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Warren's Ground Game Faces First Test With Iowa Caucus10:32
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Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren finishes her campaign event at West High School in Iowa City on Saturday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren finishes her campaign event at West High School in Iowa City on Saturday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After more than a year of meet-and-greets, debates and rallies, small gatherings  like the one that took place Friday in a modest home in suburban Des Moines might have a lot to say about who prevails in Iowa Monday tonight.

Caucus-goers will gather in school gymnasiums, church basements and community centers across Iowa, as the first contest of the 2020 presidential nominating season begins. The most recent polls suggest that Bernie Sanders has the momentum going into tonight but he's one of four leading candidates — including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren — who are counting on their "ground games" in a caucus system that prizes grassroots organization.

The private home was a staging area for a get-out-the-vote canvassing effort for Warren. Before campaign volunteers headed out to knock doors, they were briefed on how to make the pitch for the senator and then received a pep rally from Rep. Ayanna Pressley, one of Warren's campaign chairs and fellow Massachusetts congresswoman.

U.S. Congresswoman from Mass. Ayanna Pressley speaks to canvassers prepared to campaign for Elizabeth Warren in Des Moines. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
U.S. Congresswoman from Mass. Ayanna Pressley speaks to canvassers prepared to campaign for Elizabeth Warren in Des Moines. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"This is why I'm supporting Elizabeth Warren for President," Pressley said to a small group of campaign workers and volunteers. "Because policy is my love language, and I'm unapologetic about that."

The event took place at the home of Cindy Conrad, who made quiche and muffins for the volunteers, and who has been with Warren from the start. She said she believes Warren is the Democrat who can beat President Trump.

"I think she can," Conrad said. "I think when she's one-off with him, I think she can [beat him]. I can just see her; if he tries to hover behind her, she's going to say, 'Back off!' You know, she's sincere."

Conrad is part of Warren's ground game: she's a precinct captain, which means on Monday night, her job will be to cajole and convince her neighbors to caucus for Warren. Polls suggest Sanders has the advantage going into caucus night, but here is where Conrad can help Warren: the last Des Moines Register poll found that 40% of Iowans had made up their minds, and that Warren was a leading second choice for many voters. So in Iowa's strange system, Conrad will have a chance to convince many of those voters to get behind her candidate.

"We're going to try to see what their issues are, and help them understand better what she stands for," Conrad said. "You know, if you talk to somebody, they kind of get a better idea and feel more comfortable with it."

Among the leading candidates, Warren has been in Iowa the longest. She has built up one of the strongest field operations there — which includes about 150 paid staff, and more than 25 field offices — as well staging operations across the state, like the one being run out of Conrad's house.

But in recent weeks, after leading in the fall in early voting states, Warren's campaign appeared to lose momentum and Sanders emerged as the front-runner. Among Iowa voters focused on beating President Trump, you still hear concerns about Warren's "electability."

"I still have this feeling that this country's not ready for a female president," said Brian Kading, of Ellston, Iowa, who said he is leaning toward Buttigieg because he believes it is time for a new generation of leaders.

Kading said he likes Warren, and he believes the country should be open to the idea of female president. "But I really question that [it is,]" he said.

After being tied down in Washington last week as a juror in the Senate impeachment trial, Warren — along with Sanders and Amy Klobuchar — made up for lost time over the weekend, crisscrossing the state and making closing arguments to voters. At a rally Sunday at Iowa State University in Ames, Warren addressed "the electability" question directly.

"How about we start with this: I know how to fight and I know how to win," Warren said, to cheers.

Rally goers listen to presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at West High School in Iowa City. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Rally goers listen to presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at West High School in Iowa City. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

She told the audience about how she beat Scott Brown, a popular Republican incumbent in 2012; and how women helped deliver the House to Democrats in 2018.

"Our No. 1 job is to beat Donald Trump," she said, adding emphatically, "Women win. Let's get this done."

Warren will count on her ground operation to get that message out as well.

Diane Lemker, a precinct captain from Marshalltown, said she is ready to make the case to her fellow Democrats on caucus night.

"What I tell people who [are not] sure she can beat [President Trump is that] she is electable and she can beat him if you vote for her," Lemker said. "[I will tell them to] vote your heart in the primary and the caucus."

In a very close election, a strong get-out-the-vote operation could make the difference. That could help Warren — or the other candidates with strong field operations, including Buttigieg and Sanders.

"I think we have the strongest campaign to defeat Trump because we are developing the strongest grassroots movement in this campaign," Sanders said during a rally on Saturday in Indianola. The Vermont senator said in the duration of January, his campaign knocked on some 500,000 doors across Iowa.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally at Simpson College in Indianola. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally at Simpson College in Indianola. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"Now, I don't know how many doors you got in Iowa," Sanders added. "But you only got 3-plus-million people, so that's a lot of doors. But that's what our volunteers have been doing. And we've been doing this all over the country."

One of those volunteers is Raj Shukla, who came from Madison, Wisconsin to Iowa to knock on doors and urge people to caucus for Sanders — and to make sure they have a way to get to their precincts when the time comes.

"I've been a part of a lot of political campaigns, many of them really organized," Shukla said. "This one is top notch. They're just really on it."

Sanders might well have the edge in this race. But a safer bet would be to say that it is very much up in the air, with lots of voters struggling to make up their minds as the clock runs down.

Among them is Matt McNeil, who attended a Warren event in Iowa City on Saturday, where he said he was still looking for a candidate who could unite the country — and he still didn't know who that is.

"This is crunch time, " he said with a laugh. "Amy Klobuchar is coming to town tomorrow, so we'll go. My plan is to rewatch a debate over the next 48 hours, and then do some additional reading."

The campaign that wins tonight will likely be the one that has the organization to reach and convince voters like him. Crunch time is almost over.

This segment aired on February 6, 2020.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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