CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- From the Mississippi River in the east to the Missouri in the west, Iowa's soybean farmers are in the field right now, planting their next crop in some of the most fertile soil in the country. But those are not the only seeds being placed in the state's rich ground.
Throughout the state that holds the first test of the 2020 presidential campaign, young organizers -- the invisible shock troops of American politics, operating beyond the sight of television cameras and out-of-state political correspondents -- also are in the field right now, planting seeds of their own. Near the big quilts of Iowa's agricultural bounty -- corn, then oats, then wheat, then alfalfa, all ready for harvest well before the autumn chill deepens -- these organizers are stitching together political forces that won't be harvested until a cold Monday night next February.
Living in small apartments and group houses or bunking in with Iowa families, some 200 political organizers already have decamped in this state, some 275 days before Iowans retreat to their town libraries, fraternal halls and church basements to make their quadrennial presidential selections. Before the summer is out, that number will grow to 800 and soon thereafter will multiply again.
In a state that pioneered mechanized agriculture -- and where corn planted in early April is spiking around now -- these organizers' work remains personal, slow and labor-intensive.
There are relative certainties in Iowa agriculture: Barring unusual circumstances, corn seedlings emerge in about three weeks if the soil temperature is 51 degrees Fahrenheit. Scores of presidential contenders can testify that there are no parallel assurances in the Iowa caucuses, which is why the harder these organizers work, the more Iowans they contact, the more porches they mount, the more people they assure get to their designated corners on Feb. 3, the better their chances are to survive to go on to the next test, in New Hampshire eight days later.
"Organization is critically important," said Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, born and reared in Iowa, whose 30 days campaigning in the state is the most so far of any contender currently holding office. "A top political organization is especially critical in a place like Iowa, where you need people to go porch to porch."
Iowa's highways and rural byways are littered with the carrion of candidates who believed otherwise. Advisers to John H. Glenn, a former astronaut whose 1984 campaign coincided with the "The Right Stuff" film about the Mercury astronauts in their silvery space suits, thought they could rely on media coverage and slick ads rather than on organization. Sen. Glenn was the principal rival to former Vice President Walter Mondale, who constructed a massive organizational architecture here and won Iowa with 49%. Glenn finished sixth, with less than 4% of caucus-goers.
The digital age may have made most elements of life less personal, but working "in-person" in Iowa may be more important than ever. "The goal," said one organizer here, "is to have neighbors talking to neighbors."
Dayton Duncan, born in Indianola, Iowa, in one political hotbed and now living in Walpole, New Hampshire, in another, was a Mondale aide in that 1984 contest and four years later wrote a book about campaign organizers in New Hampshire's Cheshire County.
"It's a totally different world today, but the odd thing is that grassroots organizing is more effective now than it was back then," he said. "Campaign messages get delivered in different ways today -- but getting messages out personally is more important than ever."
That's why this campaign's crop of organizers is seeking out what one veteran organizer calls "the people everyone knows, asking whom we should meet, where we should go, trying to connect our ideals with the public."
It's not glamorous work, and the life is anything but cushy. The pay is about $3,000 a month -- campaigns in trouble almost always reduce that or eliminate it entirely -- plus health care and, usually, a $50 gasoline card. These organizers soon discover that Casey's General Store, a gas station chain, accepts the cards for pizza. Such are the lessons of the road.
These organization efforts are constructed like start-ups, with the energy, and the risks, of a start-up. One Des Moines apartment building is home to organizers for Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, but they won't be there long. In this nomadic trade, organizers for a successful candidate go on to the next states; those affiliated with a losing candidate likely join one of the more successful ones.
These organizers know little things -- that, for example, the University of Iowa College Democrats are the only group that can reserve function rooms on campus. And they learn big things, like the importance of a candidate's views on the topics of peculiar interest here in Iowa, such as tariffs on agricultural products and the economic prospects for ethanol, the motor fuel produced from local corn that is a campaign perennial here but is never discussed once the campaign moves past the Iowa caucuses.
That is the lesson of Barack Obama's stunning 2008 caucus victory in a state whose population is less than 3 percent black.
"Obama's victory in this white state was the triumph of organization -- and idealism," said former GOP Rep. Jim Leach, who ran George H.W. Bush's successful 1980 caucus effort against Ronald Reagan, a onetime radio broadcaster in Iowa. "Obama's organizers realized this and got his people out. Candidates should save their television money, go on campus and hire students to work on the ground."
Once they do, they can employ some of the political organizing software such as MobilizeAmerica, created by a duo of millennials, that allows campaigns to create events, offer them on their website, share them to their lists and gather sign-ups. Today more than half of the 2020 candidates use this tool, which permitted some 400,000 people to volunteer about 800,000 times in the 2018 midterm congressional elections.
"This is the way to get people organized to knock on doors or to get people to go town halls and house parties in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Alfred Johnson, a Stanford MBA who was one of the activists who developed the tool. "The result is many more people at events from many different spheres." It may be Organization 2.0, but it is still political organization, the oxygen of Iowa politics.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.