From NBC-NJ's Carrie Dann
DES MOINES -- John Edwards'
campaign has 15-foot tall banners mounted on construction equipment.
Team Biden has a giant display of corn cobs to count up their
candidate's "Ears of Experience." The Clinton camp has massive plywood
"Hillary" letters a-la the Hollywood sign. And bloggers can't help but
camp out to watch the legions of campaign volunteers outside of every
multi-candidate event who wage sign wars that would put your local high
school's homecoming rally to shame.
But, as some campaign operatives in Iowa like to remind the press, yard signs do not a ground game make.
on the ground is key in a state as large (99 counties and just shy of
56,000 square miles) and as purple as Iowa (Gore won the state in 2000;
Bush won in 2004.) The stakes are even higher for Democrats, whose
unique caucus process makes a statewide turnout of well-informed and
dedicated voters a requirement for success.
The necessity of a
strong get-out-the-vote effort makes organization a good barometer of
what might happen in January. And because we couldn't possibly count
all the yard signs in Iowa even if they WERE the key to evaluating
ground game, here's an insiders scorecard to who's got game in the
BODIES -- Even the most charismatic candidate can't turn out the vote without dedicated staffers to organize canvassing drives, phone banks, candidate visits, and town hall meetings. Among the six Democratic campaigns with an Iowa presence, the number of paid staffers ranges from about 30 to 200. Joe Biden's camp, even after moving almost all of his top dogs into the state, tallies at less than 30. Rival Senator Chris Dodd, on the other hand, boasts 59 full-timers, and Gov. Bill Richardson's campaign announced this week that their newly beefed-up Iowa presence clocks in at over 70 people in the field. Dennis Kucinich, by contrast, doesn't really have an office in Iowa at all, making him ineligible to participate in the recent AARP forum. He doesn't appear to be seriously campaigning in the state that's geared toward under-funded campaigns. Is he running for president or simply running just enough in order to get invited to forums?
It's a bit trickier to tell with the top tier Democrats, who are so competitive with each other that the campaigns decline to release hard numbers of paid staff on the ground. But sources confirm that Obama's staff is the largest, with an estimated 200 paid operatives in the state. That number is likely to increase in light of Obama's post-third-quarter organizational push. Best estimates put the Clinton shop at somewhere between a half and three-fourths the size of Obama's,and Edwards' paid staff may register at just a touch less than that.
FIELD OFFICES -- Those bodies need space to work and bases of operation for countywide efforts like canvases and rallies. Each campaign has numerous satellite offices throughout the state in must-stop cities like Davenport and Iowa City. Here, also, Obama takes the lead. The Illinois Senator's campaign boasts a whopping 31 offices, some in counties with populations less than 20,000. The Clinton field operation encompasses 21 offices; Edwards and Richardson each have fifteen. Dodd's staff spreads over eleven bases in the field, and the shoestring Biden shop has merely nine.
ENDORSEMENTS -- Endorsements offer the chance for candidates to tout support from community leaders, and they also come with the gift that keeps on giving -- a rolodex of movers and shakers in key counties statewide. When former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer endorsed Barack Obama, he candidly told reporters that his main asset as a supporter will be his connections within the state party. "I will be in touch with Iowa Democrats," he said. "Frankly I know a lot of them from my time as party chair."
In Iowa, the legislative endorsement race is on. Hillary Clinton weighs in with 16 endorsements from state senators and representatives; Obama and Biden share the silver medal at ten apiece. Biden's success in tallying support from the statehouse is due largely in part to his long-standing connections here, some of which date back to his 1988 campaign; his fundraising efforts during the last election cycle were instrumental for local Democrats who took back the Iowa legislature in 2006, and many of those personal relationships have translated to the endorsement podium.
John Edwards, who also has deep roots in the state, has seven on the books, but expect that number to go up to nine in the coming weeks as Edwards rolls out his county steering committees. Chris Dodd, in contrast, boasts an influential national endorsement (from the International Fire Fighters Association) but has only one state legislator behind him. Richardson has none.
Of course, the signs aren't meaningless either. At last month's Harkin Steak Fry, the road to the Indianola balloon field was wallpapered with logos, and HillaryWorld was the hands-down winner of the visual contest. And besides the fact that Team Edwards is catching up fast in the endorsement race, it can't be ignored that, anecdotally, they might have the most tireless cheerleaders and sign-painters of the lot.
These categories don't even begin to take into account volunteers, ad buys, phone calls, and number of candidate hours logged in the state There's no metric of organization that can truly calculate the political magic that will make Iowans bundle up and decide to go talk politics for a few hours on a cold January night. But for now, keep your eye on the numbers and keep asking... "Who's got game?"