Just judging from the news, it looks like most of what the presidential campaigns are doing right now is sending their candidates around to various debates and speaking events, raising money, and running advertisements. Yes, we'll expect to see a robust turnout game at election time, but we're still a few months away from actual voting.
But there's more going on than meets the eye. Many campaigns are actually running serious organizational efforts behind the scenes, and, unless you're a hardcore party activist, you probably haven't noticed them yet.
One of the more important tasks for campaigns at this point is organizing for the caucus states. Unlike primaries, caucuses require a good deal of coordination ahead of time. You want to identify your supporters and make sure they show up, but you also need to be sure they understand the rules of a caucus. This is not a small thing. Caucuses have procedures, deliberations, and multiple voting processes that can take several hours or more. And one of their tasks is to select people for subsequent county and state conventions. It's important to pick people who understand these processes and are willing and able to show up at all the subsequent events.
Will the campaigns that have the most organizational effort going into the primaries do better than those that don't?
This is a particular issue for Hillary Clinton, who famously under-prioritized the caucus states in 2008 and doesn't want to repeat that mistake. Her campaign is making great efforts to ensure a strong and enthusiastic turnout at the Iowa Caucuses. As of September, her campaign already had nearly 80 paid staffers in Iowa devoted to finding and training caucus participants. She's recruiting "caucus fellows" to learn about caucus procedures and help organize others. Iowa activities aren't limited to Clinton. Marco Rubio's campaign, for example, is also seeking caucus promises from its volunteers. And Iowa State University is actually offering a MOOC on the caucuses.
There's activity going on outside Iowa as well. As Megan Verlee reports, Clinton's campaign has been organizing events in Colorado since last spring to get volunteers to sign "caucus commitment cards," promising that they'll turn out and support Clinton at the March 1 caucus. The task is harder for Bernie Sanders' campaign, which is reaching out to many enthusiastic supports who, like their candidate, are not registered Democrats. In order to participate in the Colorado caucuses, they'll have to register as Democrats well in advance, and then support Sanders. The Sanders campaign is also training its volunteers in caucus procedures. Over in Nevada, the Republican Party of Washoe County is organizing caucus trainings well in advance of its February caucuses.
Beyond organizing for caucuses, though, campaigns are generally building up their field staffs, hiring people whose mettle will be tested in the upcoming primary contests. Jeb Bush now has five field offices and 20 staffers working in New Hampshire. Sanders recently opened some field offices in South Carolina and Nevada.
The big question, of course, is whether this all matters. Will the campaigns that have the most organizational effort going into the primaries do better than those that don't? In a famous test of this, John Edwards and John Kerry finished strongly in the 2004 Democratic Iowa caucuses despite having much weaker organizational presence than their main rivals, Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt.
Yet, on average, local organization helps campaigns. The presence of field offices seems to help candidates both in general elections and nominations. Having caucus volunteers who understand rules and are willing to ride the process through to its end is better than not having them. None of these things will much help a campaign that is being blown out of the water. But in those states where a contest is close, some good organization can make all the difference.
What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.