Obamadale: The secret weapon that could save Iowa Democrats?

A supporter of Bruce Braley, the Democratic nominee in Iowa's Senate race, holds up a sign in the neighborhood.

Story highlights

  • A small group of Obama supporters helped the president win re-election in Iowa
  • Democrats have struggled to maintain grassroots enthusiasm since 2012
  • Democrats interested in 2016 campaigns have already courted Obamadale organizers
For a small band of supercharged Democratic organizers, the pleasant Des Moines neighborhood of Beaverdale goes by another name: Obamadale.
The moniker was bestowed three years ago by a motley crew of Democrats who first met as strangers over martinis at a local restaurant in the early days of President Obama's re-election bid, brought together under the aegis of the "neighborhood team" model that defined the campaign's bottom-up volunteer structure.
Led by Kimberley Boggus, a bubbly 33-year-old nursing student, and Sam Reno, a 42-year-old no-nonsense construction crew supervisor, the platoon of volunteers eventually managed to turn out more than 700 Democrats to their local caucus precinct on a chilly January night in 2012 -- and that was for an uncontested race overwhelmingly won by Obama. By November, in another show of force, "we turned out 87 percent of the Democratic voters in Beaverdale," Boggus recalled with evident pride.
After the campaign, Obama's behemoth political organization became Organizing For America (OFA), but the group has struggled to maintain a coherent identity outside the president's campaigns.
Obamadale, meanwhile, is a small, volunteer-run operation that learned their techniques from Obama campaign officials but has survived and flourished well past the president's re-election fight. Like a political sleeper cell, it is boosting candidates in city council and school board races and playing a key role in this year's closely-watched Iowa Senate race between Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst.
Today, the tightly-knit group of about 20 organizers is one of a handful of Obama-inspired outfits like it across Iowa, an uplifting legacy point for a president who tapped the power of grassroots organizing to win the White House but now struggles with dismal approval ratings and a stalled agenda in Washington. Their talents are already sought out by Democrats thinking about running for president in 2016, and the group is considering whether to throw its weight behind one of them in the Iowa caucuses.
For close watchers of the 2014 midterms, Obamadale is also an emblem of a fearsome and organic Democratic ground game in Iowa that keeps Republican strategists -- who have struggled to keep pace with the Democratic Party's voter turnout machinery -- awake at night.
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Though little-known outside Democratic campaign circles, Obamadale's reputation is so renowned in Iowa that several outside groups working in the state this cycle, including the Ready For Hillary super PAC and environmentalist Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate, have reached out to it for on-the-ground advice. It has also consulted on Democratic races in other parts of the state and worked on issue-based campaigns like a push to get Iowans to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
"Those guys know how to win elections," said Brad Anderson, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state and the Iowa state director for Obama's 2012 campaign. "What's really impressive about Obamadale is they are deeply passionate about the issues and they have been for a long time now, but they understand more than most the strategy of political campaigns, and the importance of phone-calling and door-knocking and election law and person-to-person contact."
A grassroots political force
What's also remarkable about Obamadale is that it thrives independently of the state's Democratic Party infrastructure, even as it consults with the official party on strategy. It is as much a social club as a political operation, deeply embedded in the Beaverdale community and intensely loyal to one another. It IDs voters and secures early voting ballots, but Obamadale members also swap recipes, go to church together, help out when someone is sick and even take road trips together, including a 1,000-mile winter drive from Des Moines to Washington for the president's 2013 inauguration.
"On a campaign you'll be in a phone bank, and it's a big room of people you don't know," Boggus said. "Here, I know the person, I know their story. They are the reason I come back all the time. I miss them if they aren't around in some way. It's 100% because of Obama."
Beaverdale is a working-class place, mostly white, heavily Catholic and rowed with picket fences and "Beaverdale Bricks," small neo-Tudor homes that have made the community a draw for young families. Though only a short distance from bustling and resurgent downtown Des Moines, Beaverdale feels like its own quaint Midwestern hamlet, where neighbors chat after work in their front yards and gather in family-owned restaurants at night.
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The Obamadale members hail from different backgrounds and professions. One is a librarian, one a county health worker, one an office manager. Several are retired.
"What's great about them is they aren't just a bunch of 25-year-olds," said Scott Brennan, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman. "It's an interesting mix of folks that crosses demographic lines and socioeconomic lines. But they are people who are completely committed to the President and committed to Democratic politics."
With no defined budget, Obamadale members fund their operations out of their own pockets, work out of donated office space at a local law firm and rely on the owner of Tally's, a Beaverdale watering hole that serves a memorable ground-bacon-and-beef burger, to open up the restaurant for Democratic campaign rallies and volunteer meetings.
Door-to-door canvasses are launched off the outdoor deck of Saints Bar and Grill, another Obamadale-friendly establishment in the neighborhood. Events and GOTV pushes are usually coordinated on Obamadale's Facebook group, or by phone or text.
People pitch in when and where they can. "Some people don't like to call or canvass, but are more than willing to do postcard writing," said Tammy Keiter, a program manager at the Polk County Public Health Administration.
John Judge, a mustachioed human resources director who has lived in Beaverdale for 26 years, said that his wife, also a Democrat, "was reluctant to be a part of it, but she got involved because she liked the people."
"We have her doing data now," he said.
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Before a State of the Union watch party in January, amid below-freezing temperatures, Judge helped Reno haul a flat screen television and speakers from his basement across several icy streets into Tally's for the president's speech. It was barely 10 degrees outside, but over 110 people showed up.
"If we don't have at least 100 people in attendance for an event, even at short notice, it's a failure," Reno said. "That's kind of our performance standard."
Their energy and loyalty to one other is admirable, but Obamadale's most prized asset, for ambitious candidates, is their impressive ability to identify and turn out voters in one of the state's biggest Democratic hubs.
It's why then-congressman Braley wrote a personal letter to Boggus in 2012 thanking her for her work, and why Anderson held a rally inside Tally's on the day he announced his campaign, and why Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is laying groundwork for a presidential campaign, stopped by Saints during a June visit to Iowa to make nice with the Obamadale crew. They gave him a bag of Iowa-shaped chocolates from Beaverdale Confectionary, and Boggus promptly posted a picture of the visit on Facebook.
"Any candidate running in Iowa would benefit from having them in their corner, no doubt," Anderson said.
Building on Democratic campaign lists collected over the years, including some of the vaunted Obama campaign voter files obtained during the 2012 race, the Obamadale bunch runs its own data and field programs. Boggus and Reno won't put an exact number on how many voters are in their database from Polk County and other parts of the state, but they say it reaches well into the thousands.
They are quick to attribute their tactical knowledge to the Obama campaign's volunteer training efforts, and the field marshals of the Obama campaign look at them, and similar groups nationwide that adopted the lessons of 2012, like proud parents would.
"We invested in and trained the members of our grassroots movement on real skills," said Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign's national field director and an original architect of their volunteer operations. "It's no surprise they're now paying it forward and putting everything they learned about building people-focused, data-driven, digitally-savvy campaigns to work to support Democrats up and down the ticket in their home communities."
But because of Obamadale's local relationships, its work on other races and the mom-and-pop nature of its outfit, the group says its voter intelligence in the Des Moines area is more granular and sophisticated than the larger-scale voter lists of the Obama campaign or the Iowa Democratic Party.
"I definitely think we learned a lot from the (Organizing For America) team model and it influenced our structure, but we went beyond it," says Reno.
In addition to phone numbers, emails and voting history, Obamadale organizers know who has soccer practice on what day, who has health issues or who might have a pesky Republican whispering in their neighbor's ear — whatever factor might influence how and when a person might vote.
Friends and work colleagues look to them for political tips as well.
"A woman on my street told me, 'I always wait for whatever sign you put in your front yard because I know who to vote for,'" Judge said. "I mean, she is a college-educated, young professional. But most people are not obsessed with this stuff like we are."
The Obamadale organizers have day jobs, but they sound like David Plouffe or Jim Messina when talking about the efficiencies of their political program.
"When you see these lists that come from the VAN" — the Democratic Party's voter file software — "they are not the most accurate," Boggus said. "So we keep our own database of people. They are tiered up. Tier one is our core group of people, about 20 of us. Tier two, they were a little more sporadic with volunteering. Tier three, they will come to events only. Tier four, they don't want to have anything to do with volunteering, but they vote, and we make sure they do early vote."
Early voting and vote-by-mail, which begins here on Thursday, was decisive in Obama's 8-point victory over Mitt Romney in Iowa in 2012. The campaign tapped their vast field organization to bank tens of thousands of Democratic votes before November, a bonanza that neutralized Republican turnout on Election Day.
Schooled on the same principles, Obamadale is currently making an early vote push in Des Moines aimed at boosting Braley and other Democrats, like 3rd District congressional candidate Staci Appel and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jack Hatch.
"Every good Democrat that we have ID'd for our candidates, we're going to have their vote in the bank," Reno said. "We are only going to be worried about a very small number of our IDs on Election Day. And the people who traditionally have trouble getting to the polls, we are going to get them there."
Hillarydale? And other 2016 choices
The next presidential race is on their minds, too.
Over glasses of wine at Tally's last weekend, on the eve of Hillary Clinton's visit to the Harkin Steak Fry, members of Obamadale hashed out their opinions on the likely Democratic field. Clinton, they agreed, was the 2016 frontrunner, though they complained that she was miscast as cold and distant by the media. Clinton was somebody they all said they would consider supporting, but everyone wanted to see a competitive caucus campaign.
"I want to see as many people come through Iowa as possible," Boggus said. "We saw in 2008 that you can be a little-known guy with a funny name and not very much money and do amazing things because you have a ground game."
They gushed over O'Malley, who visited with the crew this summer. "I love him," said Boggus, who was spotted at the steak fry the next day proudly waving a "Ready for Warren" placard in support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the progressive darling from Massachusetts.
"If Elizabeth Warren and Hillary were sitting at different tables at a place like this, most people would go over and talk to Warren," said Ben Guise, a retired state employee.
Reno would not rule out supporting one of the presidential candidates, though he said the decision "would have to respect everybody's ownership of the group." He said candidates would have to prove their grassroots credentials by stepping out of their comfort zones and listening to voters up close. Stopping by an Obamadale-run event or two wouldn't hurt their cause, he said.
"Honestly, we are doing this for free," Reno said. "And so would have to decide who is worthy of our effort before we get behind them. We are all volunteers. Candidates need to justify the effort we give them, which includes being accessible and respecting how grassroots groups like ours can add some sanity to electoral process, by helping neighbors talk to neighbors in even-minded tones about the issues."
As for the name, it seems like Obamadale is here to stay. Braleydale and Hillarydale, they said, don't roll off the tongue as easily.
"We are deeply loyal to the President," Reno said.