When you think about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s ground game, you probably don’t think about growing vegetables. But when a neighborhood association president in Des Moines, Iowa, told Warren field organizer Jarae Hines that the local community garden needed some TLC, he responded, “Perfect — we’ll be there every Saturday.” And after getting his hands dirty — literally — for two months with other community members, he found he had a fresh crop of willing volunteers for Warren’s campaign.
We at FiveThirtyEight spend a lot of time thinking about public opinion and how that translates into election results. But there’s a step we often skip over: how campaigns identify, persuade and turn out supporters. A robust campaign infrastructure focusing on voter outreach — “field organization,” in campaign lingo — can have small but meaningful effects on the outcome of an election too. Studies of the 2008 general election, for example, suggest that Barack Obama’s vaunted field operation could have increased his vote share by as many as 3 points in some states.
And field organizations may loom largest in presidential caucuses, like next Monday’s in Iowa. A caucus is a complex process, and according to political scientist and FiveThirtyEight contributor Joshua Darr, who studies campaign strategy, that gives an advantage to campaigns that better train their supporters on its ins and outs. Caucuses are also unique because there are up to two rounds of voting: An initial vote is followed by a brief window in which supporters of candidates who didn’t clear the viability threshold1 can physically move across the room and “realign” with another campaign. Because this realignment process takes place in public view, Darr says, the community relationships established by a campaign’s field organization can be decisive: “Caucuses are much more about personal connections and seeing people you know in a high school gym and going to stand with them, not an individual decision made in the isolation of a voting booth.”
This year’s Iowa caucuses are expected to be very close, too — certainly close enough that a good field organization could help make the difference. Given that winning the Iowa caucuses sometimes sets off a chain reaction that can lead all the way to the White House, it’s possible that the next president of the United States will have his or her Iowa ground game to thank.
And so, two weeks ago, we drove the snowy roads of Iowa in a rented four-wheel drive to size up the Iowa field operations of the state’s four highest-polling candidates. On Monday, we sat in on a volunteer meeting at former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s field office in the old factory city of Newton; on Tuesday, we stopped by former Vice President Joe Biden’s Hawkeye State headquarters, just west of downtown Des Moines, as well as a Warren field office in the nearby neighborhood of Beaverdale. (Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign declined our request to visit one of his offices.)
The field office — a physical location that serves as a base for campaigns’ voter-contact efforts — is the basic building block of any campaign’s field operation, and each of the four candidates has at least 20 of them scattered throughout Iowa: By our count,2 Buttigieg has the most with 33, followed by Biden with 28, Warren with 27 and Sanders with 21.3 (For comparison, Obama set the modern standard for Iowa field offices with 37, although they were more geographically scattered than any of the 2020 contenders’ are.)
And as you can see from the maps below, there is a lot of overlap in where the top four campaigns are locating their field offices — all have at least one field office in each of Iowa’s nine most populous counties — and several pockets of the state don’t have a single field office for one of the top four candidates.
For the most part, the campaigns’ strategies aren’t all that different either: The Biden, Buttigieg and Warren operations seem fairly equally staffed. The Biden campaign told us it has 150 paid staffers in the state, 115 of whom are field staffers; the Buttigieg campaign says it has around 160 total staffers in Iowa, most of whom are field organizers; and the Warren campaign told us it has about 150 paid staffers statewide. Likewise, Biden’s, Buttigieg’s and Warren’s field operations all seem to follow a time-tested staff structure similar to what Obama employed in 2008: A single state organizing director manages a handful of regional organizing directors who oversee scores of field organizers deployed to every corner of Iowa.
And it is the field organizers who form the backbone of a campaign’s field operation. Part professional networker, part drill sergeant, part door-to-door salesman, a field organizer is often people’s first introduction to a candidate. Ben Osterlund, a Buttigieg field organizer in Newton’s Jasper County, arrived in Iowa last summer and immediately began making inroads in the community. He spent his first couple months attending city council meetings, volunteering at the local animal shelter, even going to bingo night at the senior center — anywhere he was likely to meet civically engaged locals. “We would chat first about different things, but inevitably they would ask, ‘So … what are you doing here?’” That’s when Osterlund would start spreading the gospel according to Pete.
Convincing Iowans to support a candidate requires a field organizer to forge genuine relationships; the caucus process takes hours and is conducted in full public view, so voters need to believe in a campaign to subject themselves to it. According to Jesse Harris, a longtime Iowa field operative who is now a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign there, “Having four, five, six conversations with one voter before they make up their mind is not unusual” — which is why the Biden campaign asks its organizers to meet a quota of “substantive conversations” every single day.
A field organizer’s next hurdle is turning ordinary supporters into volunteers. This is an important step for not only expanding the campaign’s network, but also because of the role volunteers can play during the caucuses. On a fully staffed campaign like that of Biden, Buttigieg or Warren, each field organizer is responsible for roughly 10-20 of the Iowa caucuses’ 1,678 precincts, but because organizers themselves can’t actually supervise more than one caucus site at a time, they designate certain volunteers to be “precinct captains” — some precincts even get a full “precinct team” — to wrangle supporters and undecideds alike to the “right” corner of the room on caucus night.
At this stage in the campaign, field organizers have largely finished recruiting their precinct teams and are now focused on training them for the big night. At the Buttigieg volunteer meeting that we attended in Newton, Osterlund was reviewing the procedure for Feb. 3 as if it were a finely honed battle plan. A large sheet of paper taped to the wall at the front of the room enumerated the four-step plan: show up, persuade, group up, repeat. Osterlund quizzed his roughly three dozen volunteers on what the threshold is for candidates to remain viable (15 percent) and encouraged them to keep a close eye on their supporters: “We don’t want a single Pete person to scurry off to a different group.” He urged precinct captains to memorize the caucus rules and double-check the way the caucus chair assigns delegates to candidates, so they can contest any rulings that go against Buttigieg. And he implored the volunteers to attend an even more in-depth caucus training session later in the week.
As the meeting adjourned, many of the precinct captains-to-be stuck around, whipped out their phones, and seamlessly segued into the other major role that volunteers play in campaigns: voter outreach. At each field office we visited, the small, repurposed rooms buzzed with activity as volunteers and organizers huddled around Formica tables sending texts (“text-banking,” a fairly recent campaign innovation) and making calls (“phone-banking”) to potential supporters.
At the Warren office we visited in suburban Des Moines, callers sat below a wall from which hung 34 file folders, each containing printouts of one of Warren’s signature “plans” for easy reference. “What we do is we try to meet [voters] where they are, find what issues are most important to them,” Hines, the Warren field organizer, told us as we walked through the office. “So it’s been nice to have Elizabeth roll out policy after policy, because we always have something to talk about with them, and we always have an answer.”
But just calling and texting voters isn’t enough. According to all three campaigns, the most effective form of voter outreach is canvassing, or knocking on doors and just talking to voters. (Past political science research agrees it’s significantly more effective than phone-banking or mailing fliers to voters.) In Jasper County, for example, Buttigieg volunteers try to hit the doors every weekday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. — the sweet spot between when people get home from work and when they sit down to dinner. And on weekends, when more volunteers are free, Biden, Buttigieg and Warren all hold “weekends of action,” or a flurry of events and canvassing drives across the state to galvanize volunteers and win over new supporters.
Another tactic the campaigns employ is “relational outreach,” which is simply volunteers calling, texting or social-media messaging their friends and neighbors in order to get them to caucus for their candidate. Hines told us that the Warren campaign relied heavily on word of mouth to recruit volunteers: One of his fellow field organizers, in West Des Moines, expanded her circle of volunteers from five to 30 people thanks entirely to friends of friends. “You’re more likely to listen to your friend or family member that you are some person who came here from Phoenix, Arizona,” he explained.
Similarly, the Buttigieg campaign believes that, especially in small cities like Newton and low-turnout environments like the caucus, having someone you know personally vouch for a candidate makes a big difference. At the Buttigieg volunteer meeting we attended, Osterlund asked attendees to take 15 minutes at the end of the meeting to contact their friends and family and encourage them to attend an upcoming Buttigieg town hall.
But despite how personalized the campaign’s pitch is to individual voters, the procedure for tracking voter contact is largely the same across the campaigns. Field organizers use the state voter file to print out a list of houses to visit (or numbers to dial) — a process known as “cutting turf.” From there, each canvasser or phone-banker then works their way down the list, logging the responses they get: not home, undecided voter, definitely a supporter, not registered, definitely not a supporter.
The campaign inputs the findings into a database, from which information can be extracted later for another wave of voter contact. Found an avid Biden supporter while door-knocking? The Biden campaign will want to recontact her just before the caucus to remind her to vote. And if a rival campaign finds that same Biden supporter, it will know not to waste precious GOTC (“get out the caucus”) time on that house.
It’s hard to know at this point who might have a hidden edge in Iowa. Our visits, if anything, only underscored just how similar the Biden, Buttigieg and Warren campaigns’ field strategies are. But since the numbers behind their field operations are comparable — their quantity of offices, their quantity of staffers — it makes sense that campaigns are focused on achieving the highest possible quality of conversations with voters. Even as Osterlund’s day-to-day in the run-up to caucus night is consumed by canvassing, staging events and corralling his volunteers, he says he always takes an extra few minutes to nourish the relationships he’s cultivated in the past year. “I never tried to shorten a conversation with a volunteer or someone on the phone,” Osterlund said. Then he smiled: “Maybe to our detriment.”
Make sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s Democratic primary forecast.