As Biden Makes Push in Iowa, His Ground Game May Have Some Gaps
DUBUQUE, Iowa — This city on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, which rose as a hub of furniture-making and brewing, ought to be a stronghold for Joseph R. Biden Jr. It is a blue-collar enclave with a Catholic heritage, aligning with his working class pitch to voters. Its 31-year-old, labor-connected congresswoman, Abby Finkenauer, has endorsed Mr. Biden.
But as Dan Corken, one of Mr. Biden’s most fervent volunteers, knocks on doors here, he is dubious about the candidate’s prospects just days out from Monday’s caucuses.
“If you want to look at the Biden community in Dubuque, the average age is probably about 72,” he said. “I’m having difficulties imagining some of the people I’m talking to door-knocking getting out on February 3 in the cold to go caucus.”
As Mr. Corken approached the first house on a list of potential Biden backers on Tuesday, a volunteer for Bernie Sanders swooped in and planted two signs in the yard before Mr. Corken reached the door.
“We’re all Bernie,” a man at the door told Mr. Corken.
Caucuses are low-turnout affairs, making grass-roots organizing an essential factor for doing well in Iowa. Well-tooled campaigns depend on a paid field staff and armies of volunteers to identify supporters, ensure they turn out and provide leadership in the many school cafeterias and churches that serve as caucus rooms.
But according to nearly a dozen county Democratic chairs and Biden activists around the state, Mr. Biden’s ground game has weak spots that threaten him with underperforming his polling in Iowa, where he has consistently been at or near the top.
With center-left Democrats increasingly alarmed about Mr. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, becoming the nominee, an effort to coalesce around the strongest moderate alternative — widely seen as Mr. Biden — could suffer a blow if the former vice president finishes in third or fourth place, and emerges from Iowa in a weak position.
The age of many Biden supporters could also prove detrimental: In 2016 only 28 percent of caucusgoers were over 65, according to entrance polls. Close to four in 10 were under 45 and they strongly favored the insurgent outsider, Mr. Sanders.
Besides having supporters who skew older, the Biden campaign has fewer activists like Mr. Corker, according to Iowa Democrats. His campaign also appears to have recruited fewer precinct captains — the team leaders in each of more than 1,600 caucus sites — who play a key role wooing undecided voters.
Ann Fields, the Democratic chairwoman of Marion County, said that the campaigns of Senator Elizabeth Warren and of Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., had recruited caucus captains for all 17 precincts in her county southeast of Des Moines. Not so the Biden team. “I would say if they’re half full they’re lucky,” she said last week.
In Des Moines County in eastern Iowa, Tom Courtney, the Democratic co-chairman, said last week he knew of “only a few” Biden precinct captains in his 16 precincts. Asked about the likelihood that a candidate’s supporters would materialize on their own without an organizing staff, Mr. Courtney said, “I’ve not seen it before.”
His wife, Nancy Courtney, who is a Biden activist, said there was a “slim chance” Mr. Biden wouldn’t reach viability in some caucuses, meaning his support would fall below a 15 percent threshold needed to earn delegates.
“A lot of the campaigns have really good staffers and we only have one staffer in Des Moines County,” she said. “That worries me.’’
Pete Kavanaugh, Mr. Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said the candidate had plenty of staff members, both paid and volunteer, to turn out supporters.
“From the moment Vice President Biden announced his campaign, organizers and volunteers have been engaging Iowans in every corner of the state — building a robust, grass-roots organization that will turn out our committed supporters on caucus night,” he said. “We will have an Iowan as a precinct leader representing the campaign and making the case for Joe Biden in all of Iowa’s 1,678 precincts.”
Organizing is the secret sauce in a caucus election, though it usually gets little attention as each new poll is seized upon as a sign of who is winning the horse race. Experienced Iowa strategists say a good ground game lifts a candidate’s support by two to three percentage points on caucus night.
While that may not sound like a lot, it helps explain some past caucus surprises, most recently in the 2016 race: Donald Trump, who led in Iowa polls by an average of 4.7 percentage points on caucus day, had a poor ground game and wound up second behind Ted Cruz, who had an extensive organizing effort.
A New York Times/Siena College poll last week showed Mr. Sanders at 25 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, with Mr. Buttigieg at 18, Mr. Biden at 17 and Ms. Warren at 15. Mr. Biden won among voters 65 and over, but Mr. Sanders was the favorite of those under 65.
A Monmouth University poll on Wednesday showed a different order for the same top four: Mr. Biden at 23 percent, followed by Mr. Sanders, 21; Mr. Buttigieg, 16; and Ms. Warren, 15. Senator Amy Klobuchar broke into double digits at 10 percent.
One of the crucial jobs of precinct captains is to win over backers of candidates who don’t reach the 15 percent viability threshold, and who can realign for a second and final head-count behind candidates who are viable. That’s a scenario that could be particularly crucial for Mr. Biden; if Ms. Klobuchar, for instance, doesn’t reach 15 percent, Mr. Biden would seem to have a good chance to pick up caucusgoers looking for another centrist to support.
But if a candidate lacks a precinct captain in a given caucus, that process is immeasurably harder.
Mr. Corken, the Biden volunteer, will serve as a precinct captain in Dubuque, where he said 41 of the 45 precincts had Biden captains. A former high school and college basketball coach, Mr. Corken, 69, had never volunteered for a political campaign before Mr. Trump’s election. His prod to activism was “born out of fear or maybe just anger,” he said. He did not want to sit back and watch “what Trump was doing to the country, and now to the Constitution.”
But as he walked between single-story houses on the city’s west side, he confided his worry that candidates promising a revolution, like Mr. Sanders, are more likely to turn people out than a mainstream politician like Mr. Biden.
“The Biden supporters are like me,” he said. “They believe we should turn the ship around, not scuttle the ship. Make the government work. Reach out to the Republicans.”
At many doors, Democrats told him they were undecided, or didn’t plan to caucus, or that they supported Mr. Trump. Bonnie Beacher, 62, was undecided.
“Is Biden a possibility?” Mr. Corken asked.
“Could be,” Ms. Beacher said.
“May I just say, I think he can govern the country,” Mr. Corken told her. “This is no time for amateurs. He’d walk in the first day and make the government work.”
“All righty, thank you,” said Ms. Beacher, who appeared eager to close the door.
Mr. Corken, who has canvassed Dubuque almost daily since the spring, said most Biden volunteers preferred to make phone calls, not trudge the city’s hills. “I know we don’t have as many door knockers as the other campaigns,” he said. “Whatever the caucus results are, they’re not going to be reflective of what the support for Biden is in this town.”
Near the end of his route, he hit pay dirt. Tom Lange, who answered the door with his toddler son, said he was “pretty firmly entrenched with Biden” and would certainly attend his caucus.
Another Iowan, Sue Smith, a retiree, also said she was likely to support Mr. Biden. “He’s been there, done some of it,” she said.
Asked if she would caucus, Ms. Smith said, “Oh I don’t know. When is it?”
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