JOHNSTON, Iowa — The Iowans who answered their doorbells, held back their barking dogs and cracked open their storm doors into the horizontal snow were impressed to see that even blizzard conditions couldn’t stop the final push of get-out-the-vote efforts in this Des Moines suburb.
“You guys are dedicated, I’ll give you that,” one said.
“You guys are crazy,” said another.
“The caucuses happen at 7 p.m. on Monday, whether or not the weather improves,” answered a staffer from Americans for Prosperity Action, also called AFP Action, the political group funded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch that’s backing Nikki Haley in the Republican presidential primary. “We only have so many days left.”
The staffers stomped through knee-high snow Friday to cross unshoveled sidewalks and driveways until the ice caked onto their pant legs. They found a firm Haley supporter, a DeSantis voter and several others who said they were undecided or unlikely to caucus at all in the record cold. As dusk approached, the wind was picking up and visibility was dropping. They passed a bundled-up couple sipping hot beverages on their porch, which was decorated with a Trump yard sign.
“What are you walking around for?” the man called out. He advised the canvassers that they should skip the next house: A Trump caucus captain lived there. The woman on the porch added that the voters on the other side were Trump supporters, too.
“I should have just brought you guys along. You’ve got this all sorted out,” the AFP Action staffer said.
The subzero temperatures forecast for caucus night are testing and upending months of planning and organizing for the presidential primary’s first nominating contest here. Expectations that turnout could break the 2016 record of 186,000 are now colliding with the challenge of convincing supporters to overcome frostbite exposure and unevenly plowed frozen roads.
The rival camps are trading theories on who the weather could help or hurt. Could it fall more heavily on rural voters who have to travel farther to their caucus precincts and tend to favor Trump? Or do those Iowans know how to manage snow in their big trucks? Does Trump’s polling lead let complacency set in with supporters pondering whether to leave the warmth of their couches? Or it might favor the candidates with the most enthusiastic supporters — who will “walk on glass,” as Trump likes to say.
“We’re facing unprecedented weather conditions. We’re all trying to figure out what turnout’s going to be,” David Polyansky, the deputy campaign manager of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), told reporters at a breakfast organized by Bloomberg on Friday. “We all had our own ideas of what Monday is going to look like, and I think most of that’s been thrown out the door.”
Iowa’s caucuses have always been a test of organizing, and veterans of past campaigns here say there are few shortcuts to building an effective operation. The three leading candidates have pursued competing strategies to prepare for caucus night, and each has something to prove Monday.
For Trump — who placed a close second in 2016 with a campaign that was loosely organized at best and dependent more on organic support than a typical operation — this iteration of the campaign is determined to prove it can run a first-rate ground game. This time, his operation is regarded as both more traditional and professional. His campaign has focused on mobilizing Trump supporters like the couple in Johnston to personally recruit their neighbors and bring them to caucus together.
“They all have their list of people who are committed to caucus for Trump,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser on the Trump campaign. “It’s very much a local-based operation. It’s very much a local-based feel. We think that gives us a distinct advantage. Our people are very committed. The intensity is there. They take seriously coming to cast a vote for Trump.”
Because so much of the Trump strategy is focused on getting first-time caucus-goers to the polls, his advisers were concerned that the weather could depress turnout. Aides were checking parking lots in the Des Moines area Friday to make sure voters could get into caucus sites because they feared some might not be cleared of snow.
DeSantis has done something no other candidate has attempted. He has outsourced the building of an organization to Never Back Down, the super PAC aiding his campaign. His supporters claim, as talk radio host Steve Deace said at a rally Thursday, that he has built the best organization in the history of the caucuses. But the proof will come Monday night.
The super PAC can raise unlimited donations but has legal limits on direct coordination with the official campaign. The strained relationship between the two outfits has at times broken down into open feuding.
For its ground game, the PAC is using both volunteers and paid canvassers to knock on the doors of its target caucus-goers at least five times and potentially six. Never Back Down staff and volunteers argue that their work on the ground for many months has given them a network of supporters who are more connected than other candidates’ and therefore more ready to help each other out in a pinch, such as if someone’s car breaks down on caucus day.
Super PAC staff hold biweekly calls with precinct captains and give them tasks such as attending an event and collecting commit-to-caucus cards; those captains are regularly in touch with potential DeSantis caucus-goers in their area. The contact has ramped up in the final stretch.
Door-knocking continued amid harsh weather that canceled several events, though some canvassers switched to indoor phone banking.
DeSantis had a team of Florida lawmakers and lobbyists coming from Tallahassee for the final weekend of canvassing and door-knocking in Iowa. One of them, Slayter Bayliss, posted a photo on social media of a rental Jeep stuck in a snow bank.
“Rental has an ice scraper but no shovel,” he wrote.
Haley has taken perhaps the riskiest approach, though out of necessity. Until recently, her campaign had only a nominal footprint here and lacked the time or resources to develop a traditional organization. She is now dependent on AFP Action to identify and turn out supporters on caucus night.
“Our people in Iowa are motivated,” Haley campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said. “Our network of county chairs, precinct captains and volunteers are in constant communication with caucus-goers, educating our supporters about the caucus process and making sure they turn out on Monday. We have full confidence in our operation.”
The AFP Action door-knockers were also targeting Republicans who reliably vote in general elections but not caucuses, trying to make the process sound less intimidating by emphasizing that it’s a secret ballot and often takes 30 to 45 minutes (unlike the Democrats’ method of standing around in groups for the various candidates).
“You guys are brave,” a voter named Justin told the AFP Action staffers. “I don’t know if we’ll go out.”
“Well, if turnout’s super low, even worse when the weather is this bad,” the door-knocker said, “your vote is going to have a huge impact on the trajectory of the race.”
Paul Tewes, the Iowa director for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign that was judged as one of the most effective in the modern era of the caucuses, said there are no shortcuts. “It takes — first and foremost — time,” he said. “You have to have been building this for the better part of a year. Time is the most precious resource in organizing.”
Second, he said, is people. By that, he meant not just the campaign staff, but the many volunteers needed to build and nurture an organization. With roughly 1,700 precincts, recruiting captains for all of them is a necessity.
Those precinct leaders in turn recruit the volunteers who can help identify committee supporters. And on this final weekend, they are charged with contacting those supporters and relaying to headquarters how solid they are. All campaigns worry about is what they call the “flake rate,” the number of people who were identified as supporters but are unlikely to turn out.
“If you don’t have that infrastructure of Iowans talking to Iowans, all the rest is noise,” said Teresa Vilmain, who was Hillary Clinton’s Iowa director in 2008.
Campaigns set estimates about caucus turnout and build their organization with an evaluation of how many supporters they need to prevail. But sometimes turnout far exceeds expectations, as it did in 2008. Matt Paul, who was Clinton’s state director in 2016, said the influx of new caucus attendees, many of whom supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that year, caught the campaign by surprise.
Over the years, there has been a continuing debate about what is more important: organization or momentum — in shorthand “O vs. Mo.” A surging candidate can sometimes overcome a weak organization, but those who have been through the process said a good organization can seize on momentum.
In 2016, Trump was the leader in the polls going into the caucuses, but it was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) who prevailed. “Trump was ahead, and Cruz muscled him over. They just had more people grinding the gears, making the calls, double-checking and triple-checking, nudging,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican strategist and political adviser to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. The governor has endorsed DeSantis.
Eric Woolson, who has worked for several Republicans in past campaigns and was Iowa director for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s short-lived campaign, said Trump’s operation “has taken on all the aspects of a professionally managed political organization. The campaign is under the direction of folks who understand how this process works.”
But he said he was also impressed that officials of Never Back Down say they have captains for nearly every precinct. Asked if there is a weakness in DeSantis having outsourced the organizing effort, he said, “An organization is still an organization. … The real question is how are those boots on the ground going to turn out people on Monday night.”
Weather is the great wild card, with predictions of wind chills of minus-20 or minus-30 on caucus night. “Iowans can handle tough weather,” Kochel said. “This is a different thing. This is danger: 45 below wind chill, frozen engine blocks, a dead battery. If you go in the ditch, nobody is out to find you.”
“I just cannot imagine the levels of anxiety these organizational directors are going through with the weather literally changing by the hour and how that’s going to affect their numbers,” Paul said.
Hannah Knowles in Des Moines contributed to this report.