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The Imperfect Storm

Dozens of local Deaniacs traveled to Iowa to help Howard Dean score his first big victory on the road to the Democratic nomination. So how did they react when their candidate got his ass handed to him?

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The candidate takes the stage in Iowa as his supporters hit the streets.
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Scott Allen
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Scott Allen
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Scott Allen
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Sandeep Kaushik
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Scott Allen
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Sandeep Kaushik
The Iowa presidential caucuses begin at 6:30 p.m. on a bitterly frigid Monday night. By 7:00 p.m., the media is reporting that it looks as if John Kerry--the anointed frontrunner before the campaign began in earnest, lately dismissed by the national press as a hapless buffoon and political basket case--is likely to come out on top. Less than an hour later, the dimension of his victory is becoming clear. He will end up taking a stunning 38 percent of the state's delegates. At 10:00 p.m. the ornate second-floor ballroom of the Fort Dodge Hotel in downtown Des Moines is packed tightly with his cheering supporters--including a surprising number of young people. As I squeeze in among them, the grinning victor, his voice hoarse from overuse, dubs himself "the comeback Kerry." By 1:00 a.m. the pollsters are saying he is pushing toward the top in New Hampshire, which will hold its primary in eight short days, and the pundits are once again calling him the Democratic frontrunner.

Just as surprising, John Edwards comes out of nowhere, taking 32 percent, surging beyond even what his campaign had expected. Dick Gephardt from neighboring Missouri is the immediate loser, fading to a distant fourth; he drops out of the race, his 28-year political career over.

It is a victory of the conventional over the unconventional--it is also a devastating defeat for Howard Dean. The Iowa caucuses are the first real test of Dean's break-the-rules campaign--more a crusade for a resurgent liberalism than a typical political bid--a test he has come perilously close to failing. Dean will wind up limping to a third-place finish, beaten more than two to one in a contest that even a week ago he expected to win.

The Iowa caucuses are a peculiar, somewhat Byzantine ritual in participatory democracy, part of the strange patchwork process Americans have devised to choose the president. In 1,993 schools and church basements and community centers across this wildly unrepresentative Midwestern state, a mere 125,000 longtime party activists and first-timers (and this is a record turnout) have come together in small groups to exert their traditional undue influence on the selection of the Democratic presidential nominee. For this one night, Iowa is the undisputed center of the American political universe, though it remains an imperfect barometer of future success. Based on past elections, the conventional wisdom is that anyone who finishes in the top three here still has a chance to win the nomination.

By that standard, Dean remains alive. Speaking to thousands of flag-waving supporters in a West Des Moines ballroom, he is defiant, predicting ultimate victory. His people cheer wildly, though some have tears in their eyes.

*****

One of the first things you notice about Annie Robbins is that she's got the gift of gab. The words come in an urgent flow, a gushing stream that seems to pour out of her without pause for breath or self-editing. Over the phone last week, she describes herself to me as both an entrepreneurial businesswoman--she owns, renovates, and rents out houses--and also as "a little bit of a hippie." In some detail, she tells me about her life: She is 50 and throws pottery art that is shown in a high-end Seattle gallery. Mostly, though, she tries to explain why she is going to Iowa at her own expense for Howard Dean.

To boil down Robbins' story, the Dean campaign has become for her far more than a simple political struggle--it is also, at least so far, a potent talisman to ward off despair. The former Vermont governor must win, she says, for the good of the country and, not incidentally, for the sake of her own emotional equilibrium. She relates that in the run-up to the Iraq war last spring, she grew increasingly fretful. "I couldn't sleep," she says. "I started getting this feeling in my chest of doom. I was smoking all the time, staying inside watching the news, getting all strung out."

Things got so bad she fled to Australia for seven weeks, but came back determined to become politically involved for the first time in her life. Seeking a savior, she found the Dean campaign on the Internet. Almost immediately, she felt a cathartic sense of reassurance. "We are the majority. Most Americans are good," Robbins asserts to me with a touch of defiance. "I do take this election very personally." So when I ask her again what could possibly motivate her and so many others to drop everything to walk the frigid back streets of Iowa towns knocking on strangers' doors, she doesn't hesitate. "We do it out of desperation," she replies.

This sort of personal narrative, of despair followed by empowerment, is something I will hear countless times over my five days in Iowa. It is close to being the norm among Deaniacs, as the campaign's hardcore supporters, now numbering close to 600,000, are known.

*****

Over the course of the last year, Dean has made despairing liberals believe again, both in him and in themselves. They have flocked to Dean in astonishing numbers, and the depth of their devotion is nothing short of remarkable. He has drawn some 3,500 of them from around the country to Iowa, including Robbins and perhaps two dozen others from Seattle. Dean's campaign in Iowa was dubbed the Perfect Storm, the latest manifestation of what Dean calls the greatest grassroots campaign in American history. I have been following members of the Seattle Dean contingent since arriving in Iowa on the Thursday before the caucuses--the running joke among them is that I am embedded in their midst. They have been eager for me to share in their expected triumph.

Of the Deaniacs I meet in Iowa, it is interesting how many of them say they either left, considered leaving, or at least talked about leaving the country since the debacle of the 2000 election and the country's post-9/11 shift to the right. For instance, on Saturday night in a Des Moines hotel bar, Cherie Welch, a volunteer from Las Vegas, casually mentions she too was on the verge of emigrating when she found Dean. She is greeted with knowing nods--no one so much as bats an eyelash. Charlene Rawson, a mortgage broker from Everett, chimes in that she considered moving to Canada before latching onto Dean. Instead, she is here in Iowa standing on street corners and canvassing the neighborhoods, and she has just "maxed out" in her giving to Dean, having reached the $2,000 individual donation limit for presidential candidates.

Another example, one of the many: Nancie Kosnoff, 46, is a blunt-speaking, suffer-no-fools type not so different personality-wise from her candidate. "I'm bossy, not bitchy," is how she describes herself. Feeling forlorn after her long hours of organizing futile protests against the Iraq war--she was in a state of denial then, she says--she found the Dean campaign last September. It has become the repository of all her hopes. She ran the Seattle Dean office for several months, is now putting in 11-hour days organizing multiple Seattle precincts for Dean, and has committed to bringing out 200 supporters when the Washington caucuses meet on February 7. On the Friday night before the caucuses in Iowa, she stands up at a raucous dinner of Seattle Dean people in the back room of an Italian restaurant in a Des Moines suburb and lays on the line, in words similar to Robbins, how psychologically invested she has become in a Dean victory. "I feel desperate about this. My mother is worried. She says, 'How big is the pitchfork you fall on when this doesn't work out?'" The others at the table laugh knowingly.

It's a question Nancie and the others stave off through the sense of community--if not semi-dysfunctional family--they have created under the rubric of the Dean campaign. Here in Iowa it is clear how unusual the Dean campaign is, and how much it has taken on aspects of a movement, or perhaps a mass therapy session, for long-downtrodden liberals. They don't just walk the Iowa neighborhoods together. They smoke and drink together--a hoped-for sidelight of this trip is to be at "some awesome parties," Robbins tells me before the trip--and, at times, bicker and squabble.

The social set piece of the trip comes when much of the Seattle contingent gathers together, along with three Deaniacs from Tokyo, for dinner on a Friday night. It is a boisterous event, noisy with alcohol-fueled testimonials. "We're the loudest fucking people," the normally unassuming Ray Minchew shouts at me over the din at one point. "Maybe we can win with sheer noise." Minchew, a round-faced, goateed 34-year-old, recently laid off from a temp job at Microsoft, was one of the first Washington State Dean volunteers, helping to start the first Internet-organized Seattle Dean meetup, which took place in a Green Lake coffee shop in February. It drew 15 people. As with Robbins, this campaign is Minchew's first significant political experience.

Others here are experienced political activists, like Greg Rodriguez, 38, King County Democratic chair, who has worked on campaigns for close to 20 years and is deeply invested in his role as "a party leader." Across the table is Therese Hansen, a Seattle attorney and the very liberal wife of very liberal Congressman Jim McDermott. Next to me sits Pam Eakes, national finance co-chair of Dean's campaign--she has raised more than six figures for him--and the founder of the Seattle-based Mothers Against Violence in America. She is a former chief of staff for Tipper Gore and has been active in five presidential campaigns. She says she is still psychically scarred by the events of 2000, but has found hope in the Dean effort and has never felt so strongly about an election. "Nothing is like this campaign," she says. "Nothing."

Much has been made in the national media about how the Dean webroots are a youth-driven phenomenon, but such claims are overstated. Looking over the mostly middle-aged crowd at a Dean bloggers breakfast I attend on Saturday morning, John Pettit, the Dean campaign's official photographer, jokes, "This is the most mature group of 19-year-olds I've ever seen." The Seattle Dean contingent is also not young, mostly ranging in age from early 30s to late 50s. But the communitarian, almost tribalistic, atmosphere that infuses the campaign is palpable. And there are, of course, some young, and some very young, people in Iowa volunteering for Dean. For instance, sitting next to me at the breakfast Saturday morning was Brandon Levey, a shy, diminutive 14-year-old from Baltimore who is something of a minor celebrity after having been cited on Dean's official blog a few months back. He has raised $1,400 for Dean on his webpage, and has traveled to Des Moines on his own. When I ask him how his parents have let him make such a trip, he confides that the campaign has promised them they will keep tabs on him during his stay.

*****

But the life of a Perfect Storm volunteer is not all booze blasts and raucous dinner parties. In fact, most of the time it is unglamorous and decidedly unfun. After the volunteers arrive at the Des Moines airport--most of the Seattle contingent turns up, as I do, on Thursday--they are ferried to the Dean volunteer office downtown, dubbed the Storm Center. It is a square, glass-faced building plastered with a checkerboard pattern of red "Win with Dean" and blue "A New Day for Democrats" signs. The office is on Locust Street, an appropriate name given the swarm of Deaniacs--and the hovering media hordes--that are constantly coming and going, meeting and greeting on the sidewalk outside.

Inside one finds a noisy room filled to overflowing with clumps of babbling Perfect Storm volunteers, who are issued fluorescent orange knit caps and orange hospital wristbands; it makes the Dean people instantly recognizable as they flood the Des Moines area. (There is a bit of hierarchy built into this system: Volunteer coordinators wear yellow caps, paid staffers don red ones.) The overall impression is that of the first day of summer camp, with backpack-slinging campers arriving from all over and clipboard-wielding counselors assigning them to their various cabins. And many of the younger Deaniacs do literally stay in cabins, part of large encampments outside the city arranged by the campaign.

There is some method to all this madness. The first thing new arrivals are asked to do is sign a written pledge that states, "I hereby agree that I will not improperly participate in the Iowa caucuses." For that they have Stranger editor Dan Savage to thank, at least in part. After he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times several weeks ago ["How to Be an Iowan for a Day," January 7, 2004] detailing how, since participation is essentially run on an honor system, he was able to walk in and participate in the Republican caucuses in 2000 despite being a Seattle resident, the Gephardt and Kerry campaigns have accused the Perfect Stormers of planning to flood the caucuses in support of their candidate. The brouhaha turns out to be much ado about nothing. Crashing a caucus might be possible in isolated cases but is impractical to the point of absurdity on a mass scale. No one I speak with among the Perfect Stormers seems to have ever seriously considered engaging in such an act.

What the Perfect Stormers have come to Iowa to do, by in large, is walk the precincts, a physically and psychologically taxing job--particularly after the temperatures drop into the single digits over the weekend. The idea is to buttonhole registered Democrats to determine whether they are Dean supporters and gauge their level of commitment to the candidate. The campaign will then use that information on Monday night to prod pro-Dean Iowans to come out on a dark, cold night to caucus for him. "It was fucking cold out there, and we had to walk for miles," Nancie Kosnoff complains to me after a long frigid Saturday in Madison County, home to those famous bridges.

Some of the lists of registered Dems are out of date, many of the people on them aren't home, and of those who are, some react indifferently, and occasionally badly, to the entreaties of out-of-state Dean people. Ominously, many who are reached have already committed to other candidates--as the days pass I hear a lot of prescient accounts from Deaniacs of coming across many Kerry and Edwards (though few Gephardt) supporters in their assigned neighborhoods--and the clear-cut successes are few and far between. With Dean's tracking-poll numbers slipping as the week progresses, Deaniacs consider themselves lucky if they succeed in swaying a single person over the course of a day's doorbelling. Lynn Chadsey, 51, a massage therapist from Wallingford, comes back after her first day out feeling depressed by the less than enthusiastic response she has received. Several days later, her mood seemingly recovered, I ask her if her experiences in the neighborhoods have grown more positive. She smiles but shakes her head no. Canvassing produces "little return for your time," she tells me, though she has doggedly kept at it. "I've just downgraded my expectations."

In fact, the people who seem far and away the most interested in the Storm troopers' efforts are members of the media, who clot around them like leeches. On Friday morning I go out canvassing with Kosnoff and Minchew in a poor North Central Des Moines neighborhood. I choose them in part because they are being shadowed by a three-person NBC film crew. (These media tagalongs are ubiquitous; Howard Martin, who co-runs the seattlefordean.com website, later tells me he spent his Saturday in the company of a reporter from Slate.) My photographer and I, in turn, shadow the crew shadowing the Deaniacs. The whole thing takes on an absurdist quality--it looks like a scene out of one of those Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol ads where unsuspecting sweepstakes winners are greeted by a crush of media when they answer the bell. At first Minchew and Kosnoff knock on door after door without finding anyone home while the NBC folks become increasingly desperate for usable footage.

At one point, when I catch a moment where my photographer is shooting the film crew as they shoot footage of my photographer, it occurs to me that this whole situation threatens to slip down some kind of horrifying spider hole of self-referentiality. Minchew and Kosnoff eventually locate two men smoking on a front stoop who seem receptive; with one eye cocked on the media contingent, the men, who seem to know almost nothing about any of the candidates--something of an achievement, considering the constant television advertising barrage they have been subjected to for months--ask a few questions about Dean's positions and even reluctantly commit to attending their caucus. Their precious footage in the can, the NBC people depart. The exercise does generate positive, if somewhat misleading, coverage for the campaign; Minchew is featured on that evening's NBC Nightly News broadcast.

*****

Meanwhile, the other campaigns are quietly plugging away at their own organizing efforts. The Kerry office is a block farther down Locust Street. I visit on Friday and find an atmosphere of controlled professionalism, in sharp contrast to the seemingly creative chaos of the Dean effort. There isn't nearly as much excitement, or as much theatricality, here. I run into Ali Wade, the Kerry campaign's Washington State coordinator, who has just arrived in Iowa and is heading off to Ames, a college town about 30 miles north of Des Moines, to do organizing work. She tells me she's feeling confident and optimistic, though she's not sure she's going to get a chance to see her husband, David, who is an inner-circle Kerry staffer and travels with him around the state. In another building a block away, the Kerryites have set up a phone-bank center where I briefly witness several dozen veterans making targeted calls to other vets on Kerry's behalf, a tactic that is dismissed as desperation by the media pundits but seems to have paid off handsomely on caucus night.

There are Seattleites in the smaller Edwards operation as well. I visit with rising young Dem hacks Marco Lowe, who is taking time off from his job as director of community relations for Mayor Nickels, and Lyle Canceko, who is on leave from his fundraising job for Attorney General Christine Gregoire's gubernatorial bid. They are tucked away in a small cubbyhole in the back, and sit at tiny desks in front of laptops crunching raw reports coming in from precinct captains and field workers about support levels for Edwards in order to work up precinct-by-precinct projections of Edwards-supporter turnout. It is all very high-tech and jargony; both seem comfortable with the language of modern field organizing, throwing around terms like "metrics" and "data loads" with casual impunity. Both also tell me that they are elated by the information they are receiving. The Edwards surge is real, they say, and is continuing right down to the wire. I thought they were spinning me, that this is what they had to say. It turns out, of course, that they are absolutely right.

*****

As the days pass and the caucuses loom, the news seems increasingly ominous from the perspective of the Perfect Storm contingent. Fresh tracking polls, which come out two or three times a day, all tell the same story: Kerry and Edwards surging, Dean and Gephardt fading. By the weekend, polls are showing that Dean's lead has evaporated and Kerry is now up, a few points ahead of the other three, though still within the margin of error. Everything points to a close race between the four, if not an outright nail biter.

Still, the Deaniacs tell me they did not come all the way out here to fold at the first signs of trouble. They have worked hard, and believe passionately in the rightness of their cause, and this keeps them relatively confident that they will prevail in the end. On Sunday morning Rodriguez says that caucus day will be "nerve-racking, really nerve-racking," but much of the group seems to get a huge psychological boost from watching Jimmy Carter's almost-endorsement a couple hours later. "This is good; he's talking about electability," Rodriguez says as Carter tells a press conference that Dean, a quintessential Yankee, can draw votes in the South. "I feel scared--and hopeful," Mary Robinson, 60, who came to Dean by way of Queen Anne peace activism, tells me on Monday morning. Her optimism is far from irrational: The campaign is relentlessly spouting the conventional wisdom that in a caucus state like Iowa, polls are unreliable to the point of meaninglessness; winning caucuses is supposed to be all about boosting turnout through grunt-work organizing, and Dean has far and away the largest ground game, followed by Gephardt, who has brought in close to 2,000 union organizers.

I run across three of those Gephardt workers on Friday night. They are steelworkers from St. Louis, attired in Local 9014 jackets. They are nervous about the race as well, though the way they express it highlights the vast culture gap between them and the Deaniacs. When I ask Joe Palumbo how tight he thinks the race is, he stares at me for a second. "I'd like a piece of ass this tight," he says, only to be admonished by his compatriots for talking like that in front of a reporter. That's the kind of statement you won't hear at the Dean Storm Center.

And for the Deaniacs, there are moments that raise their spirits. On Saturday I drive 120 miles west to Council Bluffs to catch a Dean rally at a local high school. Annie Robbins tags along, dressed in a green raincoat plastered with blue Dean bumper stickers. As we enter the building Dean is striding purposefully toward us, trailed by his entourage, headed toward a back room. Seeing Robbins' coat, he breaks stride, grins, and waves to her. This alone would be enough to make the trip worthwhile for Robbins, such is her groupie-like devotion to Dean, but she does one better after his speech. A small woman, she nonetheless powers to the front of the handshaking scrum around Dean, and gets him to sign his name along the length of her arm in black Magic Marker. She is ecstatic as we leave the building, telling me that Dean is the second man whose signature she has worn on her body. Back in 1967, when she was in eighth grade, she got Jim Morrison to sign her arm. "My taste in men has changed a lot since I was young," she admits as we pull out of the parking lot.

For Deaniacs, interacting with Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi is almost as good as hanging with Howard Dean. Howard Martin meets Trippi at the Storm Center on Friday night, and then crows at dinner that Trippi will attend the bloggers breakfast, which Martin helped organize (Trippi doesn't make it). The irrepressible Robbins also encounters Trippi, and gives him a hug. And Storm troopers are buzzing all weekend that Trippi has himself spent some time doorbelling. Dean spokesperson Christy Setzer confirms this, telling me Trippi "even wore the stupid little [orange] hat" as he hit the streets.

But for all the campaign hoopla, beneath the surface I notice potential signs of trouble for Dean at the Council Bluffs rally. The crowd is sizable, perhaps 400 strong, and enthusiastic. At first I am impressed, but as I wander through the crowd I realize that it is heavily dotted with the orange caps of out-of-state Perfect Stormers, none of whom will participate in the caucuses. Dean implicitly acknowledges as much, engaging in a misconceived call-and-response with the audience in which he calls out the names of seven or eight other states, receiving whoops of joy from those who originate from each. The one Iowan I speak with at the rally, Jeanne Trachta, 56, says she is pretty sure she will go for Kerry over Dean. "I like Howard Dean," she explains. "I'm inspired by Howard Dean, but I'm still wrestling with, 'Can he beat George Bush?'"

The next day I catch Kerry at a community college in Newton, a small town 30 miles to the east. Kerry is ferried to the site in a helicopter, which lands on the parking lot just outside the auditorium door. It's a smart stunt: The cameras lovingly eat it up, despite the fact that the copter's rotors throw a wild whirlwind of stinging dust and gravel directly into the faces of the waiting press corps. It (jokingly) occurs to me that perhaps this is deliberate--Kerry wouldn't be human if he didn't resent how the media yahoos have portrayed him as a loser.

Again, there are indications that Dean has a serious problem on his hands. Before Kerry arrives, I chat with three late-deciding voters; all of them tell me their choice has come down to either Kerry or Edwards. Retired file clerk Bonnie Forker says she made up her mind only that morning to back Kerry. Gene and Jean Scarbrough, also retirees, are going in the other direction, to Edwards, and both are the kind of intense anti-Bush voter that is supposed to form the backbone of Dean's appeal. "You can't print what I want to say," Mr. Scarbrough replies when I ask for his opinion of the president. ("I bet you I can print it," I tell him, but Mr. Scarbrough--who is, needless to say, unfamiliar with The Stranger--doesn't bite.) Kerry himself has clearly improved on the stump, delivering a shortened version of his stump speech. He sounds far more confident and decisive than when I tagged along with him for a few days in June of last year ["Goldenboy," The Stranger, June 19, 2003], and delivers a few moderately funny laugh lines, some spontaneous, some not.

*****

After four long days in Iowa, I have no clue who is going to come out ahead when the caucuses commence. Kerry and Edwards have momentum; Dean and Gephardt have the organizing strength. Some of the Dean crew gather to watch CNN in the hotel bar. At first they are hopeful, dismissing the network's entry polling--which accurately puts Dean third--as unreliable. We haven't yet heard any numbers when Nancie's cell phone rings, a call from her husband. "Edwards 30!" she exclaims. "What are you listening to--Fox News?" She listens for a moment, and then asserts in an edgy voice, "We're going to win."

Then Rodriguez's phone rings: a call from a Seattleite who has attended a caucus in liberal Grinnell, Iowa, which should be Dean territory. Instead, it's seven delegates for Kerry, four for Edwards, four for Dean. He hangs up looking wide-eyed. Rather than watch more results, Rodriguez suggests we head to the Dean "victory" party early. We arrive at 8:00 p.m., half an hour before they open the doors. I run across Minchew, who is wearing a jacket and tie. "It's the triumph of the bullshit media," is the first thing out of his mouth. "It's fucking bullshit." Minchew is referring to negative coverage Dean encountered in the last few weeks. As he was sailing toward the nomination, the media became increasingly critical, pumping out a series of "gotcha" stories, from Dean's support for a wife-beating security chief to Newsweek and Time's recent cover stories about Dean's temperament.

To kill time, we retire to the bar of a bowling alley across the street, where the troops begin to rally. Excited discussions begin about how their efforts in Washington State will have to be redoubled. Later, in the ballroom, I encounter Pam Eakes. She smiles and gushes about Dean's fiery "concession" speech, which whipped the assembled Deaniacs into a frenzy. This is the same speech that the cable pundits spend the night repeatedly trashing as unpresidential. Maybe that is a good sign for Dean, since the pundits seem to be wrong these days more often than they are right. These are the same people, after all, who all but declared John Kerry dead a few weeks ago. Some even called for Kerry to pull out of the race.

Earlier that night, when the bad numbers are still rolling in, Annie Robbins asks me how I intend to end my story. Before I can formulate a response, she answers her own question, saying that I'm no doubt looking for tearful scenes to tie everything up with an emotional bang. "Well, I'm a big girl. I'm not going to fall on my knees and cry for your story," she says. Then she looks me full in the face and laughs a surprisingly genuine laugh. "I'm not going to give you the satisfaction."

 

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