On the campaign trail with Barack Obama
Rick Wilkie, one of hundreds of volunteers canvassing for Barack Obama, recalls JFK’s inauguration speech with reverence. Wilkie, now 67, tramped kilometres through the thick snow in January 1961 to hear Kennedy. “On the way home, I was walking three feet off the ground,” Wilkie said.
Since that day, he has had no involvement in politics—until now.
Out knocking on doors in West Des Moines, Iowa, on a night so chilly he had to jump into his car every few calls to thaw out, Wilkie said: “I would not be involved in this campaign if it were not for Obama. He is unique. I would be very proud to call him my president. He is the first candidate since John Kennedy to inspire people like that.”
Comparisons with JFK are a constant theme among Obama supporters. The senator has drawn many people like Wilkie into politics for the first time, volunteering time and money for his presidential bid. They cite what they see as his freshness compared with his main rival, Hillary Clinton, his background working in poverty programmes in Chicago and his apparent ability to reach out beyond the Democratic base.
Clinton remains the frontrunner to win the Democratic nomination, well ahead of Obama in every state in the United States except Iowa. But Iowa will be the first test of public opinion, holding its caucus vote on January 3 next year. If he can win there, the momentum—and, almost as vital, the media attention—could help him when he goes into the first primary days later in New Hampshire.
In a speech in Iowa in September, Obama’s wife, Michelle, inadvertently disclosed how important the state is to his White House bid. “If Barack doesn’t win Iowa, it is just a dream.”
For months polls have shown Iowa as a tight race. The latest poll, by Strategic Vision, taken between November 23 and 25, puts Obama and Clinton on 29% and John Edwards on 22%. The previous one put Obama ahead for the first time. The ABC/Washington Post poll, taken between November 14 and 18, put Obama on 30%, with Clinton trailing on 26% and Edwards on 22%.
The ABC poll hinted for the first time this year that Clinton may be vulnerable. Wilkie, a former businessman and Des Moines city manager, uncovered some evidence of this when canvassing.
Allocated a list of 35 houses in a middle-class suburb of West Des Moines, he found most of them expressing little interest in politics. That does not matter to him: he is hunting for a select group, those prepared to leave the warmth of their homes and a televised college football final on January 3 to participate in the caucus, the 1Â 784 neighbourhood meetings throughout the state to choose candidates.
Wilkie had a good night, finding three at home. Of those, one, a former professional football player, said he favoured Obama. More significantly, the other two he recorded as shifting from 4C to 3L, the former denoting someone who was leaning towards Clinton, the latter leaning towards Obama.
One of them, Molly Ryan (46), said: “Ideally, I would like a blend of the two: Obama for his charisma and Hillary for her foreign affairs experience. I had been leaning towards Hillary but am now leaning towards Obama. I think she comes across sometimes as not being a big people person. My trust is wavering because of the planted question in the audience.”
Clinton was caught out in Iowa last month during a supposedly spontaneous question-and-answer session. The student who asked the question disclosed that a member of the Clinton team asked her to put the question and then signalled to Clinton to choose her.
Obama’s strong showing in Iowa is a reward for the money, organisation and time he has concentrated on the state since declaring in February he would run for the presidency. He was in Iowa before Clinton and now has a network of 37 offices across the state, from Des Moines to Elkader, which has a population of only 1Â 374. In no previous presidential election has a candidate spent as much in a single state. With $75-million at his disposal, he has outspent Clinton by 20%.
The campaign teams are secretive about how many staff they have, but the last available figures show Obama recruited 145 full-time staff for Iowa alone, compared with Edwards’s 130 and Clinton’s 117. Clinton, in an effort to catch up, has advertised for 100 more staff. Obama’s team thinks she may now have more workers in the state.
Obama has also spent more time campaigning in the state but Clinton is intent on closing the gap and was in Iowa at the weekend.
The Obama headquarters in Des Moines is a squat brick building in East Locust Street, close to the imposing golden-domed state capitol building. Inside the office, on the site of an ice rink, there are about 100 campaign workers, a mixture of volunteers and paid staff, about 80% of them below the age of 25. Some are Ivy League graduates from outside the state, others are local children turning up after final lessons to hit the phones in the search for supporters.
The popularity of Obama’s campaign has meant he has had little trouble in recruiting, paying less than his rivals: his field workers earn about $2Â 000 a month, compared with $2Â 500 for Clinton’s and $2Â 700 for Edwards’s.
Obama’s office is busy from nine in the morning to 10 at night. Amid a clutter of computers, campaign slogans—“The Road to Change Starts Here”—discarded coffee cups and empty Big Tomato Pizza cartons, the team is accumulating the most detailed data ever on any electorate. Although the population of Iowa is almost three million, only 124Â 000 took part in the caucus in 2004.
As well as building up the electoral profile, the teams throughout the state have nightly training sessions to prepare volunteers for the complexities of caucus night.
Clinton’s team is more experienced, able to draw on personnel who worked for her husband and attracting the support of more mainstream and established Democrat figures in the state. Edwards too has a formidable organisation, building on the network of supporters he established in his second-place finish in 2004. Most of his staff have more Iowa political experience than Obama’s.
Until October 31, the big US papers and television networks were treating Clinton’s nomination as inevitable. A debate among the Democratic candidates in Philadelphia that night changed that perception, with Clinton coming across as uncertain and evasive. Just over a week later, Obama’s team demonstrated its organisational abilities, getting 4Â 000 people into the streets in Des Moines for the big pre-caucus event, the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. That night Obama produced a passionate speech that some Democrats have since cited as being a factor in winning them over.
Despite an increase in personal attacks, it has not yet been a dirty campaign. At Obama’s headquarters, there is a discussion about a nasty poster campaign in Ames, north of Des Moines. The posters read: “Hillary is a Bitch, Obama is a Nigger. Vote John Edwards.” White supremicists are blamed.
Obama’s team is relaxed, suggesting it will backfire and saying Obama’s standing in the polls in a state that is 96% white is testimony to the changing nature of the US.
One of Obama’s weaknesses is his uneven performance. At an Obama caucus training session in Iowa City, 100 miles east of Des Moines, Dennis Roseman (68), a veteran of Democratic politics and an Obama supporter, admitted: “Some people go away disappointed. They remember the great speeches and he does not always do that.” Like many others in Iowa, he cautioned against believing the polls. “Is it a dead heat? No one knows.” A calendar marking the number of days left until January 3 hangs from the ceiling in the middle of Obama’s campaign headquarters. In the final week, starting on December 27, the team in Iowa will be boosted by hundreds more staff and volunteers piling in from around the country. But so too will the Clinton and Edwards campaigns.—Â