In Iowa, Obama’s Campaign Team Rehearses For 2012

President Obama doesn’t have to worry about winning the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. He’s almost sure to be the only Democrat in the first-in-the-nation contest. Yet, that hasn’t stopped the Obama campaign from organizing its own effort to get out the vote.

“Hi, my name is Margaret, and I’m a volunteer with President Obama’s grassroots team, Organizing for America,” says Margaret LaBounty during a recent phone drive.

LaBounty is working out of the Pottawattamie County Obama re-election office in western Iowa, a sparsely furnished space with folding chairs, outdoor patio furniture, and long lists of voters for volunteers here to contact.

“I was calling real quick tonight to see if we could count on you to caucus on Jan. 3 in support of President Obama?” LaBounty asks a potential supporter over the phone. “Fantastic!” LeBounty responds. “We wanted to tell you about the caucuses that are coming up. … We’d sure like to have you there. It’s very important for us to show numbers at caucus. And it works as a great springboard for his election in 2012.”

Obama’s Iowa Army

While Republican candidates have been hogging the Iowa spotlight, a small army of Obama volunteers has been busy behind the scenes. They’ve opened eight campaign offices around the state, hosted dozens of house parties, and logged tens of thousands of telephone calls.

That general election, still 11 months away, is very much on the minds of Obama volunteers. Even though the state’s Democrats don’t have the excitement of a contested caucus to keep them interested, spokesman John Kraus says the Obama campaign is using the Jan. 3 event as a rallying point.

“It’s an opportunity to get our volunteers together so people can come to the caucus, connect with the campaign. What we’re really trying to do is use the caucus as an organizing opportunity,” says Kraus.

A relentless focus on organization helped Obama win the Iowa caucuses four years ago — a victory that marked the first step on his ultimate march to the White House, which included winning Iowa in the general election. But the president’s approval rating in Iowa is now below 50-percent, and Kraus knows this state’s six electoral votes are very much up for grabs in November.

“Iowa is a swing state. It’s going to be a tough race,” admits Kraus. “But it’s going to be decided by a campaign’s ability to organize their grassroots effort on the ground, and that’s something we’re focused on.”

The President’s Uphill Battle

Political analyst Dianne Bystrom of Iowa State University says the president has a couple of things going for him: a tech-savvy campaign staff who make good use of email and social networks like Facebook to spread their message, and lots of campaign cash.

Still, Bystrom sees far less enthusiasm for Obama among her students today than she did four years ago, when young voters were an important part of the formula that in the general election saw Obama easily defeat Republican John McCain, 54 percent to 45 percent, among Iowa voters.

“It is going to be, I think, an uphill battle for President Obama to get those young voters back. Part of it is because of his message in 2008 and he promised so much change. He really kind of set himself up. Because no one can do as much as he promised,” says Bystrom.

And young voters aren’t the only ones who’ve grown disillusioned with a sluggish economic recovery and persistent gridlock in Washington. Volunteers like LaBounty hear that frustration while working the phones.

“We have people who are just fed up with the way things are going,” says LaBounty. “And then we try and talk to them about things the president has accomplished and the direction he is going. When you explain that a lot of the times, they do understand and they realize that maybe four more years could be the answer.”

LaBounty’s own support for the president has only deepened. She voted for Obama in 2008, but this is the first time she’s actively campaigned for him. “You can do two things. You can sit around and complain about it and do nothing,” she says. “Or you can try to make change wherever you can.”

Campaign spokesman Kraus says more than TV ads or political events, these one-on-one conversations are the best way to influence undecided voters. And they won’t stop on Jan. 3.

“So when the Republican candidates shut down their offices, turn out the lights, and move their circus out of Iowa, we’ll remain,” says Kraus.

The Obama volunteers will keep making phone calls, keep hosting house parties, and continue going door to door, all the way through next November.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.