In Iowa, Ready for Hillary builds a list and hopes for the best

It's less glamorous than you might think

Ready for Hillary campaign buttons. (Justin Hayworth/AP)
Ready for Hillary campaign buttons. (Justin Hayworth/AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa – You get a funny response when you ask Ready for Hillary leaders in Iowa what they’re doing to avoid a repeat of Clinton’s loss in the 2008 caucuses here, where she came in third.

Ready for Hillary was built to avoid and correct the mistakes of 2008, right?

“You know, I’m kind of confused by that,” said Derek Eadon, who oversees Iowa and the entire Midwest for Ready for Hillary, the group started last year to prepare a campaign in waiting for Clinton.

Jerry Crawford, an Iowa-based adviser to the group, was even more blunt. “I think Hillary ran a very good campaign in 2007-2008 in Iowa. The notion that she didn’t … is more urban legend than truth,” Crawford told me. “She was a very good candidate. She turned out more caucusgoers than had any Democratic candidate for president in history.”

Only, of course, Barack Obama turned out more people than she did. John Edwards wooed more supporters than Clinton, for that matter.

Eadon and Crawford hail from different generations and look back at 2008 from different points of view. Eadon, a 30-year-old Iowa native, worked for Obama in 2008 as a paid campaign organizer in Cedar Rapids. Crawford, 65, is a longtime Clinton loyalist who helped run Clinton’s 2008 campaign in Iowa and is helping Ready for Hillary’s efforts today. But Eadon now says he thinks the Clinton campaign in Iowa was about as good as Obama’s, and that too much retrospective meaning about their operations has been attached to the outcome of the 2008 caucusing.

“Because [Clinton] lost they did everything wrong. Because Obama won he did everything right. But I think there were a lot more similarities in the two campaigns,” Eadon said, sitting in a windowless conference room inside an office park near the state Capitol building.

So why is Ready for Hillary hard at work in Iowa — and so far in advance of the caucuses — if Clinton did so well here in 2008?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraising Steak Fry, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Indianola, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraising Steak Fry, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Indianola, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

There are a few reasons, her supporters say.

First, there is the perception among Iowans that Clinton ignored them in 2008 and didn’t want to campaign hard for their votes. And to some extent this is true. She didn’t fully commit to the state until the summer of 2007, after an internal campaign memo was leaked that showed advisers encouraging her to totally skip over the Hawkeye State. So in a way, Ready for Hillary — a national organization — has a very specific job to do in Iowa when it comes to salving hurt feelings and forestalling resentments.

Ready for Hillary operatives at the national level have a clear sense of this mission. “You can’t take grass-roots supporters for granted,” said Adam Parkhomenko, the group’s executive director.

Second, Obama did a better job than Clinton did of hiring Iowa natives around the state as organizers and of attracting new blood into the caucus process to volunteer and vote. Crawford bristles at the charge that Clinton’s Iowa operation failed here, and points the finger at the national operation, which he said treated Iowans and their unique process with disrespect. “When people say top-down, that’s really a comment about the national campaign staff last time,” he said. “If you’re looking for accuracy, it’s more a comment about them than about the Iowa campaign.”

Third, Clinton supporters wanted to try to keep the playing field clear of competitors who could take advantage of a vacuum to develop momentum. They have done this very effectively. And Clinton will need every advantage here in the general election if she is the nominee in 2016. She trailed Republican Mitt Romney in a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics survey of voters released on Saturday.

But what is Clinton going to do in 2016 (insert obligatory “if she runs”) that she didn’t do in 2008?

“It’s a good question,” Eadon said.

If that answer seems puzzlingly noncommittal, it’s probably because Ready for Hillary is doing a lot of the same things that Clinton’s supporters did in 2007 and 2008. They’re just doing it earlier than Clinton or Obama or Edwards did it, by more than a year. They are building a list of supporters for Clinton, which could be sold to an eventual Clinton campaign. Its staffers and volunteers are building a local organization in the hopes that an eventual national Clinton campaign team will come along and pick up their work.

Derek Eadon, the Midwest regional organizing director for Ready for Hillary, based in Des Moines. (Jon Ward for Yahoo News)
Derek Eadon, the Midwest regional organizing director for Ready for Hillary, based in Des Moines. (Jon Ward for Yahoo News)

The work is not that complicated and it also cannot address the biggest problems of the 2008 campaign, which involved high-level strategic decisions, such as choosing not to make Clinton available to the local press in Iowa, and not prioritizing repeated trips to the hinterlands of Iowa’s many small towns.

Furthermore, much of the corrective work being done by Ready for Hillary is outside of Iowa. Clinton was plenty organized in Iowa in 2008, but she wasn’t able to catch up to Obama because he out-prepared and out-organized her in many of the subsequent primary and caucus states.

“A lot of states where there were no volunteer organizations during the 2008 campaign, we wanted to make sure that — should she run and she goes to Minnesota or Maine or Utah — those people are ready to go,” Parkhomenko said.

Ready for Hillary’s list-building will also give Clinton something like the advantage that Obama, as an incumbent president, had in 2012. He set up an operation to maintain a list of supporters through Organizing for America after taking office, which kept its hands on his 13 million-member email list, and kept many of those supporters engaged and in touch. Most importantly, they ensured that Obama had the most current contact information for these supporters, in an age when people change cell phone numbers and email addresses with high frequency.

The 2008 Clinton campaign's list was at about 3 million email addresses at its height, and has now shrunk to about 1 million active names, said a source familiar with the list. Ready for Hillary, meanwhile, has an up-to-date list of nearly 3 million names, ready to hand over to a Clinton campaign.

“We’ve surpassed where she ended her campaign in 2008,” Parkhomenko said. “What that does is, she starts off where she left off. For a nonincumbent, that is just a remarkable place to begin.”

Eadon and his deputy, Gracie Brandsgard, have full-time organizing counterparts in the northeast, working in New Hampshire; in the South, based at the group’s Northern Virginia headquarters, and active in South Carolina and North Carolina; and out west, based in California.

In the end, however, the value and impact of any work done now will be determined by the actions of a formal national organization that does not yet exist.

One Clinton insider who has worked in Iowa politics for a long time says getting her national team to value the hard work of early primary state blocking and tackling and of empowering grass-roots volunteers rather than taking them for granted is “a done deal.” “Is she going to put together an A team nationally? Yes, she never makes a mistake twice,” the insider said.

In Iowa, where 239,000 Democrats set a record for caucus participation in 2008, the work of building a list is as much about human interaction with key activists as it is about data wizardry.

A screen grab from
A screen grab from

There are only two Ready for Hillary staffers in Iowa: Eadon and Brandsgard. They are in charge of the entire Midwest. Their headquarters is a single open room on the ground floor of an office building two blocks from the intersection where Obama held his last rally of the 2012 campaign. They share space with employees of Eadon’s consulting firm, Blueprint Strategies, and of NextGen Climate, the climate change group founded by billionaire Tom Steyer.

The Democratic Party’s data capabilities are formidable. But they have been so worshipped in the press that the perception is they have not just the name of every voter but also their favorite toothpaste.

Ready for Hillary, however, is building a list of supporters “from scratch,” Eadon said. It’s a little bit of an exaggeration. But not entirely.

Democrats have an impressive array of voter information at their fingertips dating back several election cycles. And late in the fall of 2013, Ready for Hillary bought the 50-state voter file through NGP VAN, the company that coordinates the building of the Democratic Party's voter file. In January, it bought a list of all Hillary Clinton’s 2008 supporters and emailed them, offering a free bumper sticker in exchange for a signup with the group.

Since then, Ready for Hillary has continued to sign people up through its website, through social media, and by showing up at fairs and community events. It has also built up a robust direct mail operation. But in Iowa, after those initial contacts, Eadon and Brandsgard have not been sitting at their desks dialing phone numbers for the last six months.

Instead they hit the road to meet people who have already signed up. A common misperception is that list-building is just a one and done activity: get the name, get the person's info, add it to the list, and move on to the next one. This is a static view of organizing that the Republican Party is still trying to overcome in many quarters.

The Democratic view is kinetic. Eadon and Brandsgard did events in the 12 biggest counties in Iowa early in the year. There they met with Clinton’s most gung-ho supporters, and asked them to start building local support networks for Clinton and to start recruiting people to sign up with Ready for Hillary through their neighborhoods and their social networks. They also sent volunteers to county conventions in 84 of Iowa’s 99 counties in March.

A supporter of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has her picture taken with a cardboard cutout of Clinton at 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, on Sept. 14, 2014. (Jim Young/Reuters)
A supporter of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has her picture taken with a cardboard cutout of Clinton at 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, on Sept. 14, 2014. (Jim Young/Reuters)

But if that was the end of the engagement, RFH might have lost contact with the supporters and allowed their enthusiasm to lapse. And so the midterm elections have served as an important galvanizing agent for Ready for Hillary. The group has directed members to the state party in Iowa and helped turn them out to knock on doors and make phone calls for Democratic candidates on the ballot this fall. It has curried favor with the grass roots and establishment at the same time, while also keeping these Clinton fans engaged in the political process, and in touch with her proto-campaign in waiting.

The national group continued this virtuous cycle in the late summer and early fall, exchanging portions of its lists with 14 different campaigns across the country. The campaigns, which were not disclosed, got a list of active volunteers eager to help them campaign. And Ready for Hillary got a batch of names ripe for targeting over email. Ready for Hillary has also dispatched staff from its offices in the Washington area to 14 states across the country, including Iowa, to help the last-ditch effort to keep the Senate. Iowa’s Senate race between Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley is one of the closest in the nation.

The plan was always for RFH to dissolve after Clinton makes a decision in the months immediately following the midterms. Parkhomenko said that on the day Clinton announces, the group plans to send an email to its list, directing people to Clinton’s campaign website. It will check to see who clicked the link in their email and visited Clinton’s website, and follow up a few times with those who didn’t. The final step would be to work with a third party vendor to compare Ready for Hillary’s list with the Clinton campaign’s list, to see which supporters it doesn't have.

The organizations would then do an even swap, with the Clinton campaign getting names and emails it doesn't already have, and Ready for Hillary getting the same from the campaign in exchange.

At that point, Ready for Hillary’s work will be done. Iit will be up to Clinton’s people to make sure they don’t waste it.