In my diary series on how the Iowa caucuses work, I've written a little about how precinct captains can help their candidates on caucus night and about how precinct captains can (modestly) increase turnout in their neighborhoods. But I haven't written yet about one of the most enjoyable tasks of a precinct captain: hosting a house party.
Last Thursday I held my first house party for undecided voters who are considering John Edwards. (In late 2003 I hosted several of these for John Kerry.) The experience was well worth the time I spent on the event.
These parties are not meant to fire up the supporters of your candidate. They are meant to move voters in your direction. Ideally, leaners who come to a house party will sign supporter cards, and undecideds will become leaners or perhaps sign supporter cards too.
Every campaign in Iowa is now focused on getting supporter cards signed, because someone who commits in writing to back a particular candidate is much less likely to switch to another candidate before caucus night.
Inviting people to a house party is time-consuming. I called some Edwards leaners, hoping they would commit to caucus for him. I mentioned the party to people I ran into while walking the dog or taking my son to school. I called dozens of people in my precinct who had previously been identified by the Edwards campaign as undecided, or whom the Edwards campaign had never been able to contact. My field organizer gave me a list to work from.
I also called a dozen or so people I knew to be either new to my neighborhood or not registered Democrats. Finding potential caucus-goers like these, who are not on the campaign's list, is one way precinct captains can contribute more than volunteers who do not live in the neighborhoods they are canvassing.
The invitation calls are worth the effort. Some people with caller ID will never pick up the phone if the call is coming from campaign HQ, but they will pick up for a person with the same telephone number prefix, who is likely to be calling from nearby.
Among the group who had never been successfully contacted by the campaign, I was able to identify Edwards supporters we hadn't known about, as well as non-supporters who can now be taken off our lists for phone banks or canvassers.
Among the group the campaign had previously identified as undecided, most I reached were still undecided. Some were now supporting Edwards, some had decided on other candidates. It's helpful to talk with non-supporters. It will save other volunteers from contacting these people closer to January 3.
Additionally, some non-supporters may be open to Edwards as a second choice, especially if I am polite and don't bash the candidate they're backing. Some of them may have a spouse or a child over 18 living at home, who are not on my call list but turn out to be open to supporting Edwards.
While making these calls, I also found the precinct captain for Bill Richardson in my neighborhood. Still looking for the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama captains in my suburb--I know they are out there somewhere!
My house party gave me a good reason to call or e-mail dozens of other friends and acquaintances from all over the Des Moines area. I sent out a big group e-mail to undecided Democrats I know from my temple and the various groups I'm involved with. Along with the invitation, I briefly explained why I am supporting Edwards and linked to some of his policies on the campaign website.
Most of the people I invited were unable to come to my party, but at least they received a personal message giving concrete reasons to support Edwards. Several of them have since asked me about Edwards when we've crossed paths at our temple or our kids' school. Two friends I invited told me they are now supporting Edwards after learning more about where he stands on some of their key issues. They caucused for Kucinich in 2004 and had been considering Edwards and Obama. (I can't take all the credit for persuading them--Obama helped me by holding that event with McClurkin.)
Back to the house party, which was nothing fancy. It started at 6:30, and since Iowans tend to eat dinner early, I put out some cheese and crackers and baked a couple of pumpkin pies for those who wanted dessert.
I was pleased with the turnout. My field organizer said the campaign is satisfied if five to ten truly undecided voters are in the room for one of these. We had 25 guests, about half from my neighborhood and the rest from other parts of town. Three people who came to my house had already committed to Edwards and wanted to attend a party before hosting their own. One guest was a firm Hillary supporter who came along with her husband. That left about 15 undecided voters, plus five or six leaners.
My field organizer and I greeted people and chatted for the first 15-20 minutes. Once most of the people who RSVPed had arrived, we all introduced ourselves, mentioning the one or two issues that are most important to our voting decisions. Then the field organizer talked for a few minutes about Edwards before taking questions for about an hour and a half. Occasionally I joined in to answer a question in a different way.
I've never attended a Iowa caucus house party where there wasn't at least one question that stumped the field organizer. Last Thursday was no exception--three of the questions stumped him. One person wanted to know more details about Edwards' plan for Darfur than my field organizer could provide. I logged on and printed up the six-point plan from the campaign website.
The field organizer gave the broad outline of Edwards' plan to end the war in Iraq: withdrawing 40,000 to 50,000 troops immediately, with the rest of our combat troops coming out over a nine- to ten-month period. One of my neighbors then wanted to know where the initial 40,000 to 50,000 troops would come from--would they be pulled out of the Baghdad area, or largely from some other region in Iraq, or would Edwards bring out a few thousand troops from many different parts of the country? It was a good question, and we didn't know the answer.
Another guest, who was one of my high-school history teachers, noted that "Wise men seek wise counsel," and that Bush's advisers have led us down a disastrous path. He wasn't interested in political advisers like Joe Trippi, but wanted to know who helped write the Edwards health care plan, energy plan, Iraq plan and so on. That information is not on the campaign website. Several others in the room were nodding their heads or saying they'd like to know more about who stands behind the candidates (not just Edwards).
I mention this because I have been critical of the caucus system, especially in part 1, part 2 and part 4 of my Iowa caucus series. However, I will always defend the Iowans who take part in the caucuses. Most of them put a lot of time and effort into researching their options. The ones who are undecided truly want to learn more than what they can read in the newspaper or see on the tv news.
In the end, we got five supporter cards signed, and lots of people took copies of position papers before leaving. I think we moved some of the undecideds into the leaner column. It helped for them to hear from each other about the issues that got them interested in Edwards. I met a few neighbors and caught up with others I hadn't seen in a while. Most of the guests left around 8:30.
Precinct captains are holding parties like this all over Iowa, making the case for their candidates a few voters at a time. In fact, one woman who came to my house said she had been invited to a similar event for Hillary, also scheduled for last Thursday evening. (Maddeningly, she couldn't remember the name of the woman in our neighborhood who hosted that one.) We are laying the groundwork to capitalize on any momentum our candidates gain during the next seven weeks.
Like we say in Iowa, "Organize, organize, organize and then get hot at the end." When John Edwards closes out this campaign, he will have a much stronger network of precinct captains than he had backing him up in 2004.
cross-posted at MyDD