office turns out to be everything Council Bluffs is
not: neatly organized, housed in a real office building, and staffed mostly
by women. But the staff is clueless about what to do on New Year's Eve
with a small army of out-of-town volunteers who are still wounded over
their Des Moines snub. They assign the volunteers a few hours of phone-bank
duty to drum up attendance at tomorrow's Dean rally, then depart with
a warning: no drinking in the office.
Now alone, the volunteers exchange looks. What to do? They, after all,
have wheels. "It's really silly that we can't just drive to Des Moines
and then come back," Gina says.
"So why don't we?" Matt asks.
"Because we're not invited."
"I think I'm just gonna switch to the Kerry campaign, because they
don't want us here," Dan chimes in.
He's only joking, but the idea of crashing Kerry's New Year's bash is
tempting, particularly for Noreen. "You know, we're all on the same
team in the grand scheme of things," she says, trying to sell the
crowd. "Let's just say things happen, so he could be the next president.
I want to shake his hand and say 'Happy New Year.'"
"He's a Democrat, you know," she insists.
Not long afterward, we're strolling into the enemy party as if we own
We'd expected our entrance would be greeted with cold stares, but the
Kerry people fawn over us, delighted to see young people presumably flocking
to their candidate. Indeed, the presence of the undercover Bay Area crew
has pretty much halved the average age of the crowd -- largely silver-haired
supporters who sit politely as the DJ trots out chestnuts like "Wake
Up Little Susie." Dean's kids are welcomed so warmly, in fact, that
Adam and a few others begin to question the ethics of it all, and rather
than lying to the Kerry folks or misrepresenting the Dean organization,
opt to hang out in the vans instead.
The others, meanwhile, are engaging in a full-fledged infiltration mission.
Dan has hooked up with the only other young people here, a table of teenage
Kerry volunteers wearing silver tiaras decorated with pink fur. Dan at
least has a plausible reason for being in the state. He is, after all,
a student at Grinnell, which is here in Iowa. But as Gina, then Matt,
then Ari, then Eli, then Noreen pull up chairs, their presence becomes
harder to rationalize. The extremely convoluted explanation they offer
has something to do with being step-siblings on a road trip. And although
the students had carefully "de-Deaned" the vans before arriving,
they'd been a little sloppy about stripping themselves of all Dean paraphernalia.
So when one of the eagle-eyed Kerry supporters spots Gina's volunteer
badge, she has to think fast. She comes up with a story about visiting
Dean headquarters on her road trip and having millions of trinkets foisted
upon her by an overeager staff.
"So, what do you think of Dean?" Eli asks the girls disingenuously.
"Oh, I hate him," one of the tiara-wearers responds.
"He's so arrogant," she says, making a face.
"Yeah, he's such a hothead," Eli says, playing along.
"And why does his campaign have no women? What's up with that?"
says Noreen, voicing a few things that really do concern her about the
Dean campaign. "And where's his family? I want to support someone
like Clinton: the dad, the family man."
Incredulous stares from her tablemates.
"Clinton the charmer," she insists.
Noreen is saved only by the arrival of Senator Kerry, who works the room
as the DJ pumps up the music and the crowd goes nuts with paper horns
and noisemakers. He's a tall, patrician presence in a somber gray suit,
and Noreen is right there behind him. Dodging television cameras and party
donors three times her age, she follows Kerry until he finally turns and
throws his arm around her for photos. Click, click, click, the cameras
flash. Back at the table, Noreen's fellow infiltrators howl with laughter.
They stay to hear Kerry speak, applaud him enthusiastically, and are out
the door before the balloons drop at midnight. They are red-faced with
excitement, giddy over how well their excursion turned out. The reunited
group heads downtown to watch the fireworks, but gets a little lost. We
welcome 2004 with horns and streamers, taking in the pyrotechnics from
the cold sidewalk between a tire yard and a scrap-metal recycling facility.
Day 6, January 1
The treachery hasn't been discovered. Anyway, nobody in the Sioux City
office is really interested in hearing where we spent last night because
they are frantically dealing with one of campaigning's X-factors: sports.
The Iowa Hawkeyes are playing the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl today,
and interrupting that football game to advertise tonight's Dean rally
would be a fatal faux pas.
We're sent out to breakfast to wait out the game, and then are hurriedly
ordered back mid-meal as the match ends. While the Dean volunteers are
used to the laid-back style of the Matts back in Council Bluffs, who largely
let them call their own shots, they are already chafing under the stricter
Sioux City staff. This morning the staff seems especially edgy, perhaps
worried that the game has cost too much canvassing time. Finally, one
staffer goes too far. "Line up and count off!" she barks at
the volunteers, who look back in shock.
"Isn't that a bit militaristic?" a fellow staffer asks.
"I don't care!" the woman snaps.
The kids don't seem to know how to respond. Some shuffle into an awkward
line, others resolutely freeze in place. Dan refuses to do anything until
he's addressed more respectfully. After some awkward negotiating, eventually
everyone pairs up and heads out. But as soon as the group is out of staff
earshot, Noreen phones one of the Matts to complain. "I'm not going
to be treated like I'm nine and told to line up," she says hotly,
adding that she's using her own money and vacation time to be here. "You
don't treat people that way and I hope you don't treat voters that way."
Her complaints carry weight, because after only a few hours of precinct-walking
the volunteers are called back to the office at the unheard-of hour of
5:30, thanked profusely for their work, and let off early -- leading them
to grumble that Sioux City isn't as "hardcore" as Council Bluffs.
But you can't argue with a night off. In one of those amoebic group decisions
nobody seems to remember making, we soon find ourselves at WinnaVegas,
a casino on the nearby Winnebago Indian Reservation. WinnaVegas has a
giant fiberglass groundhog dressed as Elvis out front, and is happy to
take money from anyone over eighteen.
It is here the young volunteers develop a revolutionary new tactic: campaign
through osmosis. "It's subliminal messages," Adam explains brightly
above the din of five hundred slot machines, "conversations that
people are going to have behind other gamblers."
"Would you like to see us in action?" Gina asks.
We creep up behind two totally desiccated old guys playing quarter slots,
and the kids launch into an impromptu skit, with Gina as the Dean proselytizer
and Mike the willing convert. "I think this is an important election,
but I don't know if I'm really convinced," Mike says loudly enough
so the players can overhear.
"So, what questions do you have about Dean?" Gina offers helpfully.
"What's his position on the war?" Mike asks. Then, eyeing his
target audience, he decides Dean's antiwar stance won't win him any converts.
He frantically starts over. "No, let's talk domestic policy,"
he says. "Who cares about the war? What about the economy?"
"He's done a lot to create new jobs in Vermont when he was the governor,"
says Gina. No reaction from the slot players.
"What kind of jobs?" Mike says, desperate to keep the conversation
Gina flails. "I have no idea," she admits.
Joel, who is watching his older brother's act, shakes his head sadly.
"This sounds like one of those cheap little ads that they show in
ninth grade health classes. Like, 'So, Sally, don't get any STDs,'"
The gamblers haven't so much as looked up. They may not even be breathing.
New strategy. The volunteers decide to try their act on a younger crowd,
people more likely to be swayed by amateur theatrics. Gina's plan involves
roping in the journalist. "We'll wander up to you," she tells
Mike and Joel. "You're brothers and we're friends, and you'll start
flirting with Kara and we'll turn the conversation toward Howard Dean."
The plan agreed upon, we sidle up to the craps table, where a bunch of
college-age guys are watching the bets. "That guy's hot. You should
go talk to him," Gina announces loudly, indicating Mike.
"Hey girls," Mike says, equally loudly. Indeed, people's heads
do whip around, but they turn away again when they hear Mike's pickup
line: "Have you heard about Howard Dean?" By the time he gets
to the part where he's enthusiastically endorsing Dean's social progressivism
and his conservatism on fiscal issues, he's lost the crowd entirely.
The evening's only political jackpot comes courtesy of Dan, who runs into
an undecided voter whose house he'd canvassed earlier that afternoon.
"She said if I gave her my Dean button she'd vote for Dean,"
reports Dan, who'd promptly handed it over. "It's that easy,"
Day 7, January 2
Busted. In the biggest way, too. The Sioux City Journal has run
a story about Kerry's New Year's party and there she is: Noreen. Right
next to Dean's rival. "My political career ended at age nineteen,"
Perhaps it's no coincidence that we're being shipped back to Council Bluffs
today, much to the disappointment of the volunteers who'd hoped to meet
Dean tonight. Four lucky stiffs get to stay behind and work the rally.
For the rest, it's back to canvassing. Noreen wisely decides to take the
first van out.
The Council Bluffs office has undergone a magical transformation in our
absence. It is now possible to see the floor. There are hand-drawn charts
on the walls tabulating the number of doors knocked in each precinct.
The adjoining storefront, which usually houses the Pottawattamie County
Genealogical Society, has been turned into an official "Emerging
Storm HQ" for the next batch of volunteers. It's clear that Storm
#1 was a bit of an experiment, while Storm #2 is expected to be a much
In deference to the "hardcore" vibe of Council Bluffs, the volunteers
embrace their precinct walking with renewed energy. They resolve to beat
the streets until they've hit every single house on their lists. Better
yet, they are going to do it in T-shirts. All week, the kids have toted
snow gear around. And although the big snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow,
today it's a freakish sixty degrees.
Coup of the day: Adam gets a group of kids sitting on a stoop to chant
"Howard Dean! Howard Dean!" after he answers their pressing
questions about the candidate's hair color ("Kind of gray")
and whether or not George Washington can be president again ("Sorry").
But as the kids stump, the bad news arrives from Sioux City: Dean never
made the rally -- there was a problem de-icing his plane's wings in New
Hampshire, and he never got off the ground. Most of the volunteers' work
in Sioux City was for nothing.
In addition, the troops are beginning to get restless about ever catching
up to Dean. After all, they've already seen Kerry twice. But the Matts
renew their promise: We'll meet him tomorrow. They're sending the Bay
Area group to staff another rally in Boone, Iowa, two hours east.
Once again, Howard Dean is just over the horizon.
Day 8, January 3
On the road to Boone, we make a quick campaigning stop in Carroll, Iowa.
The Dean office there shares space with a laboratory that's reportedly
making a vaccine for something and contains petri dishes full of what
may or may not be salmonella; the staffers aren't quite sure. "Don't
touch anything," they warn us.
The place has the added charm of two life-size cutouts of the Clintons,
placed in dark corners so as to be as startling as possible, and giant
letters on the roof that are supposed to spell out "DEAN" but
sometimes blow over, leaving passersby to wonder whether the building
houses the DEA or DAN.
A whirlwind round of Boone precinct walking reminds us of everything there
is to love and hate about the job. A kindly mechanic invites us into his
garage to show off his restored cars and have a spirited chat about NAFTA,
and then pledges to support Dean. A drunk toothless man drives us off
his property, inexplicably yelling: "Fuck Bush! Fuck the Republicans!"
Then it's back on the road to Boone, where the long-promised snowstorm
is starting to roll in. It's well past sunset and the temperature has
plunged to zero. The volunteers have to be prodded from the cozy vans
for a final round of flyering, a last-ditch attempt to draw a crowd for
It wasn't necessary, and this time Dean actually makes it. Every seat
in Boone's recreation center is filled, and the candidate gets an enthusiastic
reception. He gives his standard stump speech -- almost exactly the same
one, in fact, that the Berkeley students heard only a few months prior
when Dean visited Oakland. It's the one in which he insists America is
no safer after Saddam Hussein's capture than before it, and where he socks
it to "Ken Lay and the boys." But the candidate is a passionate
speaker; he's hitting every single argument the volunteers have been making
all week, and they are rapt, elbows on knees, hideous orange hats snuggled
proudly on heads. When Dean talks about his grassroots support, he mentions
the Perfect Storm and informs the crowd that there are volunteers from
California in this very room. He even has them stand up.
The students stand shyly, but you can tell they're digging it. A little
acknowledgment from the main man is like a warm embrace after a very cold
week. As soon as Dean's Q&A session ends, the volunteers surge over
to him, hands outstretched, cameras flashing. Dean is gracious. He thanks
them again for their hard work and dispenses tidbits of advice about precinct
walking. He shakes their hands and poses for pictures, and when some of
them demand hugs, replies, "I forgot you guys were from California,"
and gamely dispenses hugs all around.
And then, all too soon, Dean's handlers have spirited him away through
a back door. He's gone. The hall is empty except for the Bay Area group,
which is still amped. "We've been staring at his picture all day,
every day, talking about him all day, and then, like ... he's human,"
"That was just absolutely incredible. It couldn't have been better,"
Mike agrees. "He's just like a rock star, the way he leads and has
such a presence."
"He's smart, he's honest, he's a politician -- can you believe it?"
says Jordan. "It's amazing, really."
"I wasn't shaking when Kerry gave me a hug, but I got a hug from
Dean, like, ten minutes ago, and I'm still shaking," Noreen adds.
A few minutes later, she issues a follow-up report.
Day 9, January 4
The storm finally arrived. It snowed all night long, and today Western
Iowa is coated in a six-inch blanket of white. Even Misery Valley would
But it's now time to go. The volunteers have contacted thousands of households,
but there are still two weeks left before the caucuses and tens of thousands
more to go. Dean leads the polls this week, but both Time and Newsweek
are running critical cover articles about him, and the other Democrats
have him in the crosshairs. Things are about to get nasty. Subsequent
Storms will be bigger and more widespread than this one, but they'll still
be made up of people just as inexperienced and disoriented as this group
was nine days ago.
Anything can happen.
Epilogue: January 19, Caucus Night
Anything does happen.
Back in Berkeley at Ari's place, most of the Iowa crew is watching the
results on MSNBC's "Hardball." It's all over fast. Kerry is
the surprise winner, with 38 percent to Dean's 18 percent. Senator John
Edwards -- barely a presence in the race until the final week -- is a
strong second at 32 percent. Richard Gephardt is history, and Dennis Kucinich
barely registers a pulse.
The kids take their candidate's loss in stride. They're surprised, though,
that Kerry could have pulled ahead so resoundingly, even if he was the
most visible candidate they encountered in Iowa -- and Edwards simply
came out of nowhere. Dean's drop in popularity, they figure, was partly
the result of negative media and two weeks of relentless bashing by his
rivals. "It was seven on one against Dean," Gina says. "You
can't defend against that."
And what of all the volunteers' hard work. A waste? Not necessarily, they
say. Who knows what Dean's numbers would be like if they hadn't knocked
on doors for him? But the students say that Dean's people-power was overshadowed
by greater forces -- splashy spending by the other candidates, and the
media's sudden turn against their candidate. "It seemed like, going
into this, none of the rules applied. Dean was breaking every rule and
winning," Tom says. "But in the end, what looked like it was
going to be kind of a revolution in the way politics is run came down
to the same old thing."
Gina points out that the two campaigns with the most grassroots organizing
-- Dean and Gephardt -- finished third and fourth. "The ones that
were the most glib and the most put-together and had the Real Deal Express
and the fancy signs did the best," she says.
Furthermore, the kids point out, the past week's mudslinging between Dean
and Gephardt only made things worse for both. "They killed each other.
They got into stupid things," Noreen says. "Nobody knew about
Edwards, but he was nice."
Sure, the East Bay crew is disappointed, but they aren't discouraged.
As Dean himself is saying, a third-place finish for him would have been
an unimaginable triumph just one year ago. And losing the pole position,
Tom and Ari say, may be a blessing in disguise. Dean has always performed
best as the underdog; now he can go back to being the insurgent while
victors Kerry and Edwards take their turns drawing fire. Dean still has
his war chest, his grassroots organization, and plenty of time.
There are, after all, 49 primaries to go. As Eli puts it, "It's only
Iowa." There's plenty of turf left to cover, and a lot of it is more
Dean-friendly than the Midwest. There's next week's primary in New Hampshire,
where Dean maintains a comfortable lead in the polls. In two weeks, on
"Super Tuesday," seven more states will vote, and once again
Dean's Bay Area crew will be shipping out to knock on doors, this time
in Arizona. "Bring the tape recorder," Gina urges. "And
the granola bars."