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A secret peek inside Obama's Iowa campaign

December 7, 2007 |  5:22 pm

Behind the bright lights of the TV debates, the news sound bites and the daily attacks and defenses e-mailed to supporters and journalists, there's an anonymous army of campaign volunteers who do the grunt work of answering phones and mail, plus countless other chores -- including, importantly, soliciting friends to become supporters.

Such work is especially important in Iowa, where, despite heartfelt promises on sunny fall days, supporters must be marshaled to go out on a cold winter night during the Orange Bowl to listen to endless talking at a caucus. Every campaign has plans and procedures for accomplishing this, which it guards like state secrets.

But today, thanks to The Times' Robin Abcarian and a source of hers within the Barack Obama Iowa campaign, we get a detailed inside look at how they organize, communicate with, motivate, inform and, most importantly, listen to their network of nearly 2,000 precinct captains across the state.

The key is regular phone calls with headquarters. The captains get maybe two days' notice to call a certain number at a certain time. Meanwhile, they're encouraged to e-mail questions they are hearing on the street and would like answers to. Even if only a few hundred of them do this, those missives give the tacticians back in Chicago an on-the-ground feel for the steadily shifting sands of a campaign. And how tired or enthused their own workers are.

Such conference calls, in fact, provided Karl Rove and the 2000 Bush campaign with advance notice that they were in deep trouble from John McCain in New Hampshire. So when they lost that primary by a crushing 19 points, a comeback strategy was in place for South Carolina, beginning the next morning with a 6:30 a.m. departure for Greenville and Bob Jones University.

At the appointed time for the Obama phone meeting, most of the captains call, punch in a code that's different every time, and... 

are connected to a giant conference call. All the callers' lines are muted, but an organizer in Chicago introduces herself and thanks everyone for their hard work. She gives a brief general update on the campaign, encouraging poll numbers and the candidate's activities for a few days; reiterates the campaign's message of the week and the importance of personal front-door contact with voters; and then turns the phone over to "a guest."

Suddenly, Obama himself is on the line, thanking all the grassroots workers profusely for their hard work. He sounds enthusiastic, appreciative and genuine, and even though no one can actually talk to him, he instills a sense of conversation, of intimate contact with the guy they're all working for night and day. For new political workers, this can be a spine-tingling moment. Obama gives a general but always upbeat report on what he's seeing on the trail and then answers two or three of the e-mailed questions.

On one recent call, a question concerned how to handle what seem to be increasingly negative attacks from other campaigns. Obama said these were to be expected since recent polls showed their efforts pulling into the lead. He told the workers not to be defensive or abrasive, to answer with facts and to stay focused on the reality that they were changing the nation and the world.

He cautioned them against "faking it" if they don't know the answers and urged them to check with their assigned field organizers and get back to the individual voter. He thanked them all again for their diligence and hard work and turned the phone back to the campaign staffer, who repeated the appreciation.

Sometimes the call involves Michelle Obama. Other calls are arranged for give-and-take with a campaign policy expert providing insights and information for the volunteers to share with voters.

The elapsed time of such calls is around 50 minutes. But the impact lasts far longer. The workers return to the field newly energized and enthused. and, perhaps most importantly, feeling appreciated and less isolated going door to door, where, to be honest, they are not always welcomed.

The results? We'll know without a phone call come the night of Jan. 3, probably about the same time as we get the final score of the Orange Bowl.

-- Andrew Malcolm