Volunteers vital in grass-roots campaign

By Johan Bergenas
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

IOWA CITY – Without an extensive volunteer organization, presidential hopefuls will not be successful in Iowa, where people favor grass-root campaigning, Democratic and Republican Party officials said.

The Iowa caucuses differ from primary elections in much of rest of the country because foot soldiers count for more than TV commercials, said Stephen Roberts, Republican national committeeman in Iowa, and Gordon Fischer, chair of the Democratic Party in Iowa. In Iowa, grass-root campaigning is essential, while in primary election states, television coverage and advertising play a greater role, they said.

In addition, Iowa caucus participants have to stand up in public in one of nearly 2,000 precincts, showing neighbors and friends whom they support. In primaries, voters cast votes anonymously in polling places or by mail.

Because of these differences, volunteers are crucial in Iowa’s presidential nomination process, Roberts said.

“Volunteers are going to vote,” and good volunteers will rally friends and neighbors to vote, getting other people involved in the campaign, he said.

Fischer agreed.

“Volunteers bring passion and enthusiasm to the political campaigns,” he said -- things one might not get from paid staffers simply because volunteers work as volunteers all the time, not only during regular business hours.

Fischer volunteered for the first time by supporting Democrat Walter Mondale’s presidential bid in 1984, the first year Fischer attended the University of Iowa.

Roberts first volunteered for a political campaign in 1965, when he was 26 years old. He said campaigns today are much more staff driven because people don’t have time to engage themselves in a political campaigns.

Nowadays it is political activists and people with a strong party identification who volunteer, he said, but added that sometimes people sympathize with a specific candidate or an issue a candidate brings up.

Fischer did not earn any academic credits for his volunteer work in college, but today's University of Iowa students can.

David Redlawsk, UI assistant political science professor, said that the university has an internship program in which students can earn academic credits for volunteering. The student finds a candidate he or she like, or an organization to volunteer for, then asks a faculty member to supervise the internship, he said.

Redlawsk, who oversaw more than 30 students and also taught a class on the importance of the Iowa caucuses this fall, said students can earn one to three credits by volunteering 50 hours per credit, which is equivalent to a regular class.

Redlawsk does not see any problem with students earning credits for volunteering because “[students] get a valid educational experience.

“Getting out to do internships add what they learn from the textbook,” he said.

Both Fischer and Roberts praised the University of Iowa’s internship program.

"I’m a big believer in service learning,” such as receiving academic credits for volunteering, Fischer said. He stressed that volunteering provides an opportunity to work in a business-like environment.

“It should be a part of the curriculum,” he said.

Roberts agreed that the school system should encourage young people to volunteer because this segment of the population usually is neither politically active nor likely to vote.

“Anything that gets people involved in politics is important,” he said.

Redlawsk said he has had several students who have advanced into a political career because of their volunteer work.

One student who hopes that her volunteering will lead to a political job is UI senior Alicia Mundy, who puts up signs, organizes visits and makes phone calls to rally support for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

She chose to volunteer the traditional way, without earning credits, and said she was not whether students should be able to earn academic credit for their volunteer roles. But the Cedar Rapids native said what she has learned from volunteering has been applicable in her classes, especially how to make grass-root campaigning work.

After college, the 22-year-old political science major said she hopes to work with policy implementation, which means putting legislation into effect.

Mundy, who volunteers about five hours per week for the Dean campaign, said she has a fundamental approach to her volunteer work.

“It is important to be involved and to keep the electorate informed,” she said. “People in our age don’t have an interest in politics.”

One of Mundy’s tasks for the Dean campaign in Iowa City is to call people on a list of registered Democratic voters. She talks to potential voters about issues and encourages them to vote for Dean and donate money to his campaign. When Dean comes to the Iowa City area, Mundy also works to make the event a success.

“[Volunteers] make sure people know he will come and we act positively [at the event],” she said.

Mundy said she thought Dean’s volunteer organization has been very organized in Iowa and that Dean will win the caucuses but “[Missouri Rep. Richard] Gephardt will give him a run for the money.”

Party officials Fischer and Roberts both agreed with Mundy that Dean’s campaign is very organized.

Fischer said that Dean has been successful with grass-root campaigning and his use of the Internet as a source to rally support and raise money, predicting other people will imitate Dean’s campaign style.

"Regardless of how Gov. Dean does, he will be remembered for pioneering a new system [of campaigning],” he said.

Two other candidates, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton, are running behind in the Iowa polls because they have not campaigned as extensively as Dean or established a strong Iowa organization, Roberts said.

Roberts said those two candidates have not gained as much popular support as Dean in Iowa partly because they have not established a base, staffers or offices in the state, things he said are essential for success in the caucuses.

Fischer agreed, adding that Moseley Braun and Sharpton are running a “non-traditional” campaign with no strong grass-root organization in Iowa.

E-mail Johan Bergenas at johan-bergenas@uiowa.edu.

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