ANKENY, Iowa — The first rule of being a precinct captain for Pete Buttigieg in next month’s Iowa caucuses, besides showing up, is to be nice. If the sign-in line is long and the space is painfully crowded, be nice. No matter how stressful the night gets, no matter how many hours it takes to determine a winner, be nice.
“We want you to be excited and enthusiastic. We want you to be organized. We want you to be greeting people with a smile on your face,” Shannon Sankey, a young Buttigieg staffer in charge of organizing this rapidly expanding suburb north of Des Moines, told a group of about 90 volunteers packed into a coffee shop here last Thursday night. “We’ve got to be nice.”
Those of a certain generation might have sensed a little Patrick Swayze philosophy in that approach, a clap back to the actor’s famous line in the film “Road House” where he declares his mantra as a rough and tumble bar bouncer “to be nice until it’s time not to be nice.”
But in Buttigieg world, there are no exceptions.
In a race where several Democrats are vying to be the unity candidate, Buttigieg’s campaign is hammering that philosophy even deeper into the operating ethos. Last week, the “be nice” approach was presented at training sessions across Iowa for precinct captains and volunteers who will be working to wrangle supporters into the former South Bend, Ind., mayor’s corner on Feb. 3.
Their targets aren’t just undecided Iowans still struggling over which Democrat to support, but voters who could be up for grabs if their chosen candidate doesn’t make the threshold for viability after the so-called first alignment of supporters, which in many precincts is at least 15 percent support of assembled caucusgoers.
To that end, the Buttigieg campaign has started to coach supporters who have volunteered to be precinct captains on caucus night about how to talk to Iowans who support other candidates in hopes of winning them over for the second alignment, which is the round that determines how many delegates a candidate will receive.
“What does Pete have in common with people who might not be viable?” said Julie Klocke, a “super volunteer” with the campaign who was one of Buttigieg’s earliest supporters in Ankeny. She said she had been looking at how to talk to supporters of businessman Andrew Yang and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who are believed to have notable pockets of support in the state but might not have the numbers to advance to the second alignment.
Knowing ahead of time what common ground there might be between the candidates is crucial, given that in many precincts, campaigns will have just 15 minutes to convince other Democrats to line up on their side, while also keeping an eye on the complicated caucus math to make sure they are winning as many delegates as possible.
“Hopefully, it won’t take much persuading … but you have to understand the nuances of how it all works because you don’t have that much time,” Klocke said.
At the Buttigieg campaign training on Thursday in Ankeny, a conservative-learning suburb that has grown more purple since the 2016 election, some of those who turned out weren’t precinct captains but volunteers trying to understand the complicated math that goes into figuring out candidate viability and how delegates are awarded.
After a series of PowerPoint slides, including one that used different types of pizza in place of candidates to illustrate delegate math, many in the room sat in what seemed to be an overwhelmed silence at how complicated the process was. Organizers assured the group that most wouldn’t have to worry about the math and that they were presenting it to be “transparent” about the process. But it also seemed to be a way of shocking voters into taking the process seriously. They emphasized the things they could control, especially since organizers are expecting a massive turnout on caucus night.
Sankey urged the attendees to make sure every interaction they have is positive. “The moment a caucus voter gets out of their car to the second alignment, they’re able to be persuaded to join another team,” she said. “We’ll all be really shocked at what little interaction will go in persuading someone to come over to our corner.”
She asked the volunteers to wear Buttigieg gear and to be helpful, including taking on volunteer tasks at the caucus site. “We embody Pete,” she said. “He would be helpful in any way that he can, so we are going to be helpful in any way we can. … No task is too small for us.”
And she repeatedly urged the group to be nice — even if they were to notice that the chair of the caucus had miscalculated some of the math about viability or delegates. “We’ve just got to be nice, and nicely just let them know maybe they messed up,” she said.
“The most organized team on caucus night is going to win,” she added. “And we are, 100 percent, going to be the most organized team.”
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