Tuesday night's Iowa caucus will go a long way toward separating the well-managed Republican campaigns from the vanity projects and amateur operations. But the contrasts that will emerge won't be solely within the GOP field.
The Obama reelection campaign is paying significant attention to the Jan. 3 caucus, not just as a means of assessing future competition but also as a dry run for the 2012 general election. The president will technically be on the ballot. And his team would love nothing more than for him to scoop up more votes than some of the top names in the GOP primary. But the prevailing concern is to reengage the network of Hawkeye State supporters who initially pushed Barack Obama to the White House and to bring new ones into the fold.
In reporting on the Obama reelection team's efforts in Iowa earlier this week, Politico referred to their work as a "shadow campaign." In actuality, reelection aides are hoping that it ends up being a fairly open illustration of the very different styles of the president and his opponents.
"We have built this campaign from the ground up just like in '07 and '08," said one Obama campaign official. "And in '07 and '08, it left a legacy in states in which we had a really strong field program and were able to engage volunteers. And what is clear is that Romney and the other candidates, rather than investing in organization and supporters on the ground, have instead competed on the air and on a national stage, and they haven't left a legacy of a strong organization in states across the country. And they are not going to be able to just flip a switch. It takes time."
The Obama reelection effort is being constructed on the philosophy that on-the-ground grunt work is more valuable than over-the-airwaves glitz. Fewer places symbolize that better than Iowa. The president's campaign has eight offices in the state -- a number that a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party said was almost assuredly more than any of the Republican presidential aspirants have. Campaign officials have data points on the ready if you want additional evidence of organization prowess. In Iowa alone, they have held 1,200 training and planning sessions in addition to house parties and phone banks. There have been 350,000 calls to supporters and 4,000 one-on-one meetings.
But these are just numbers, They don't get at the actual obsession with the cause that many of the president's Iowa backers continue to exhibit.
Peggy Whitworth, a volunteer for Obama for America in Cedar Rapids, told The Huffington Post that she has been spending 20 to 30 hours a week making phone calls and organizing on behalf of the reelection. She's one of a team of eight who meet for four hours once a week to talk about how they can gin up enthusiasm for a president in need.
"I am paid with the dignity and respect I am treated with," Whitworth said. "None of the people on my team are paid."
In recent weeks and days, she has been peppering those phone calls with pleas for voters to attend Tuesday night's caucus or otherwise get engaged in the political process. There is little expectation that the magic of four years ago will suddenly spark again. But that really isn't the point of a reelection campaign.
"Since we aren't choosing a candidate like we did four years ago, what we are really doing is using it for an organizational tool," said Whitworth. "We are urging people to attend so we can strengthen the organization, because on January 4th most of our Republicans will leave and we are going to stay right here."
About 100 miles west on Route 80, Pat Walters is doing much the same. Leading a neighborhood team of Obama volunteers in Johnston, a suburb of Des Moines, he has organized house parties as a means of recruiting people to the reelection cause. He scoffed at the idea that he should scramble this week to take advantage of presidential politics hitting the hot-ember stage. Campaigns, he insisted, aren't about short-term objectives.
"Although media may think this is a heavy week ... we have been doing this since after he was elected. We have been in touch with our volunteers since his election," Walters said. "Where a lot of these candidates have just now gotten organized for the caucus, we have been here for a while. And we will be here still when they pack up their bags on January 4."
All of which is not to say that Jan. 3 doesn't matter. In fact, the Obama campaign and allied groups are hoping to use the caucus as a launching pad for November 2012. Obama for America has been involved in state Senate recalls in Wisconsin, petition gathering in Ohio, special elections in New York and California, and municipal races in North Carolina. But this will be the first time the vaunted campaign arm works a statewide political election.
And there is work to be done. In recent years, the voter registration gap that Democrats enjoyed in Iowa has closed dramatically. According to figures provided by the Iowa Democratic Party, as of Dec. 11, 2011, there were 645,475 registered Democrats, 613,521 registered Republicans and 717,890 with no party registration.
That the margin has dwindled to roughly 30,000 may owe, in large part, to the fact that Republican presidential candidates have been campaigning in the state for months. But, privately, Democrats are nervous. With a few exceptions, the GOP field hasn't really campaigned hard in Iowa, and Obama's own team, as they often crow, has been operating there since 2009.
Tuesday's caucus is a chance to start turning back the tide. The Iowa Democratic Party and local Democratic groups will be organizing in every caucus precinct. The Obama campaign will be closely monitoring both turnout and data pertaining to new voters reached. The president will address activists and caucus-goers via satellite video, much like he's done for fundraiser watch parties.
"This is an organizing opportunity to ask them to reach out to their networks and say it is 2012," said an Obama campaign official. "Now is the time to get engaged."