Inside Bernie’s Hippy Iowa Utopia, Outside Trump’s Commercial Fortress
DES MOINES –– A few “TRUMP” signs stuck out of the dead grass in front of a nondescript office building in a strip mall on Westown Parkway, inviting passersby to Make America Great Again. Across the parking lot, there was a FITNESS WORLD and not much else: Caliber Home Loans, Health Source and Heartland Gallery West, an art restoration service. One man, talking on the phone, paced outside the door.
This is the site of Donald Trump’s Iowa campaign headquarters. Behind the glass door, his likeness is everywhere, including on a box of “Lucky Trump’s,” a collectable cereal, on the front desk. It promises “greatness in every bowl.”
But the front desk was as far as I got on Friday.
Being a reporter––and one who isn’t exactly on good terms with the Trump campaign at that––I wasn’t permitted to see the operation up close. Four miles down the road, at Mass Markets, a call center owned by NASCAR investor and Trump super-fan Anthony Marlowe, where official Trump phone banking commences, I met a similar fate.
“All communication for Donald Trump needs to go through Heather Hicks,” Jeffrey, the phone banking coordinator, told me. Trump’s press secretary is named Hope, not Heather, Hicks. “All communication for Donald Trump needs to go through Hope Hicks,” he corrected himself. And then he said it once more for emphasis, or to practice.
Meanwhile, in another strip mall in another part of town, a storefront was cluttered with handmade signs, reading, “Join The Political Revolution,” and “Bernie Breaking Big Money’s Grip On Elections.” Volunteers hovered in the doorway. Reporters were invited to hang out and pet the office dog, Paula.
This is the site of Bernie Sanders’s Iowa campaign headquarters. Inside, Vampire Weekend, the Pitchfork-approved indie band, was preparing to head out for a soundcheck. Symone Sanders (no relation), the campaign’s press secretary, said Friday’s show in Des Moines would be the “acoustic” precursor to Saturday’s blowout concert in Iowa City, where the group would also perform in honor of the senator.
Trump and Sanders, two outsider candidates who have successfully challenged the rules and customs of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, are going about their insurgencies quite differently here on the ground in the Hawkeye State.
And the moods at their HQ’s is just the beginning.
Historically, Democrats tend to assemble robust field operations, with hundreds of staffers and volunteers manning phones and knocking on doors, while Republicans rely on what The Guardian described as “existing networks through local party activists and affinity groups, such as home schoolers,” to get their message out.
In this respect, Sanders is a traditionalist - In 2008, Barack Obama had 37 offices in 34 counties in Iowa. Sanders has 26 across the state––while Trump’s operation stands firmly outside the box.
He relies on his fame to pack fans into rallies, advertised on EventBrite, where they must provide personal information––their email address, phone number, address, and an answer to the question, “Are you registered to vote as a Republican?”––in order to obtain a free ticket. Sometimes, the ticket-purchaser is then contacted and asked to volunteer for the campaign. Sometimes, they’re not.
In a recent Monmouth University Poll of Iowa Republicans, 25% said they had been contacted by Ted Cruz’s campaign. Only 13% had been contacted by Trump’s.
I met Charlie Gruschow, a Tea Party activist who previously supported Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, in line at Trump’s rally Thursday night. He wore a Trump hat and pin and said he’d be caucusing on behalf of Trump on Monday because he’s the only Republican who could beat Clinton in a general election.
But later, when I asked his impression of Trump’s operation, he sounded less confident.
“I worked on other campaigns and during the process, just before the caucus, we wanted to make sure that every precinct in the state had someone to speak on behalf of our candidate,” he said.
“I haven’t seen Trump put a lot of money into hiring a bunch of people here in the state. To be frank, I think he’s relied on his popularity and the message he brings to attract caucus-goers to caucus for him on Monday night.”
Whether that would work, Gruschow said he didn’t know. “We’ll have to see. It’s a very good question.”
Trump’s plans in Iowa are a black box––even to his diehard, politically savvy supporters like Gruschow––while Sanders’s plans, and even his doubts (The New York Times reported this week that the campaign’s internal polling shows Hillary Clinton with a slight edge), are out in the open for all to scrutinize.
“We’ve got all these canvass packets lined up,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, told me on Friday, gesturing to a row of ten cardboard boxes filled with clipboards and envelopes. “There’s three shifts today and then there’s shifts all weekend.”
Pete D’Alessandro, Sanders’s flannel-clad campaign director in the state, told me that even if he were to come up short on Monday (Clinton leads him, in the Real Clear Politics average, by 2.5 points as of this writing), he sees a path forward for his candidate.
“There’s no doubt that when we first started,” he said, “they were, like, ‘Oh, he’s making some issues, that’s fine. He’ll be a blip!’”
The Clinton campaign didn’t expect, he said, to be putting up this much of a fight. “There’s no way that any of them could honestly tell you, ‘We knew we’d be bringing in Bill Clinton, even into the last weekend.’” He added, with a boastful sarcasm, “Yeah, that’s what they were thinking.”
On Friday, the volunteers’ focus shifted from phone banking to door-knocking.
When phone banking, volunteers read from a script (“I am making calls for Bernie Sanders because we think we need a president who won’t get us involved in any other quagmires in the Middle East”) and try to determine what number, from 1-8, a person should be categorized. One’s are people who strongly support Sanders and are committed to caucus for him this coming Monday. 4C’s “lean Clinton,” 5M’s are “strong O’Malley” and 8’s are “strong other.”
Nathan Aronson, a chipper Des Moines native, said he’d knocked on 28 doors just on Friday morning. Each time, he left behind a sign on the doorknob with a picture of Sanders and information for where to go to caucus.
I walked with Paige McKibbon, a high school senior who thinks Clinton is untrustworthy, as she placed signs on doorknobs in the Salisbury Oaks neighborhood. While walking down one driveway back toward the street, a woman came out of her house to shout that she was sorry, but she would have to caucus “for Hill!”