A Strategy That’s Paying Off: Elizabeth Warren and a Different Kind of Visibility
DES MOINES, IOWA — A humid and dreary Saturday could not stop thousands of Iowa Democrats from packing Water Works Park for the Polk County Steak Fry. With 17 candidates speaking and a massive contingent of campaign volunteers, organizers had to be creative in order to make their message stand out. From Pete Buttigieg’s dinosaur to Kamala Harris’s volunteers in steak costumes, from Joe Biden’s marching band to Amy Klobuchar’s seemingly millions of signs, each campaign had a unique tactic to convince voters to pay attention.
Elizabeth Warren’s team chose to focus on something entirely ordinary and yet almost novel in this horse race: talking directly to voters.
When I arrived at Warren’s Organizing Headquarters at the Steak Fry, I immediately realized that this was a serious event. There were no rallies, no chants, no marches. This wasn’t the time for “vis,” the campaign lingo for strategies that increase awareness and visibility of a candidate. Instead, this was the time to prepare volunteers who would be approaching attendees during the day.
“Our focus is talking to as many people as possible,” said Connor Duff, a field organizer for the Warren campaign in the Sioux City area. “We have a couple of hundred volunteers who are going out and sharing Elizabeth Warren’s story, plan, and her vision for the country.” Volunteers who came into HQ picked up their clipboards, buttons, and the stereotypical liberty-green balloon, and then they were sent into the crowds of the Steak Fry.
“Instead of doing a ‘vis’ event or rally like we normally do at events like this, we are capitalizing on this opportunity to talk to over ten thousand Iowa Democrats,” said Ale Gomez, the field organizer for the Beaverdale neighborhood. The cheers from the neighboring rallies echoed into our conversation, but as Gomez explained, uncommitted caucusgoers may not remember the different chants or dance moves. Instead, they’ll leave the Steak Fry thinking about “all of the great conversations they had.” Direct, interpersonal conversations are what will change the minds of voters across Iowa.
These tactics might explain why Elizabeth Warren recently topped Joe Biden in a new poll from the Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom. 22% of likely caucusgoers reported that Elizabeth Warren is their first choice for the Democratic nominee. Although this poll was conducted before the Steak Fry, the new polling shows how important the retail approach still is to successful campaigning.
I personally was approached by at least six different organizers during the four hours I was inside the Steak Fry. The crazy outfits, glittery makeup, multiple stickers, and cheerleader-style chants of the various campaigns are entertaining memories for me, but I most clearly remember the conversation I had with a friend who recently graduated and started working for the Warren campaign. Her excitement was contagious, and I couldn’t help but feel a personal connection.
I’ll also remember the personal stories of the organizers I met at Warren’s Organizing HQ. When asked about his personal connection to the campaign, Duff said, “My little brother is the survivor of a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.” Frustrated by candidates who promised action but still took donations
from special interests, Duff joined Warren’s campaign. “She is going to fight so that special interests do not have such an influence in politics.”
“We need Elizabeth’s idea of big structural change,” Gomez, a DACA recipient, explained. “We need someone who can reform the immigration system from the bottom-up so that way I can have a pathway to citizenship.”
By choosing to lift up stories of supporters rather than allocating expensive resources to visibility, the Warren campaign is much more convincing. Rallies and marches are good fun, but other campaigns should take notice: the one-on-one conversations with potential caucusgoers are what will lead to success.