A View of Obama’s Ground Game: Sizzle and Challenges


Snow or no snow the “Obama Stand for Change tour” (or whatever it is that they are actually calling it) rolled into Iowa City yesterday.
obama iowa 2.jpgThis event was supposed to target undecideds in the area, and I was told that the campaign was thinking about 300 people would show up. Three times that many packed the Junior High gym. I know that the closing days of a campaign it’s hard to make judgments based on crowd size — I remember the ecstasy and delirium of the overflow crowds turning out to see Dukakis in late October 1988 — but Obama’s being able to turn out a huge crowd on a snowy day is as good an indicator as any as to how hard fought the final week will be.
Another indication might be read into the makeup of the crowd. Beyond just size it was extremely diverse, ranging from High Schoolers too young to vote (even with the caucus rules that let anyone who will be 18 by election day 2008 participate) to retirees, and with about as healthy a component of African-Americans, Hispanics and others as you can expect in Iowa. My wife Wendy commented that at a Clinton event she went to last week the crowd skewed much older.
And a final indication might be seen in where the crowd is: When Senator Obama came to the stage he was introduced by General McPeak and Representative Loebsack. He asked first how many people in the room intended to caucus. Almost all the hands went up.
He then asked who was still undecided, I’d guess somewhere between five and ten percent of the hands went up, maybe a bit more. Do the math, and this is a group bigger than the spread in the polls right now between Obama, Clinton and Edwards.
In many ways the Obama “Our Moment is Now” closing argument speech is a collection of his greatest hits, but it is one honed to perfection of delivery by months on the campaign trail. He riffed off the prepared text (I was jumping back and forth, trying to follow him and scribbling furiously whenever something new showed up.)

The speech charts Obama’s “unlikely journey to change America”, and, as has been well-reported elsewhere, contains a couple of well-placed shots at his chief rivals for the Democratic convention. Firing one way at Edwards Obama offered to rising cheers from the crowd that “I don’t need any lectures on how to bring about change, because I haven’t just talked about it on the campaign trail. I’ve fought for change all my life” but, headed, “We don’t need more heat. We need more light.”
And then pivoting towards Clinton Obama argued that “You can’t at once argue that you’re the master of a broken system in Washington and offer yourself as the solution. . .We don’t need someone who plays the game better; we need to end to the game. . .”
And he offered his perspective on the experience issue, too, rattling off all the different experiences – in the state legislature, in the Senate now, growing up overseas, as a community organizer, and more, that he would bring to the presidency, wrapping up with: “‘You can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience.
Mine is rooted in the real lives of real people, and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change’. I believe deeply in those words. But they are not mine. They were Bill Clinton’s in 1992, when Washington insiders questioned his readiness to lead.” For many of the people in the school gym, about as outside the beltway as one can get, its an appeal that makes a lot of sense.
But the guts of Obama’s pitch — and by far the lengthiest part of the speech — was directed at his message of “hope and change”.
He exhorts the crowd to respond to an appeal to “the fierce urgency of now. . .[B]ecause we are at a defining moment in our history. Our nation is at war. Our planet is in peril. Our health care system is broken, our economy is out of balance, our education system fails too many of our children, and our retirement system is in tatters.”
And he bought the crowd to its feet with a long “if you believe. . .we can make it happen” auto-call and response section, reminding them that “hope” is not a dirty word, and rifling through core Democratic
issues like universal health carte, education, ending the war in Iraq, and “fighting for the Constitution”.
And then he pushes towards the finish with a call to action: “If you will stand with me in seven days — if you will stand for change so that our children have the same chance that somebody gave us; if you’ll stand to keep the American dream alive for those who still hunger for opportunity and thirst for justice; if you’re ready to stop settling for what the cynics tell you must accept, and finally reach for what you know is possible, then we will win this caucus, we will win this election. . .This is the moment. . .This is our time. . .”
This appeal to the better angels of our nature is powerful stuff — its mainstreamed into the idealism of most Democratic Iowa caucus goers (and in fact, it may be one of those things in the psychological makeup that separates those who go to the caucuses from those who stay home on caucus night) – and it clearly reaches the audience. Even a big clump of undecided I noticed during the hand-show are up, cheering.
I have seen Obama hot and I have seen him cold over the past year on the campaign trail in Iowa. I’ve been to events where, walking out, people have turned and asked “what exactly was all the excitement about?” But there can be no question as Senator Obama heads down the final stretch here in Iowa that he has found his voice and his pacing.
And as Obama’s campaign surveys the hard core Edwards supporters and a Clinton campaign back on its game after a few shaky months this sort of pitch, delivered as with the sure voice that Obama now seems to have found, it is clearly a necessary ingredient for an Obama win.
But it is still hard to tell if it is sufficient. The Obama crowd might be wonderful in its diversity, but, as Wendy was quick to remind me, caucus-goers skew older. . .precisely the crowd at the Clinton event
the week earlier.
Obama Campaign volunteers and workers formed a gauntlet for people leaving the hall, making sure everyone knew where to caucus and trying to get uncommitted people to sign supporter cards. (As you may have noticed I have sort of a fetish for this sort of organizational infrastructure; my wife on the other, channels both our inner New Yorkers, and finds having to navigate all the cheery volunteers saying “thank you for coming” “thanks so much” to just be annoying).
Obama definitely picked up a few converts with his speech — and made a good impression on many of those still up in the air. But as one college-age person I knew and saw at the event said “oh yeah, I love
Obama. . .but I won’t be here on January 3. . .”
And it is as much on the soaring rhetoric of his speech as the grim realities of the ground game and turnout that Senator Obama’s future hopes lie.
— Michael Schiffer
Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucuses and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)


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