Clinton Secret Weapon: Organization


By: Wall Street Journal

In Iowa Campaigning, Teresa Vilmain Is Unrivaled
By JACKIE CALMES

Des Moines, Iowa

There has been a lot of attention to Hillary Clinton’s recent slippage in this state, but things looked much bleaker for her earlier this year. In May, a top adviser suggested the New York senator give up competing in Iowa. Instead, she doubled down and hired Teresa Vilmain, widely seen as the gold standard among Democratic organizers in the state.

Now Sen. Clinton is counting on the organization that Ms. Vilmain has built to prevail in Iowa over rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards — or at least come close enough to avoid limping badly into the states that quickly follow.

Ms. Vilmain first organized in Iowa in 1988, at age 29, working for eventual Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. This time, Democrats’ turnout in the state that kicks off the presidential race is expected to set a record, given excitement about the seven-candidate presidential field and the prospect of taking back the White House. More than at any time since the caucuses gained prominence 32 years ago, organizers such as Ms. Vilmain are searching for ways to draw voters who have never participated in a caucus.

The Jan. 3 event isn’t the same as a regular primary election. Voters must attend a time-consuming gathering on a winter night, with open deliberations and no secret ballots.

“If she’s working for you, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. But regardless of the odds at the beginning, you’ll be in the game,” says former Gov. Tom Vilsack, who credits Ms. Vilmain for his 1998 and 2002 victories in gubernatorial elections. Mr. Vilsack enlisted her last year for his own short-lived presidential campaign. Soon after it ended, Sen. Clinton signed them both up.

Mr. Obama, an Illinois senator, and former North Carolina Sen. Edwards have seasoned state directors as well in Paul Tewes, 38, and Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, 31, respectively. But no one is quite like the 49-year-old Ms. Vilmain. Her energy in driving young staffers and candidates alike through months of 18-hour days, all the while flipping her three feet of hair, has spawned nicknames including “hummingbird on acid” and “Vil-maniac.”

One admiring former colleague recalls her “jaw-dropping bluntness” in making assignments and demanding accountability. Even the candidate’s spouse, an ex-president, gets put in his place, if gently. Bill Clinton, exasperated at criticism of his wife by rivals and the media, demanded at a recent debate-watching party here that Sen. Clinton start hitting back, say people who were present. Ms. Vilmain, backed by campaign co-chairman and local attorney Jerry Crawford, told the former president, who never really had to compete in Iowa’s caucuses, that negative attacks aren’t “the Iowa way” and would backfire.

Offsetting Ms. Vilmain’s abruptness is her team-building sense of fun. She is known to organize midnight bowling or karaoke nights for campaign workers. Before a morning debate here, she showed up at the hall at 3:30 a.m. to pass out doughnuts to young volunteers putting up Clinton signs, then returned at 8 a.m. escorting the candidate.

Never married, childless and now older than most gypsy-like political organizers who move from state to state during each election, Ms. Vilmain says she was “hardwired to be organized” by her mother, Ruth. The mother of eight kept spices in alphabetical order, stored socks by color and cooked massive amounts to divvy into Tupperware containers. When family members took a container from the super-size refrigerator, they had to check an inventory list.

Mr. Vilsack likens the process of organizing his state to starting a Fortune 500 company. When Ms. Vilmain took over the Clinton operation in June, four months after Sen. Clinton’s entry into the race, she devised the campaign’s first business plan and set a goal, which she won’t reveal, for how many Iowans she hopes will caucus for her candidate in all 99 counties, and a timetable for signing up commitments.

The total Democratic turnout in 1,781 precincts is likely to top 125,000. If Sen. Clinton can gather 50,000 supporters — roughly 2% of Iowa’s voting-age population — advisers believe she would achieve a winning plurality. This month she opened a 36th office. With more than 100 paid staffers and volunteers, including legions of current and former Clinton aides and friends, the campaign has more than matched Sen. Obama’s early advantage on the ground. The cost for the Clinton campaign alone is expected to exceed $15 million.

A calendar in Ms. Vilmain’s office conference room denotes nights for caucus “dry runs,” a sort of practice for precinct captains and those charged with transporting caucus-goers, decorating caucus sites and checking at the door of each church basement or school hall on caucus night for no-shows among voters who have committed to support Sen. Clinton. Weeks ago she started a statewide “Take a Buddy to Caucus” program to spur first-time caucus-goers who otherwise would be intimidated by the idea of politicking alone among strangers.

When the Clintons campaign, Ms. Vilmain usually tags along with one of them, keeping in touch with headquarters and field offices by BlackBerry but also joining younger workers at each event to press commitment cards on undecided voters. Each night, she takes to her temporary apartment a three-page “hard count” of supporters, new recruits for precinct captains and attendance at the day’s campaign events or caucus-training sessions. Field operatives feed the data into computer.

By dawn, she has a consolidated trend report before the day’s conference calls and meetings begin. The count tallies voters on a scale of 1 to 4 — the 1s are supporters who have signed commitment cards, 2s have committed but not signed, 3s are the coveted undecideds and 4s support rivals.

With voters suffering “phone fatigue” from months of calls by campaigns and pollsters, the campaigns are resorting as never before to door-to-door canvassing. Ms. Vilmain has armed her soldiers with brief, humorous “Caucusing is Easy” DVDs (and videocassettes for homes without a DVD player) featuring Bill Clinton.

Being so busy, Ms. Vilmain won’t get out the holiday cards that have become her trademark — calendars with the birthdays of personal and political friends both famous and not. But she still keeps track of birthdays. Thursday was Mr. Vilsack’s. It also was one of the darkest days for the campaign: a top Clinton official in New Hampshire resigned after he was quoted questioning Mr. Obama’s electability given his acknowledged cocaine use as a young man.

Even as Ms. Vilmain was privately fretting about the potential damage, she had a birthday cake and gifts of political books spirited aboard the Clintons’ plane for Mr. Vilsack.

Write to Jackie Calmes at jackie.calmes@wsj.com

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