Who Works For A Campaign, Anyways?
Living in Iowa, you become easily de-sensitized to the sheer number of campaign staff that are around you at all times. It’s hard to describe to someone who doesn’t live here just how pervasive the 2020 campaign is, especially in populated areas like Polk County. Staffers are at the farmer’s market, they’re knocking on your door, and they’re asking who you’re caucusing for right as you’re moving into your residence hall. But for all of the things that we see campaign staff doing, you have to wonder who exactly these people are that are knocking on your door.
For most, getting into politics was natural. Amanda Little, a field organizer for former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign said that, “I’ve been engaged for most of my life. My parents were really politically active and encouraged all of us to be politically active.” For others however, caring about politics came from their experiences. Deepak Jonnalagedda is a field organizer for the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey. He told me that while growing up in Mumbai, India, his family lived in an area that had almost no trees and where the air quality was absolutely terrible. “When I arrived in this country in 2003, I was blown away at the extent to which nature had been protected, and after watching An Inconvenient Truth as a kid I became convinced this is the issue of our generation.” Then, when Jonnalagedda got to college, he was able to turn this defining moment in his life into activism against his university’s coal plant.
For many field organizers in 2020, this is their first time being in Iowa. By virtue of its status as home of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, Iowa has a veritable cottage industry devoted to running presidential campaigns. And yet with a field that at one point exceeded 20 candidates, presidential campaigns have been forced to bring in far more outside staff to Iowa than in other years. In fact, in the course of writing this blog, I didn’t interview a single field organizer who grew up in or had lived in Iowa. In addition to many campaign staff being non-Iowans, many of them are also first-time organizers. Others have organized before in various non-Iowa settings. Ale Gomez, a field organizer for the campaign of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, previously worked for the Pennsylvania Democratic coordinated campaign and the Florida recount in 2018. While in Florida, she learned more about organizing in Iowa and decided she had to come here. “I even downloaded The Des Moines Register app before I was out here and before I even started looking at candidates because I knew I wanted to be in Iowa,” she said.
One thing that many of the organizers I spoke to said was the high degree of care and compassion they’re received from Iowans while in the state. Natalie Austin, a field organizer for the campaign of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, said that it’s been an incredibly positive experience being in Iowa and that she’s, “met the coolest people ever” and “made lifelong friends” in the state. Amanda Little of the Biden campaign also reflected on the passion that she’s seen among Iowans saying, “people are really interested in hearing what’s going on, not just with Biden, but with the campaign and with the Democratic Party. Even when I talk to people who aren’t Democrats…they’re always really positive and they thank me for being at their door and for doing this.”
Every field organizer I spoke with explained that their role was incredibly valuable for the success of their campaign. Deepak Jonnalagedda with the Booker campaign said that, “field organizing is important because it’s the part of the campaign that engages with voters every day” and explained how this is even more important in a caucus state as “people don’t just have to go cast a vote they have to stand in a room with their neighbors and actually engage.” Natalie Austin with the Harris campaign also added that, “it’s about relationship building” and that “it’s not just about going up to a caucus-goer and convincing them.” Austin said that being in Iowa, she’s made relationships and friendships with the people she interacts with through her role as an organizer. “So many of the people I meet really value organizing,” she said.
This one-on-one interaction that field organizers get to have with Iowans often leads to a myriad of fun and interesting “only-in-Iowa” stories. Amanda Little with the Biden campaign said, “my first volunteer I had…has outfitted me with winter clothing.” Little said, “because I’m from Texas, she’s really concerned that I’m not going to survive the winter”. She also explained that this volunteer posts sales for winter gear to her Facebook wall and sends sales to her over email out of concern for her getting through the winter. Ale Gomez of the Warren campaign also shared an interesting story with me. She explained that Warren did a surprise drop-by to their Des Moines field office where she chatted with the staffers there. Gomez said she enjoyed it as “it was one of those opportunities to get to know her like more than just the candidate.” One of Gomez’s fellow staffers also got Warren to sign a zucchini and write “Big Structural Veggies” on it, in reference to the campaign’s slogan of “Big Structural Change.” “It was pretty iconic,” said Gomez.
One of the things that was most clear to me as I spoke with the field staff I interviewed as well as countless others over the past few months is just how meaningful each staffer finds their job to be. Each one can probably recount a heart-warming story for why they chose to work for their candidate. In many ways, field organizing is more than a job. It becomes an all-consuming part of your life. Ale Gomez with the Warren campaign said, “I’m a DACA recipient and I’m waiting on reform to the immigration system” She explains that this led her to choose Warren because “going in and fixing issues in the country from the bottom up is what we need right now.” Natalie Austin with the Harris campaign said that she chose Kamala Harris because, “Senator Harris has been a role model of mine for years and she has demanded a spot at the table for years and she has never taken no [as an answer].” “As a seven-year-old, nothing could have been better for me than to see a Black woman as president,” said Austin.
Field organizers are, in my experience, some of the kindest and most dedicated people you’ll ever meet. Setting aside their own comfort and often moving places far from home, field organizers are the backbone of any campaign. From mayoral races to presidential ones, field organizers create links between candidates and the community all while serving as representatives of a candidate’s values and beliefs. And while having people knock on your door and call your phone can sometimes become annoying, it’s a small price to pay for the sake of our democratic processes and for the chance to meet good people who’ve put their all into something they earnestly believe in.