The conclusion from Iowa is that former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) lost because their machines were no match for the positive, resonating messages Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) used to motivate caucus goers.
That story line is only half-correct. The important back story from Iowa 2004 is that Kerry's field organization, though perhaps smaller in size, was far more efficient and better organized to catch Iowans as they fell away from both Dean and Gephardt.
Call it the Kerry trapeze net -- or, more accurately, the Norris-Strasma-Whouley net. In midsummer, Kerry's state director, John Norris, started identifying which way registered Democrats on Iowa's voter list were voting or leaning. Nothing new about that approach -- all campaign staffers with any brains and enough resources do that.
But Kerry's team did things a little differently, emphasizing quality over quantity, depth over breadth. Instead of focusing on the "hard count" of committed Kerry supporters as a quantifiable number, Norris slowly but steadily developed what might be called "hard counters" -- captains who, because they actually knew their neighbors personally, would be able to maintain support and deliver it on caucus night.
"We built leadership first," says Norris. "We found competent precinct captains at a local level. And we did that knowing that the mass amount [of caucus goers] would not make their mind up until the last minute. The whole theory was that if and when we do get hot, we have the apparatus to capture it."
As many would later witness on caucus night, those hard counters were more assertive, methodical and persuasive in the precinct meetings.
But a precinct captain's reliable count of Kerry supporters is only the numerator. Campaigns also need a good estimate of the other half of the equation; that is, the denominator, or total number of people expected to turn out in each precinct.
Enter Kerry consultant Ken Strasma, a statistical wizard who runs a firm called Strategic Telemetry. Using the 1988 Iowa turnout data, Strasma estimated precinct-level turnout projections by updating the 16-year-old numbers to account for population shifts and registration rates.
With those two pieces of information, Strasma identified where Kerry needed a bit more support to pick up another delegate or two, and places where he already had enough or excess support. After all, turning out voters where it won't translate into additional delegates is a waste of scarce resources (phone calls, mail pieces, volunteer door knockers) better spent where the projected "vote goal" will win another delegate.
"The math is important," reminds Strasma. Indeed, because it had such confidence in its identified support for the other campaigns, the Kerry team began estimating its opponents' strength in key precincts to, as Strasma puts it, "get a sense of where they were in terms of reaching viability thresholds" -- and countered accordingly.
"Every night we'd crunch the numbers in spreadsheets and print them out for all 1,993 precincts," recalls Strasma. "We had a daily graph. Then, in the last few days, we started figuring out where to best spend our resources." The scheduling staff was told where to organize events for Kerry or his surrogates.
"It was fun watching those charts darken up," admits a gleeful Norris.
Finally, there was Michael Whouley, the mastermind who defied the poll predictions by engineering Al Gore's late field drive in the 2000 presidential campaign.
Whouley was tasked with gathering information about where support was emanating from, or rising, and extrapolating that information to identify similarly fertile areas of the state that needed a bit more Iowa-style tilling. (It's worth noting that Whouley's firm, Dewey Square, is consulting for both the Kerry and the Edwards campaigns.)
Other than redirecting the schedule, the Norton-Strasma-Whouley brain trust kept its plans and internal information very secretive -- even from those on Kerry's staff who put out their candidate's message. They figured they couldn't control what any of the candidates said or did, or how persuasive any of that would be to Iowans. They didn't want to raise expectations inside the campaign, or for the media.
What they did instead is build the most efficient field net they could, then sit back and hope that Kerry would lure Iowans -- or that the squabbling between Dean and Gephardt would drive caucus goers -- directly into it. Which is exactly what happened Monday night.
"I think the big thing about Whouley was that he was able to get all this implemented," says Strasma. "Whouley was the one with the clout and confidence to make it all happen."
Kerry's victory in Iowa offers campaign watchers an important lesson: While there is much to be said for building support through a bottom-up, follower-based movement, there remains a premium on having a top-down, leadership-driven apparatus to harness that support.
Thomas F. Schaller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.