DES MOINES--In the squat former ice rink that houses Sen. Barack Obama's Iowa headquarters, progress is measured in ones and twos.
It's an old-fashioned counting system redolent of yesteryear's precinct walks that rates voters based on personal contact, usually face-to-face meetings or one-on-one conversations over the telephone.
The "ones" are the candidate's strongest supporters—by Iowa tradition, those who have signed cards pledging to show up on caucus night and back the candidate. The "twos" are supporters who have declared their backing less formally.
Count correctly. Keep adding. If the number rises high enough, the outcome is victory.
That is, if the same army of campaign workers and volunteers that has called, coaxed and cajoled for months also can get those supporters to turn out on a bitter-cold January evening at 1,784 precincts across the state. And if those supporters will stay in place for two hours, standing their ground in front of friends, neighbors and business acquaintances.
More than any other political contest, the idiosyncratic Iowa presidential caucuses require an exceptional organization on the ground.
While Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) leads in national polls—recently she has pulled ahead in Iowa too—her two main rivals have established deep-rooted field operations here, with former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina building on a network of supporters that goes back to his second-place finish in the 2004 caucuses.
Obama, in particular, has invested heavily in a ground campaign in Iowa and other early voting states.
The senator from Illinois has opened 31 field offices across the state, more than any other candidate, establishing local headquarters everywhere from Des Moines to tiny Elkader, population 1,374. Recent campaign filings showed Obama outspending Clinton in Iowa by 20 percent, and by larger margins in the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
In an organizational feat that required busing in supporters from across the state, the Obama campaign says it drew 3,000 supporters to rally at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry last month, an event that traditionally serves as the informal kickoff to the campaign here. And while the campaign would not disclose the size of its paid staff in Iowa, Democratic activists unaffiliated with any candidate said it is clear Obama has by far the largest number of employees in-state.
Campaign officials say Obama's emphasis on ground organization reflects the nature of a presidential campaign that styles itself a popular movement and the preferences of a man whose early adulthood was spent as a street-level community organizer.
The campaign's success in fundraising—particularly raising money early in the year, when there was plenty of time to negotiate office leases and build a field staff—has provided the resources. Though Clinton's fundraising surpassed Obama's in the third quarter of this year, the Obama campaign still has raised the most money overall for the primary campaign, $75 million as of Sept. 30.
But aides said Obama's intensive ground operation also fits the strategy of trying to leverage the enthusiasm he has generated among his core supporters. With Obama's appeal to independents, he also could benefit from expanding the universe of caucus and primary voters beyond the most partisan Democrats. The campaign would especially like to increase participation among historically low-turnout young and minority voters, from whom Obama enjoys strong support.
In Iowa, where anyone who will be 18 by the November 2008 election is eligible for the caucuses, the campaign has set up "Barack Stars" chapters at high schools around the state. The campaign is collecting cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses of supporters in colleges so they can be reached during the run-up to caucus night, which is likely to come while colleges still are on holiday break.
Any scenario for Obama winning the Democratic nomination depends heavily on his performance in Iowa. Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife, recently said that unless he wins Iowa, the White House bid is no more than "a dream." And even campaign advisers wary of setting high expectations acknowledge Obama must at least "come close" in Iowa.
Iowa is where the campaign phenomenon of 2004, Howard Dean and the Internet-based movement of orange-hatted "Deaniacs" who flooded into the state during the weeks before the caucuses, collapsed in spectacular defeat. The organizational shortcomings that contributed to Dean's loss have served as a lesson in what not to do for the Obama campaign.
"There's been a lot of talk of Barack Obama campaigning as a movement, but it's also a very organized effort," said Mitch Stewart, Obama's Iowa caucus director.
Every morning, Stewart, a lanky, 6-foot-4 South Dakota native, pores over an Excel spreadsheet on his laptop computer, scrolling through daily updates. How many supporters has the campaign identified? How many voters contacted? How many precinct captains recruited? How many trained for caucus night?
The numbers are tabulated county by county, precinct by precinct, field organizer by field organizer, set against goals for each.
"If, for whatever reason, one organizer is struggling, we can get someone in there to help," Stewart explained.
On a recent evening at the campaign's Des Moines headquarters, about 50 people gathered in a corner for a training session for caucus precinct captains. A campaign staffer diagramed the layout of a typical caucus room, using a blue marker to draw circles and X's on white butcher paper.
In the Iowa caucuses, which have none of the electioneering restrictions common to polling places, tricks of the trade include positioning friendly greeters at the front of the room to slap stickers on supporters and guide them to the corner of the room where the candidate's followers will be counted; distributing baked treats to keep them there; and deploying "corralers" at the edge of the camp to dissuade waverers from wandering.
At Obama headquarters recently, volunteers and paid campaign staffers worked phone banks set up on folding tables.
Laptop computer screens displayed information on voters as they were called. For Obama supporters, the screens often showed 10 or more lines, each indicating a separate attempt to reach them. Each time a campaign worker speaks to a voter, he or she is supposed to enter a fresh reading of the voter's inclinations.
Among the mistakes of the Dean campaign that the Obama operation is determined not to repeat is an unrealistic count of supporters. The Obama camp's policy is to try to check in with each supporter once every three weeks.
And that's not the only way the campaign is testing its operation. It is planning to host precinct-level house parties for supporters across the state, all on the same evening, a month before the caucuses—essentially a dry run for the big night.