Chris Young of Obama for America
Brandon: 'There's a spark about him, it ignites optimism in the people who hear him.'
While the Wisconsin football team was struggling to come back in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, Madison alder Zach Brandon got in his car and embarked on a three day trip to Iowa. The destination was Waterloo, an industrial city next to the college town Cedar Falls, and one of the final campaign stops for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama before the Iowa caucuses on Thursday, January 3.
Brandon helped organize the 4000 person-strong rally for Obama at Monona Terrace back in October, as well as a subsequent $500 per head fundraiser at the home of Hans and Mary Lang Sollinger. He was later requested to lend a hand in Iowa in the final days before the state's caucuses, the first vote in this year's presidential campaign that will culminate on November 4.
The Daily Page spoke with Brandon by phone early Wednesday evening about the caucuses as seen from an Obama rally in Waterloo. Highlights from this conversation follow.
The Daily Page: What are you doing for the Obama campaign while you are there?
Brandon: Right now I'm at a pre-event for a rally tonight. Obama is on his way to Waterloo as we speak. He'll be on stage at 7:15 p.m. tonight as part of his tour of Iowa, so I'm at the event helping set up our voter files.
Over yesterday and today, I knocked on a couple of hundred doors of voters who were rated as not having made up their minds or as leaning towards Obama. I guess a "closer" is how they would describe it, as I was trying to convince undecided voters to support Barack Obama in the caucuses.
They're very nice people, and there's a lot of camaraderie with Wisconsin. About halfway through your pitch, they'll ask you if you're from Iowa. I say I'm from Wisconsin, and they reply that it's close enough. I had at least three cups of hot cocoa and coffee that helped me brave the weather out there.
How busy is the campaign scene there today?
There's a significant amount of energy. There are probably 75 volunteers and another dozen staffers here at East High School in Waterloo. You can feel the energy in the room, and people are very excited about this campaign. It's also exciting to see, just looking across the room, that at least a third of the volunteers are African American.
I don't know if this has made it outside of Iowa media, but the state's university system announced that they would be opening the residence halls for students who want to come back over break to participate in the caucuses. This was at the request of Students for Obama, and as is the case at the UW, there is a very strong Students for Obama presence in Iowa.
What about on the way into Waterloo?
Actually, I only saw one Huckabee sign while on the freeway. Once I got into town, I started to see more, notably more Huckabee signs.
Obviously the people I'm sent to convince are undecided based on their Democratic affiliation, but I came to learn some of the people were undecided as to whether they would vote in the Republican or the Democratic caucuses. One woman who told me that she hadn't made up her mind said she was trying to decide between Huckabee and Obama.
Additionally, there are a few Romney signs, a few Hillary signs, though not as many Edwards signs that I expected to see.
I supported Edwards in 2004. I've heard a lot in Wisconsin about the Edwards campaign presence in Iowa, and trying to be as impartial as I can, the Obama campaign seems to have a better ground game than anybody else. I was able to walk in to the campaign offices, get a packet, and hit the streets.
It's pretty cold here too. And as bad Madison's streets have been, Waterloo has a lot more problems with plowing.
What was it that prompted you to commit to Obama and travel to Iowa to support him in the caucuses?
I think we all know what's wrong with America. All of the Democratic candidates and even some of the Republican candidates can tell you this. While everybody else tells you who to blame, though, we all know who that is. Obama is the only one who is telling you how to fix it. There's a spark about him, it ignites optimism in the people who hear him.
In the Des Moines paper that had the poll showing Obama was 7 points up, a man was quoted saying that there's something Kennedyesque about Obama. You can't help but notice how many people say that, and it's not just the staffers and volunteers. There are a significant number of people I've talked to who say this is their first caucus, or this is the first time they've participated in many, many years.
I think this bodes well for Obama when you bring in that new energy. People are coming in looking for something that makes them feel optimistic and hopeful about America's future.
Second choices are important in the Iowa, particularly for supporters of candidates like Richardson and Kucinich that might not make the 15% threshold and will therefore ultimately give their votes to another candidate in the caucus. Who is your second choice?
I'm thankful to live in Wisconsin where I don't have to have a second choice.
But you're right, this was a question I asked a lot of people. There were some people I did have to persuade to commit to Obama as their second choice. I spent 20 minutes today with a retired firefighter from Waterloo whose first choice is Joe Biden, who is by all estimations unlikely to get the required 15 percent. When we started talking he said his second choice was John Edwards, and by the time we had finished, he had switched to Obama. This second choice is just as important as the first choice.
One big subject of talk here is the number of independents and Republicans who are going to vote in the Democratic caucus. This includes about 20% of the people I talked to today and yesterday. You see a significant number of people here on the canvassing sheets who are registered Republicans who are going to vote for Obama, along with people who have not yet declared a party preference.
What are you seeing when it comes to the Republican race?
There is a significant presence for Huckabee. He is leaving Iowa tonight to go on the Jay Leno show, which shows some confidence. There is also a Romney presence, along with signs for Ron Paul, which seems to be a small but very vocal group. Nothing for Giuliani. There's not much presence other than that.
With the Iowa primary attracting so many activists from out-of-state, doesn't this overwhelm the process, particularly considering the rapid succession of primaries that follow over the next month?
When you look at it and break it down by geography, most of the people who are here from out-of-state are from Illinois and Wisconsin, or elsewhere in the Midwest. I don't think you're taking away resources from any of the other primaries because of Iowa's caucus. It has been somewhat of a proving ground historically, and the presence you see from the campaigns shows how important it is to be here. Also, much like Wisconsin, it is not an expensive state to do media in. You can spend a lot of money and get a lot of bang for your buck in Iowa that you probably can't in other markets. And then there's the national media attention on the state and the outcome of these caucuses.
Do you support the parties shifting the presidential primary system to a regional cycle as some have suggested, or to another schedule?
I think that many states try to move up their primaries to diminish the influence of Iowa. In the end, though, they're only strengthening the power of the caucuses, particularly with the predictions of a much higher than usual turnout. There's certainly a downside, such as the fact that students are on break, so I think there is something that gets lost.
But I think it is an important test. It's retail politics. You literally have to convince people to go stand in a room and announce publicly who they're supporting, give speeches, and even try to convince their neighbors in the caucuses!. You can't run in Iowa just by running an air campaign with mailings, TV, and radio. Iowa forces candidates to be real, forces them to go back to the Proxmire style of campaigning where they have to go to the county fair, the fish fry, and the diner. You can't really do it any other way.
By the time of the Wisconsin primary on February 19, will the contest already be decided?
No, I think Obama and Clinton each have the resources to go the distance, and I think they're both going to be competitive in the Super Tuesday states. I also think they'll both be competitive in Wisconsin. The Obama campaign has been here three times. They wouldn't expend those resources and time if they didn't think it was worth their time.
It may just be down to two candidates, but I still think Wisconsin will matter.