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Fri Nov 27, 2015, 01:12 AM

A Day In The Life Of A Martin O’Malley Field Organizer

Most people’s idea of a fun 21st birthday celebration probably doesn’t entail working from sunrise to midnight and getting serenaded by your guitar-playing boss in front of all your co-workers and friends. But if you’re an Iowa Caucus field organizer, that’s actually a perk of the job, with a former governor running for president leading a crowd of hundreds in singing you “Happy Birthday” right before the biggest, most exciting night of the campaign.

That’s how Jordan Sabine, a Polk County field staffer for Martin O’Malley, spent her coming-of-age birthday last month, at the campaign’s rally outside Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines before the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. After marching with O’Malley over to the event hall, Sabine helped lead many of her excited volunteers and local supporters in cheers for the governor as he pitched his message from the center stage to a room of over 6,000 Democratic activists. O’Malley himself sat for a while in the stands with his supporters, right behind several of Sabine’s interns. Later that evening O’Malley bought Sabine her first “legal” beer as the close-knit Iowa staff celebrated their big night.

Sabine would be a junior this year at Drake University, but chose to take both semesters off to work for the underdog O’Malley’s presidential campaign in Iowa. It was a decision long in the making for the Seattle, Washington native, having chosen to attend Drake several years ago in order to situate herself at political ground zero for lead-off caucus state (much like Starting Line himself did).

“They think it’s really cool,” she says of how her parents – both Republicans now converted to O’Malley’s cause – feel about her choice. “My mom is the biggest proponent ever of Martin O’Malley in Washington, everyone knows who he is now because of her. They’re both oceanographers. My dad studies climate change and ocean acidification and loves O’Malley’s environmental policies.”

Whether O’Malley succeeds in the nominating battle or not, Sabine has already experienced a lifetime of unforgettable campaign memories that few others in the country ever get to experience.

But every day on the campaign trail is not all flash and excitement. Satellite TV trucks may often line the streets of downtown Des Moines to cover the media spectacle of the Iowa Caucus, but the vast majority work happens behind the scenes in small field offices staffed by young 20-somethings around the state. Working 12 to 14-hour days, 7 days a week, the organizers slowly build up their candidate’s caucus night turnout in every precinct, voter by voter, phone call by phone call, door knock by door knock. The work can certainly be a grind, but you rarely hear many complaints from the motivated workers, all of whom realize the importance of their efforts.

While most field organizer positions on political campaigns are often entry-level (with the exception of Hillary Clinton’s early Iowa field staff this cycle), the responsibilities that fall upon those who work a caucus campaign are considerable, and their impact on the final result significant. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. You work among some of the best campaign operatives in the entire country, your campaign is often the focus of national news and the voters in Iowa take their caucusing seriously, leading to more substantive field work and rewarding personal friendships with volunteers.

To paint a clearer picture of what a day in the life of these organizers looks like, Starting Line shadowed Jordan Sabine of the O’Malley campaign for the better part of a day a few weeks ago.

Calls, Calls and More Calls

Sabine’s day starts out near the school she’s taking time off from, waking up in her apartment just a block off campus.

“I feel like I’m on campus so much that some people don’t realize I’m taking a semester off,” Sabine says, who has recruited a number of interns from Drake.

Rolling into the downtown O’Malley headquarters office before 9:00 each morning, Sabine hops on a 9:30 conference call with the rest of the statewide field staff, then gets started early on the campaign task that takes up the majority of any given week: phone-calling. Churning through lists of likely caucus-goers over the age of 65 is the order of the morning.

The office Sabine works in houses both central Iowa field staff and the Iowa headquarters crew. The office is by far the smallest of the three Democratic headquarters, occupying one section of a small office park on 8th Avenue, situated between the bridges that connect downtown and Des Moines’ South Side. The higher-up staffers work behind a self-constructed partition in the middle of the office, with the field organizers up front to greet and coordinate volunteers.

The field section of the office serves as a catch-all work space when not filled with volunteers; leftover materials from the JJ Dinner sign construction still clutter several of the tables, and large O’Malley barn signs lean against the walls. Several field organizers have their own desks in the front of the office. Long folding tables in the corner offer seats to phone-banking volunteers.

When Starting Line arrived to the office just after noon, a half dozen staffers and volunteers were plugging away on their calls, some returning to their desks after lunch out at nearby fast food joints. There are occasional sleepy moments in the room as voters sporadically pick up their phone from the calls. Some sit at their desks during call time, while others pace the room, kicking around a soccer ball between each other as they dial.

“We’re lucky to have three very strong candidates in the Democratic field,” Sabine tells one undecided voter she gets on the line, reading through the man’s voter history at her computer. “I’m here for O’Malley because he has a proven record of getting things done, including raising the minimum wage.”

“I would be happy to get you more information on some of his policy issues,” another staffer offers a voter. After some cajoling, she sets up a later one-on-one coffee meeting with the person, not bad for a cold call.

“Definitely as a woman I’d like to see a female president, but O’Malley has done so much for women in his home state of Maryland,” Sabine explains to a Clinton supporter as she bravely fights to get the woman to consider O’Malley instead. “The state has the most small businesses owned by women, it’s really cool how he’s been a champion for them. He also made their schools number one in the country for five years in a row.”

“It was Martha. It was you,” jokes another staffer in light-hearted frustration after a voter declines to speak to her.

“What has Hillary Clinton in front of Governor O’Malley for you?” inquires an organizer who speaks with a Clinton supporter. She asks if the person would still like to meet O’Malley at an event and gets a positive reply.

“Why was she with Clinton?” asks an O’Malley volunteer after the call ends.

“She likes Hillary because she sticks it to Republicans,” the staffer replies. “Well, I guess that’s a reason.”

One young woman’s accent stands out from the others.

“It’s a small country, I probably know them,” an O’Malley volunteer from New Zealand says to a voter who had met a Kiwi couple on an Alaskan cruise recently. Sarah, who’s spending a month in Iowa to help the campaign, doesn’t know the fellow countrymen, but makes progress with her call, identifying policy issues to follow up on and setting up a later one-on-one.

A full-time volunteer from New Zealand aside, most of O’Malley’s field staff came from Iowa, or have campaign experience in the state. All but one of their regional field directors worked in Iowa last cycle, and several of the field organizers clerked for Democratic legislators at the State Capitol. They’re a younger crew than the Clinton field operation, but their higher percentage of staff with Iowa experience means many local activists and elected officials started out with previous relationships with them.

Sabine herself first met O’Malley in 2014 at the coordinated campaign office during a canvass for Brad Anderson, the Democrat running for Secretary of State that year. O’Malley’s PAC had deployed a number of staffers to the state to help local Democrats’ campaigns, Anderson among them. Sabine had no idea who the Maryland governor was at the time, but came away impressed. She met him again at a fundraiser the next year, where O’Malley sought her out specifically and spoke with her for 20 minutes about being a younger person in America. O’Malley’s state director, Jake Oeth, a former Bruce Braley operative, followed up with Sabine and recruited her for the campaign, much as he did for many of his staff with Iowa backgrounds. >>>


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