Saturday, December 22, 2007

"HRC staff ordered to lower expectations"

Roger Simon (Politico):
DES MOINES — You can accuse the Hillary Clinton campaign of a lot of things, but overconfidence is not one of them. Not in Iowa. Not anymore.

Orders have come from the top of the campaign here that nobody is to predict that Hillary Clinton will win Iowa.
That may be part of the “expectations” game that all campaigns play.

Or it may be because the campaign no longer is really sure that Clinton will win.

In interviews with top Clinton staffers, who did not wish to be quoted directly, I was told that Clinton could survive a second-place finish in Iowa and that the state was not do-or-die for her.

Gordon Fischer, the former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party who is now backing Obama, says that attitude represents an “evolution.”

“The strong pitch made to me and others not that long ago was that we had to be for Hillary, because Hillary was going to be the inevitable winner,” Fischer told me. “They have come a long way if they now think Iowa is just survivable.”

Technically speaking, all the Democratic campaigns probably can survive a loss in Iowa on Jan. 3.

After all, the New Hampshire primary is only five days later. Why drop out before then?

But no campaign is underestimating the importance of Iowa.

And the top campaigns have been organizing on a level never seen before in the history of the state.

“Four years ago, John Kerry had the best organization,” Fischer said, “and I think his organization would be blown away by all the advances made by the campaigns this time. The level of sophistication, the micro-targeting, the staff and the field offices, they are not just a little bigger, but a lot bigger.”

For the major campaigns, the Iowa caucus is now a highly professionalized contest.

The top campaigns have ferociously smart people who understand Iowa and have the money to carry out their plans.

The degree of targeting to identify potential voters has reached incredible levels.

And all the campaigns have learned a lesson from the debacle of the Howard Dean campaign here in 2004: Never fool yourself about your level of support.

“Lying to the media is one thing,” one Democratic campaign staffer told me, “but lying to your own campaign can be fatal.”

The Clinton campaign, for example, tries not just to build support, but constantly to identify people who can no longer be depended upon.

It keeps track of a “flake rate” — those people who say they are going to show up and vote for Clinton, but probably are not — and a “churn rate," those people whose support ebbs and flows.

The bedrock of the Clinton campaign remains women, especially older women.

The Clinton campaign believes that women will solidly back Clinton while Barack Obama and John Edwards will split the male vote.

Fischer sees it somewhat differently. “Hillary’s ‘you-go-girl’ pitch is double-edged,” he says. “Some women are turned off by it, and she is still a polarizing figure among women as well as men.”

The Clinton campaign has made special plans geared toward getting female voters to the polls on caucus night, however.

All the well-financed campaigns provide rides to those who need them. (There is no absentee voting allowed in the caucus; you must show up to vote.)

But the Clinton campaign figures that some older women do not want to get into a car with a stranger at night.

So it has created a “buddy” program for volunteers to “adopt” two other voters and get them to the polls. The buddies will know their adoptees; they won’t be strangers.

The Clinton campaign tracks three general categories of voters: “proven” voters, who regularly caucus; “potential” voters, who vote in state and municipal primaries and general elections; and “expansion” voters, who have a very low probability of attending the caucus.

A campaign with limited resources would forget about the expansion voters and just go after the provens and potentials.

But the Clinton campaign has been sending out a special glossy mailing to expansion voters. On the bottom is a scratch card that says: “Itching for change? Show your support for Hillary. Scratch to win your special limited edition gift.”

When you scratch the card, you find out that you have won a travel mug. You mail the card in with your address, and the campaign sends you a free mug.

The campaign then follows up with a call, and if it gets a positive response, a volunteer will come knocking on your door.

“The idea isn’t to find out who wants a free mug; everyone wants a free mug,” a Clinton staffer said. “The idea is to see who is favorable to Hillary Clinton so we can begin a conversation with them.”

This is obviously a very expensive way to start a conversation and get a vote.

But the Clinton campaign has the money. And it doesn’t want to lose Iowa because it didn’t spend enough of it.

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