Bernie Sanders Is Turning Crowds Into Volunteers in Iowa

Clinton is still better organized here, but Sanders is staffing up and building an infrastructure to support his surprising insurgent campaign.

DES MOINES—The walls in Bernie Sanders's brand-new Des Moines headquarters—nestled between a Hy-Vee supermarket, a liquor store, and a Vietnamese restaurant—are full of the standard field-office fare: district maps of the state, quotes from the candidate, and campaign signs in the window.

But when it comes to Sanders's chances here in Iowa, it's the details that are important: posters on the wall implore supporters to "Sign up to host an organizer," "Sign up to phone bank," and "sign up to canvass."

At an office-opening event Thursday night, the space was humming with activity as about 100 supporters filed into the room, grabbing snacks from a table of hodgepodge items and sitting down in chairs arranged in a circle in the center of the room. Each supporter was asked to fill out a small card with his or her name and contact information and to check boxes about how to "take action" ("Support Bernie," "Recruit 5 Friends to Caucus for Bernie," "Be a Precinct Captain for Bernie "¦ let's meet!"). Around the walls were the names of neighborhoods or towns—Urbandale ("Bernie-dale," as it was dubbed), Altoona, Waukee—and activists were encouraged to sit near their hometown. Staffers in light blue "Bernie" shirts walked around with clipboards, making sure everyone's information was taken down.

"Bernie's drawing big crowds," Sanders's Iowa director, Robert Becker, told the crowd to applause. "Now it's time to organize "¦ this is about building an army."

Sanders, the self-described socialist in the Democratic race, may be the last person national political observers expected to emerge as the chief Democratic challenger to Hillary Clinton. But even still, he's drawing massive crowds to rallies across the country and has seen his standing rise rapidly in the polls. To capitalize on the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign, he'll need to do more than just draw crowds—and his team is quickly putting an operation in place in Iowa to take advantage of the people coming out to support him.

In mid-May, shortly after Sanders launched his campaign, Iowa coordinator Pete D'Alessandro was the lone staffer in Iowa, tasked with putting together a team that could give Sanders a shot at winning next February's caucuses. Now, D'Alessandro is just one of 31 staffers—including 24 field organizers—who are on the ground here. That number is expected to rise to 40 by the end of the month, the campaign says.

And as of mid-July, the campaign has 10 field offices across the state, including in all the major cities—the same number as Hillary Clinton's campaign.

"Sanders is impressing everybody with the crowds he's had "¦ but the next step is actually mobilizing them into real assets for the campaign instead of just chairs," said Grant Woodard, an Iowa-based Democrat who worked for Clinton in 2008 but is unaffiliated in the 2016 race. "Right now, a lot of people are wondering whether this is just a flash in the pan—so I think they need to start demonstrating that this is not a flash in the pan, it's real, lasting power."

Sanders's team has been able to hit the ground running in part because three of the campaign's regional field directors—and half a dozen Iowa staffers overall—came over directly from "Run Warren Run," the effort to draft Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the race that called it quits earlier this summer. These organizers had spent months reaching out to potential caucus-goers on Warren's behalf, and with the Warren draft efforts endorsing Sanders his aides say they're a natural fit for his campaign.

"If you meet a candidate in July or August but don't hear from [their] people with a fair degree of frequency, what are the odds that you're going to have your ardor drive you to a caucus site on a cold evening in February?" said Kurt Meyer, the chairman of the Tri-County Democrats in northern Iowa. "Without an organized effort, a lot of that enthusiasm evaporates."

What Sanders is up against isn't just any well-organized opponent: Iowa Democratic activists say it will be difficult for anyone to catch up to Clinton's team, which has had field organizers in place since the campaign launch in mid-April and now has a total staff of 60 in the state.

On Wednesday evening in Iowa City, a Democratic stronghold in the eastern part of the state, Clinton's team held the 10th and last of its field office "open house" events across the state.

When Clinton came to town last week to attend several organizing events, her campaign touted its outreach metrics in Iowa—including the fact that it has a committed supporter in each of the state's 1,682 precincts, and that it has held more than 3,000 one-on-one meeting with voters—as proof that they are taking the primary seriously. And on Friday morning, it announced endorsements from two top statewide officials: Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald.

At the Iowa City office, the level of organization—and the extent to which Clinton's team has set up shop across the state—was clear: four Iowa City-based organizers spoke, introducing local elected officials and asking their organizing fellows to raise their hands (there were at least a half-dozen).

"We have the best staff," said state Rep. Mary Mascher. "With our help, we're going to carry her past the finish line."

For former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the challenge is quite different: to build up name identification by talking to as many potential voters as possible. The campaign's second-quarter filing with the Federal Election Commission shows just four staffers paid in Iowa by the end of June. But since then, the team has grown rapidly; though the O'Malley campaign would not say how many staffers it has in Iowa, operatives close to the campaign have pegged it at at least 30, with staffers in multiple cities across the state.

Also working in O'Malley's favor is the super PAC supporting him, Generation Forward. Unlike other pro-candidate super PACs on the Democratic side, Generation Forward is planning to play an active role in the field side of the O'Malley effort: The group has already opened a Des Moines office, hired a field director and three full-time regional field directors, and has brought on a total of 45 part- or full-time organizers to bolster canvassing efforts, said Communications Director Ron Boehmer. It plans to open additional offices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, as well as adding an additional 50-100 organizers.

Osceola County Chairwoman Kathy Winter referred to Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley as the "big three" when it comes to organizing. By comparison, activists around the state say they've heard less from former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia—and virtually nothing from former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Webb has two staffers focused on Iowa, but at this point does not have office space in the state.

For Sanders, the test now will be what those organizers do now that they're in place.