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Ten years ago today Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucuses, en route to the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and ultimately the presidency.

That first victory shocked the world. Obama had entered a race with few endorsements or national legislative accomplishments against opponents that included a former first lady (the frontrunner) and the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee (who had campaigned in Iowa for nearly five years).

Iowa really belonged to those kids. It was their achievement. And I was there to witness it.  And it was I think as good and clean a politics as this country has ever seen.
— Barack Obama

Obama’s best assets then were his national media profile, two bestselling books, and a 2002 video that demonstrated he was the only serious contender to have opposed the Iraq War. Few thought those were enough to overcome his name—Barack Hussein Obama—and the fact that he was setting out to become the country’s first black president.

How did one of the whitest states in the union propel the first African-American president to the nomination? What about him captured Iowans’ imaginations? What compelled hundreds of young people to uproot their lives and join a movement considered so unlikely in its nascent stages? What was unique about his organization that future candidates, aides, volunteers, and activists can learn from?

I spent a year looking for answers to these questions. After nearly five years working in President Obama’s White House, I left a job compiling the President’s daily briefing book to conduct over 200 oral history interviews with alumni of the caucus effort. Some became household names over the past decade, including the president himself, but my subjects were primarily drawn from the grassroots volunteers and low level staffers engaged in the day to day work of organizing.

The Obama campaign billed itself as an organic effort whose success would be built upon bringing new voters into a caucus process that discouraged broad participation. I wanted to tell that story from the perspective of the bit players history usually forgets.

Pete Souza/White House

 

PROLOGUE

SARA EL-AMINE, Cedar Falls, IA Field Organizer

I was in high school when September 11th happened. And I was one of the only Muslim American and Arab-American people in our town. Bush was President. And he was spewing this weird brand of patriotism that’s very different from the patriotism that I have, and that I think President Obama and a lot of other people believe in.

JAMAL POPE, Sioux City, IA Field Organizer

My grandfather took me to the Million Man March when I was 13 years old. “I’m bringing you to this because I did not march with Dr. King. I should have.” I didn’t want to be 60 years old and regret that I didn’t take part.

ERIC ZOBERMAN, Jackson County Field Organizer

Developing my political self-awareness during the Bush years was incredibly disenchanting…hearing somebody talk about how we do rise and fall together, we are all one, and we do have a shared stake in each others’ futures and outcomes, really related to me.

CHARLES CLAYTON, Fort Dodge, IA Obama Volunteer

I wasn’t looking for him to save the world. I wasn’t looking for him to save America and to actually go to Washington and get everybody to say kumbaya and get along.

It was plain and simple: He is an African-American that can show my own sons and other African-American males that are maybe not believing in themselves, their culture, or their race, living a negative lifestyle, that they can achieve the ultimate greatness.  

DAN PFEIFFER, Obama for America National Communications Director

Iowa had a different feeling. It was like a different universe from the national political discussion…in those dark days it was our beacon of hope…we still thought we could win Iowa. And if you could win Iowa then everything was possible.

 

PART I: Staffing Up

FRANCIS IACOBUCCI, Des Moines, IA Field Organizer

I had no idea where I was living. Really had no idea how much I was getting paid. I mean they had told me this information, but I’m barely 21 years old, I’m not paying attention.

VICTORIA McCULLOUGH, Winneshiek County Field Organizer

I can’t overstate how little I knew about campaigns and what field organizers did. I just had no clue.

MITCH STEWART, Obama for America Iowa Caucus Director

You don’t necessarily have to have an Ivy League pedigree to be a successful organizer—in fact my experience was quite the opposite. Organizing is about perseverance and being humble, and going back and being rejected over and over again and still getting up and asking that fifth person, that sixth person, that seventh person until you finally get that yes. It’s a unique personality that can absorb that sort of rejection.

FRANCIS IACOBUCCI

This was my first real job. I walked into the [Des Moines] office and the first thing I did was make 300 phone calls all day, until someone had some time to talk to me about what was going on.

JOSH EARNEST, Iowa Communications Director

Paul Tewes [Obama’s Iowa State Director] invited all of the field staff to Des Moines to undergo a staff training. There was a room full of people who’d already been hired on the campaign, 75 or 80 staffers.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM, Des Moines Field Organizer

Part of the training was they set expectations like, “Look, we’re going to be down in the national polls. Those don’t matter…Iowa is the key to everything.”

DAVID PLOUFFE, National Campaign Manager

From the very moment Barack Obama started talking about [running for] President to the moment he announced, what crystalized was a belief that we needed to win Iowa and that was really our only chance.

DAN PFEIFFER

To Plouffe’s eternal credit, every decision was, “How does this help us win Iowa?” If the answer is that it doesn’t, then we don’t do it.

BESS EVANS, Clay County, IA Field Organizer

I was in Spencer, Iowa. I was in the middle of nowhere with one other staffer. We were really alone out there; the people in Des Moines, it felt like they were in a different world.

VICTORIA McCULLOUGH

I was in this town where I didn’t know a soul. I’d only ever lived in Tennessee. Making connections was the only way I was going to survive the next six months.

MICHAEL HALLE, Linn County, IA Field Organizer

The first day I was there [in Cedar Rapids] there was this smell in the air that was indescribable. It smelled the way that mash smells when you’re making beer.

Second day, there was a different smell that was kind of cinnamony, and I was just like, “What the fuck is going on?” There’s a General Mills factory there. When they’d make different cereal, the town smells differently…they would look forward to the Cap’n Crunch days.

 

 

PART II: Rules of the Road

ANNE FILIPIC, Iowa Field Director

I remember getting to Iowa and talking to people that had worked in previous caucuses—to Mitch Stewart and to Marygrace Galston and whispering, “So explain to me how this actually happens.”

NORM STERZENBACH, Iowa Democratic Party Caucus Director

There is nothing else like this in American politics.  Certainly not on this scale—the old New England Town hall meetings are probably the closest thing to it.

DAVID PLOUFFE

In Iowa people want to be respected. So you can’t read off a bunch of talking points…you’re going to have to have a real conversation with people.

PAUL TEWES, Obama Iowa State Director

We put the principles up on the wall: “Respect, Empower, Include.”

LIBBY SLAPPEY, Cedar Rapids, IA Democratic Activist

When you’re an Iowan, you have an obligation to do your homework. I have friends in New York, I have friends in San Francisco who are political junkies and who are so envious of us in Iowa because we get to vet everybody.

I’m not supporting a black man who’s about to take my guns, and if you’re not back in your car in two minutes, I’m setting the dogs on you.
— Iowa voter

CATHY BOLKCOM, Quad Cities Democratic Activist 

I was here one morning and the phone rang and I answered it, “Cathy?” “Yes.”  “This is Barack Obama.” “Hi Senator.  How are you?”  “Oh I’m very well. How are you?”  And you know, “I’m running for president and I’d really like to have your support.” And I said, “You know, I appreciate that. It’s early. I haven’t really made up my mind yet.”

CARRIANNA SUITER, Muscatine, IA Field Organizer

You weren’t just having one conversation and trying to persuade these people. I had a lease. I lived there…I joined a knitting circle.

VICTORIA McCULLOUGH

The first couple of weeks I lived with this really great couple [in Decorah], who refused to say who they were supporting.

BESS EVANS

I remember making my first phone calls and thinking to myself, “Have I made a terrible mistake?” Because people would hang up on you. I took everything very personally from the very beginning. That was hard.

GREG DEGEN, Johnson County, IA Field Organizer

You would explain to them, “Well he’s the candidate from Illinois—he’s a senator and he was a state senator before that.” You would say,“You may have seen that he had this very prominent speech at the Democratic National Convention [in 2004].” “He’s the candidate that was against the Iraq War from the start.” But then you would basically have to tell people “Yes, he’s the black candidate running for President.” And then people generally knew who he was.

JAMAL POPE, Sioux City, IA Field Organizer

In Iowa you had to really beg people to get involved—small numbers mattered because you were building from nothing.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM,

Every organizer has about five to ten just canvassing stories that they will keep [with] them for life.  

VICTORIA McCULLOUGH

There was a guy named Bruce, an 80-year-old farmer. He lived in this rural area and I really wanted him to be a precinct captain. Bruce came in one day with a really sly grin on his face. He said, “I was just at Walmart and I thought of you.”

He pulled out a bike light. And I was like “Oh that’s so thoughtful, I really needed that.” He says, “Yeah, I know you ride your bike.” So it was this really sweet moment. Then he says, “Yeah, and then I saw this stuff in the clearance rack.” He whips out a flesh colored garter belt.

DOUG DORANDO, Iowa County, IA Field Organizer

In Newport Township this farmer answers the door with his shotgun over his back and his dogs at his feet and says, “Turn around, go right back out to the car. I’m not supporting a black man who’s about to take my guns, and if you’re not back in your car in two minutes, I’m setting the dogs on you.”

 

PART III: Elephants in the Room

DAN PFEIFFER

There’s two things we were dealing with. One is, are we just gonna flame out like other grassroots wonders, most recently Howard Dean? There’s also this question over the whole thing, which is will white people vote for a black presidential candidate? And Iowa is obviously the ultimate test of this.

GRAHAM WILSON, Jefferson County, IA Field Organizer

People were very interested to talk to you—they were also very apprehensive. The thing about Barack Obama is that people really didn’t know very much about the guy. So I had a former county party chair—our first conversation was him saying Barack Obama was not electable because he was a Muslim…this isn’t like some random person on the street, this is the head of the Democratic Party organization for this part of the state.

CARRIANNA SUITER

There was a house I drove by every time I went to Henry County that had a “Barack is the Antichrist” sign outside of it.

TYLER LECHTENBERG, Marshalltown, IA Field Organizer

I got a phone call from [a precinct captain] saying, “The police are here. We had some vandalism on our house. Can you guys come out?”  

She had the big barn signs that said “HOPE,” up on her house. And you pull up and…the N-word was written in red all over the Hope sign.

[A]t the end of the day there probably were racist awful people who caucused for the senator and did it for strange reasons. But there have to be strange coalitions to make things happen.
— Sara El-Amine

FRANCIS IACOBUCCI

In my district there were a ton of racist people. Blatant. Blatantly racist. So it made for interesting and tough conversations with Yohannes because he would ask me about it. He would put you on the spot and say, “Tell me one of those stories.” And they’d be brutal. Short, but brutal. He would just take a drag of his cigarette and we’d move on.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM,

I was asked when I was a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up. At that particular moment I said I wanted to be a congressman and the question back was, “Don’t you want to be President?”  I remember thinking, “I can’t be President because I’m black.”  

SARA EL-AMINE, Cedar Falls, IA Field Organizer

There were a lot of moments throughout the campaign where you realize that things are much less black and white than you think. And at the end of the day there probably were racist awful people who caucused for the senator and did it for strange reasons. But there have to be strange coalitions to make things happen.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM

I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about, “Oh man we’re going to make history.” I spent a lot of time thinking, “I cannot be the weak link that keeps history from happening.”

LARRY GRISOLANO, Obama for America Director of Research and Public Opinion Polling

One of the criticisms that people make of the Iowa caucuses is that Iowa is not a very racially diverse place. And I say as an Iowan, that I think that the experience of race is different than it is in industrial Northern cities…where people of all races have had kind of a first-hand, close-up experience with moments of racial strife.

DAN PFEIFFER

An endless number of stories [were] written about the “Bradley effect,” the idea that white people say they’re for a black candidate, but they don’t actually vote for him.

DENNIS STEWART, Marshalltown, IA Obama supporter

We discussed it matter of factly, not as a negative, but as choosing a candidate that was electable.  We had already decided [to support him], so it wasn’t racially motivated, but our concern was, would the rest of the country feel like we did?

CATHY BOLKCOM

Electing a black man president of this country would be such a huge historic event…I had never felt moved like that. I’ve always, and always will, support the Democratic candidate but I never felt that something was this important.

BOB OSTERHAUS, Maquoketa, IA Obama Supporter

I don’t know whether people in Jackson County voted for Obama because he was black just to prove to themselves that they weren’t prejudiced or whether they did it because they thought he was a better candidate. Or whether they were so fed up with the Bushes that they were going to vote for any Democrat…I suspect some of them, all of the above.

KATHY GERONZIN, Maquoketa, IA Obama Precinct Captain

There’s certain black people like Denzel Washington and Barack Obama where they are more viewed as white than black when it comes to race. And Barack Obama was that way during the campaigns…I never viewed him as black.

DAN PFEIFFER

This is an insane thing to think about now, but [there were questions about] whether Barack Obama was black enough for African-Americans to support him because he didn’t come out of the civil rights movement.

KARL CASSELL, Cedar Rapids, IA Obama Supporter
This was my mindset:  We finally have someone who is squeaky clean…he was an African-American male who was married, a father, and that gives you great pride, because that’s not the way America sees African-American males.

My mother used to tell my brothers and I something very regularly that even to this day I tell my children: you have to work harder than your white counterparts.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM

There was an older African-American woman, who volunteered for us, [who] became like an aunt or grandmother figure for a couple of us.

She would most regularly remind me that even when we were down 30 points, the fact that Obama was a relevant candidate was inconceivable for her.

There was an event in Des Moines where Senator Clinton showed up and I saw our volunteer there.  At one point I turn around and I see her giving Senator Clinton this huge bear hug, and she comes over to me and winks and says, “I’m still for our guy, but it’s history either way, baby,” and walks away.

 

PART IV. New Approach

ANNE FILIPIC, Iowa Field Director

Something we dealt with as a campaign was skepticism that we actually were building a strong infrastructure—ultimately you can give a fancy speech, you can hold a big rally, but can you actually get people to show up on Caucus Day?

MITCH STEWART

Two things that stand out about the summer. One is I got shingles because I was so stressed out about the campaign, I was like a 60-year-old man when I was 31. The second is I talked Paul [Tewes] into letting us just engage previous caucus goers for the month of August.

We had already decided [to support him], so it wasn’t racially motivated, but our concern was, would the rest of the country feel like we did?
— Dennis Stewart

ANNE FILIPIC

We decided to take a risk in August.

MITCH STEWART

The conventional wisdom was that you needed to engage people who have gone to caucuses before because it was such a foreign thing and getting someone to show up for two hours on a cold Monday night in January is impossible.

ANNE FILIPIC

We set a program for the field organizers where it wasn’t about numbers, it was about going to a former caucus goer’s house and actually having a long conversation with them.

MITCH STEWART

It was the worst month of the campaign.

ANNE FILIPIC

Every night the field staff would data enter the conversations that they had. Seeing the numbers come back, you start scratching your head.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM

August was terrible.

ANNE FILIPIC

That month was the catalyst that said we have to think about this differently.

MARYGRACE GALSTON, Iowa Deputy State Director

[Field is] a numbers game. You have to figure out what’s your winning number [of supporters], what’s your deficit, and how are you going to get to the winning number?

YOHANNES ABRAHAM

The leadership did a really good job of shielding us from this, but you had access to the Internet and we were getting pummeled in the national press for the fact that we were not only not gaining ground on Senator Clinton, but we were losing ground nationally.  That’s when questions would creep in. I think August is when they had to re-calibrate the field strategy.  

ANNE FILIPIC

People that were showing up at these big rallies—when we data entered their information you found that the majority of them had never caucused in the past…a lot of them were young people.

MITCH STEWART

We came up with this program called “Caucus Education.” We would have either the precinct captain or this fresh wave of field organizers come in to sit down with these folks who haven’t caucused before, or who aren’t registered, or are independents, and walk them through the process...then we started tracking that as a metric.

RACHEL HALTOM-IRWIN, Iowa Youth Vote Director

Every organizer had to go present on the caucus at [high school] U.S. history classes.

JUSTIN McCORMICK, High School student Spencer, IA

I was very opposed to the Iraq War. I think most people in my generation were opposed too…I had no idea that [Iowa] was the first in the nation and the amount of significance that we’d play in the political process for the Presidential election.

[My volunteering] started off by just me walking into the office and meeting Bess for the first time.

BESS EVANS

High school kids were important because you can caucus when you’re 17. They overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama, if we could convince them to show up.

JACKIE NORRIS, Iowa Senior Advisor

At the end of the day, the number one goal [of the field plan] was to have one person that was going to stand up there [on Caucus Night] and take control of a precinct and be that neighborhood validator.

DOUG DORANDO

We were out knocking doors [and] I show up at [Candi Schmieder’s] door. She’s got an Obama sign in the window that apparently she had gotten [in Cedar Rapids] during the announcement tour. It’s immediately apparent that she, unlike any other person that I’ve talked to this day…really wants to help out.

CANDI SCHMIEDER, Marengo, IA Obama Precinct Captain

I [said], “Oh Doug, I’ve never done this before. I’ve never attended a caucus before. Are you sure? Why would you want me to do this?”

DOUG DORANDO

She really embodied what the campaign was about.

CANDI SCHMIEDER

There were trainings that we could go to so that we knew how to go to a caucus and what to do. My daughter was only 10, but she was interested in coming along.

[She] got to where she could answer people’s questions. When we would go door knocking and they would ask a question, she would answer them before I could.

DOUG DORANDO

[Candi] was an average, everyday American who was out there because she believed that this was more important than anything else in the world. I think she was right.

CANDI SCHMIEDER

They [Doug and his colleagues] didn’t just see me as someone who hadn’t finished college yet, was a stay at home mom with her kids. They saw me as somebody who could have an impact probably before I did. That really meant a lot.

 

PART V: Organizing

BARACK OBAMA

Part of what made Iowa so important to me was that it was a test of my most fundamental beliefs about democracy. When I was their age, I had become a community organizer, not even really knowing exactly what that meant and not necessarily being as good at it as any of them were. But it was based on a premise that drew from my reading of the Civil Rights Movement and my reading about the Union Movement, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. This vision of a politics from the bottom up. And so often electoral politics was something completely removed from that. It’s money and it’s TV ads and it’s positioning and it’s talking points. And somehow the process of people becoming involved and determining their own destiny—that got lost. And what I saw with both the staff and the volunteers was this almost organic process of people organizing themselves, and I was the front man, but they were the band.

DAVID PLOUFFE

My mindset became in Chicago we were just there to support these kids in Iowa…it’s not the other way around. They’re not out there to serve headquarters.

ANNE FILIPIC

Every time Barack Obama did a rally or an event [in Iowa], he’d call the field organizers from that region up to the stage.

GREG DEGEN, Johnson County, IA Field Organizer

It was such an incredible gesture. It just made you feel like not only were you part of something big, but you were also the most essential part of something big. For someone who was poised to be the most powerful person on Earth elevating me…it was really really empowering.

DAVID PLOUFFE

He wanted people to understand who his representatives were. He was spending a lot of time in Iowa asking these people for their support and he was struck—he would comment about this to me—how often they brought up our staff. Because you gotta understand that’s who [Iowans] are interacting with.

If I didn’t make my goals on a given week I legitimately went to sleep feeling as though the fate of the world, not the fate of House District 68, but the fate of the world could be adversely affected by my failures as a 21 year old organizer.
— Yohannes Abraham

CARRIANNA SUITER

I remember [Mrs. Obama] told me, “Barack did that. He moved to Chicago sight unseen, and I know what that takes. I know that you’re missing your family, and you’ve moved to this new place just out of belief for my husband.” She said, “Thank you.” That meant a lot to me.

DAVID PLOUFFE

The staff and volunteers thought that Barack Obama thought they were the most important people on the campaign. And he thought they were. You can’t manufacture that.

PAUL TEWES, Iowa State Director

The most important person was the young organizer who was trying to make friends and influence people. That was the most important job.

BARACK OBAMA

Tewes was an old, grizzled vet, but everybody else were kids. They’re in their 20s…and I’ve always said that it was really the team on the ground—and I would include the volunteers with that—those staff and volunteers that carried us in those early months at a time when we were still honing our message and I was still finding my way as a candidate.

PAULETTE ANISKOFF, Iowa “Get Out the Caucus” Director

People go into field organizing because it’s the salt of the Earth job. And he [Paul Tewes] built a culture…that was genuinely lived by everyone.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM

[Paul] figured out how to get the best out of everybody. If I didn’t make my goals on a given week I legitimately went to sleep feeling as though the fate of the world, not the fate of House District 68, but the fate of the world could be adversely affected by my failures as a 21 year old organizer.

MITCH STEWART

You felt the weight of the world on your shoulders, and so as the Director I would try to shield as much of that negative energy from the organizers and others as I could, but ultimately, if you are doing this right, you should go to bed a little sick to your stomach every night.

JON CARSON, National Field Director

So many campaigns waste so much time when people are trying to create the bright, shiny object that’s going to get attention. The bright, shiny object in Iowa was the organization itself.

PAUL TEWES

I just wanted them to feel like I wasn’t above them and that nothing was beneath anybody in this organization. That was important.

BARACK OBAMA

If we won there the way we were running, given the nature of the caucuses, the feeling was not only that my campaign would be viable but that my faith in this kind of politics was vindicated. And that’s why, when you saw folks like this work, you just didn’t want to screw up. You wanted to make sure that you were worthy of these efforts.

 

PART VI: Optimism

BARACK OBAMA

When we did the [Jefferson-Jackson] Dinner in the fall, that was where you could see all that work coming together.

JON FAVREAU, Director of Speechwriting

There was no better or bigger chance to get our message out in a succinct way, in a powerful way, than the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. We also felt like we had tried and failed so often in the prior couple months to do something like this.

RICK SIGER

Instead of just having the President go to the JJ and filling it up with people, we booked out [the hall] immediately adjacent to the Auditorium where the JJ was, and threw a massive rally in advance.

MITCH STEWART

We shipped in people from all over [Iowa] for JJ. Each county had a certain number of tickets that they could allocate through their precinct-based operations.

RICK SIGER

At the end of the rally we led [the Obama supporters] out the front door of the hall, shut down the streets, and had a parade led by the Isiserettes, a drum corps of young kids. We had 3,000 people walking down the street.

BESS EVANS

The Jefferson Jackson Dinner was a really wonderful time to remind myself that even though I was up there alone in Spencer, that there was a whole organization in Iowa that was doing just what I was doing.

PAUL TEWES

Nobody likes to feel alone when they’re doing this kind of work. It’s the most dangerous demoralizing feeling there is. That’s why we built these offices—we wanted these offices everywhere. That’s why we wanted senior staff to go everywhere. That’s why we brought everybody in for big events, all these activists…it was the idea that if you’re in Elkader, Iowa and you come to a JJ and you see someone from Decatur, Iowa, boy that’s a great feeling….You wanted this idea that we’re all in this together. And we’re going to make change together. Because if you felt like you’re just doing it alone it’s a very, very helpless and hopeless feeling.

I think I threw up three times that day just from the stress.
— Mitch Stewart

PETER GAGE, Iowa Advance Lead

If you’re able to pull off a serious presence [at the JJ] with strong organization, now you’re two months before the caucus. If you can’t do it by then you probably won’t be able to catch up with the folks that are well-organized going into that final stretch.

The press put a lot of emphasis on the JJ because it is the one event where [all candidates] were on the stage at the same point going into the homestretch.

JON FAVREAU

What we were most excited about with the JJ was that it gave each candidate only 10 minutes to make their case, and they had to memorize it. “This is why Barack Obama believes he should be president, why he believes he should be president instead of her, and why he believes he should be president in this moment in time.” Those questions had to be answered for everyone, for us and the campaign, who are going out and trying to evangelize about Barack Obama, for the people who are going to caucus, and for all these very cynical people in the press corps.

MITCH STEWART

I think I threw up three times that day just from the stress.

FRANCIS IACOBUCCI

At the dinner we were the fucking last speech in the whole thing. I just remember no one being tired. We were all ready, we were all anxious to do this. And we knew right away we’d won.

BESS EVANS

The night of the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner I felt like I was holding lightning.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM

Post JJ is when you started to notice the text messages and emails from friends around the country that are sort of curious. “How is it looking?  How is it feeling?  What’s going on there?  Are we winning?” Friends and relatives who hadn’t really expressed an interest prior.  

MITCH STEWART

After [the JJ] was over I remember Paul [Tewes] came up to me and he goes, “It’s ours to lose now.” And I agreed with him. It was.

 

PART VII: Persistence

BARACK OBAMA

What was wonderful about all the young people who were fanning out across the state was they were terrific at making relationships. They had, by the time I got there and certainly by the end of the campaign, they were known, they were trusted, they were loved. In some cases, they were treated like the sons or daughters of community leaders there because they had lived there and they’d shown themselves to really care.

JAMAL POPE, Sioux City, IA Field Organizer There was a lady who was the President of the local NAACP, Flora. At first I emailed her and she was slow to respond. She was pretty forthcoming when I first met her: “Listen, I supported John Edwards in 2004, that’s who I’m supporting right now.”

FLORA LEE, Sioux City Community Activist

I didn’t think he [Obama] had a prayer. I’ll be honest, because he was a black man, he was young, and he didn’t have a great deal of experience.

JAMAL POPE

I was like, “Cool.” I didn’t try to push.

FLORA LEE

I did an interview [that year] with some magazine…I was very embarrassed when it came out, because the only thing she quoted me as saying was that I thought he would get assassinated before his term was up. And I did say that. But I said more than that. I was just afraid for his life.

JAMAL POPE

Eventually I became friends with her and got to know her family. We got her in to meet Senator Obama and she told him that she wasn’t a supporter. I thought, if she told him that, we don’t have a chance.

FLORA LEE

Senator Edwards was really talking about issues. He was talking about poverty, he was talking about race and inequality. And those were the two things that really got me, especially race…And besides that, [Edwards] called me on my birthday.

JAMAL POPE

Her son came to town and they invited me to Christmas dinner with the family. I made banana pudding. I didn’t want to go empty handed and that was something my mom would always make. I went to the local Hy-Vee, got some Vanilla Wafers, bananas, pudding mix, but I really didn’t know how.

FLORA LEE

I knew he was here in Iowa by himself, no family. And it was a holiday, and I thought, “Gosh, if that were one of my kids, I would hope someone would invite them over.” And I liked him…he didn’t talk politics all the time.

JAMAL POPE

I really believed that if I could go over there and eat dinner with them, I could get her to support the senator. So I made this banana pudding, ate Christmas dinner with the family, and played cards. She had three kids, a husband, and we were just sitting around the table talking.

FLORA LEE

I said to my son, “Well, who do you like in all this presidential stuff?” He says, “I like Obama.” I said, “Well why do you like him?” He says, “Well, because he talks about things that are important to me. He was talking about education, he was talking about student loans, he was talking about jobs.” And he said, “The biggie is he’s talking about not sending people to war.” And the clincher was this: He said, “You older people have messed up things. Let’s give us a try.”

JAMAL POPE
Closer to the caucus I had to make the hard ask. I [was] a little nervous.

FLORA LEE

[Jamal] was so persistent. He was knowledgeable. But he wasn’t persistent in a way that just started to nag at me…he was very respectful.

JAMAL POPE
I called her and said, “Hey Flora, I haven’t really talked to you about supporting Senator Obama yet, but we have a week. You’re an influencer in the community and if you support him there’ll be a lot of other people who will feel comfortable [doing the same].” She came back a day later, and said, “After talking to you, after talking to my son, I’m going to caucus for Senator Obama.”

I was super pumped. I emailed everybody about it. When that happened, I thought, “We’re finally moving in the right direction. We’ve got everything together now.”

That’s kind of how I saw the whole Iowa thing. There were 300 people like me. A lot of [Iowans] said, “I’ll do it because Jamal’s been here for so many months. He’s not from here – I can go caucus for an hour.”

 

 

PART VIII: History

BARACK OBAMA

That’s my favorite night of my entire political career. To me, that was a more powerful night than the night I was elected President.

We went to a school where [a] caucus was being held.

DAVID PLOUFFE

No one knew he was coming, he just stopped by to greet people.

We were predicting 175,000; 240,000 showed up.
— Norm Sterzenbach

JON FAVREAU

People have been saying they’re going to expand the universe of caucus goers for years. It never happens. The young people never show up. The people who are not strong Democrats never show up.

BARACK OBAMA

It was cold. The caucuses were [on one of] the coldest nights of the year. And we got inside, and it was just this sea of people.

DAVID PLOUFFE

We saw there what we’d tried to build…Young people. Old people. African Americans. “I’m a Republican, I’ve never caucused before.” “I’m an Independent, I’ve never caucused before.” “I’m a Democrat, I’ve never come to one of these before, I only vote in general elections.” And there they were.

BARACK OBAMA

Every age and different backgrounds; you had farmers in overalls and seed hats, and you had young African American kids and Latino moms…there was a guy who looked like Gandalf. He was dressed in this white robe and he had this long white beard. And he had this white staff and at the top of the staff he had jerry-rigged this little video screen that was playing my JJ speech looped over and over again.

There were my supporters, and there were Hillary supporters, and Edwards supporters, and Biden supporters. So it wasn’t just that my folks had turned out—it was this sense that people were really engaged, that they were going to figure out who they wanted representing them in this presidential election.

And I remember leaving there just feeling as if we had pulled something off. That whatever happened, somehow we had succeeded.

VALERIE JARRETT, Senior Advisor

He was very quiet in the car. And I looked at him and I realized he was tearing up. I think just the magnitude of what we had done, not what he had done, was kind of dawning on him.

BARACK OBAMA

I thought about my mom at that point, who was very idealistic and I think was the person who was most responsible for giving me a sense of my values and the belief in helping people, and who had passed away over a decade earlier—and thinking about her I started tearing up. And that was the only time I think during the campaign where the full weight of what we were trying to do really affected me that way. There would be other times where I’d be excited or happy, but that night, that moment, I felt as if what I believed about this country and what I believed about politics had been made manifest.

NORM STERZENBACH

We were predicting 175,000; 240,000 showed up.

FRANCIS IACOBUCCI

I came back to the office right as they called it. It was chaos.

YOHANNES ABRAHAM

I just remember bursting through the front doors. Folks had already popped champagne and were crying. I just run up to Booch and he gives me a huge hug and he picks me up and…I can’t describe it to you.

MITCH STEWART

I didn’t have this euphoric “change the world” mentality. I was just so happy for the field organizers, I was so happy for the people I worked with, so relieved that I didn’t let them down.

BESS EVANS

It wasn’t just about believing in a candidate, it was about believing in the process. And I think that there were a lot of people that didn’t ever think they would feel that way.

JAMAL POPE

There was a [conference] call that night where the senator talked to [us]. I guess I won’t get in trouble now, but I gave that call-in number to my grandpa and my mom to listen in. My grandfather was just so pumped up man. I think deep down there was a part of me that was always doing it for him too.

PAULETTE ANISKOFF

I think one of the reasons the president still gets weepy every time he talks about Iowa, is there were a bunch of young people who didn’t want jobs in the White House, they weren’t looking to go into politics to get a leg up or add a line to their bio when they ran for office. They just really wanted something to be different, and they thought he was the guy to do it. They worked their hearts out for all the right reasons, and that is a unique and beautiful thing.

JON FAVREAU

If nothing else, [with the rally speech] we wanted to communicate that Barack Obama was there not just because of Barack Obama, but because there was a movement of people who believed that this time could be different, that we could bring about change. Those people worked their asses off, and that is why he was up there. That was it.

BARACK OBAMA

In some ways, that moment in the car where I thought about my mom maybe was the most important thing for me that night—with the exception of me seeing the staff after the rally.

MIKE BLAKE, Iowa Deputy Political Director

He came back [stage] and he had no voice.  He just kept saying, “Thank you.”

PAUL TEWES

I hugged him. And the first thing I said was, “We made history.”

BARACK OBAMA

That’s probably the other time I teared up, because what had happened in Iowa was really their accomplishment. It wasn’t mine. Ultimately, we would go on and we would lose New Hampshire, and we would win South Carolina and have all the ups and downs of the campaign. And my broader team of Axe and Gibbs and Plouffe and everybody rightly could take credit for the incredible national organization that we built. And I’ll take a little credit for eventually becoming a pretty good candidate.

But Iowa really belonged to those kids. It was their achievement. And I was there to witness it.  And it was I think as good and clean a politics as this country has ever seen.

 

 

Chris Liddell-Westefeld lives and works in Washington DC. He co-founded Iowa Students for Barack Obama in 2007 and remains active in Democratic politics. Interviews in this piece were conducted between 2013 and 2015.

Uncaptioned photos via Creative Commons, Barack Obama

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