“They should all go back where they came from,” said the elderly farmer, referring to illegal immigrants in the area. “Why isn’t the government shipping them back?”
“They’ve got no business being here,” yelled another, before launching into a conspiracy-theory filled tirade posed as a question. “How do you plan to stop the NAFTA superhighway from bringing more?”
These might sound like questions you’d expect to hear from Iowa Republicans at a Donald Trump rally in 2016. But they were directed at longshot presidential candidate Sen. Chris Dodd at a tiny Iowa Farm Bureau hall in the summer of 2007. And these were Democrats.
Although the crowd that day numbered no more than a dozen, the anger was palpable. And since a nearby meatpacking plant was using undocumented workers to skirt labor laws and ignore safety regulations, it wasn’t entirely unjustified. The fact that Dodd spoke fluent Spanish and supported comprehensive immigration reform would win him no supporters here. But considering his poll numbers, a lack of support in Iowa wasn’t exactly a new experience.
The angry immigration questions continued until one elderly man calmly and confidently spoke up.
“I don’t agree with that,” he said, channeling his inner Atticus Finch. “If a man wants to come here and work, I say let ‘em work. It’s none of our business.”
It was a moment that would have made any bleeding-heart liberal proud, but it quickly passed.
“What I’ve got a problem with are the gays,” he continued. “In the Navy, when we left port, we had two gays on our ship. By time we got back there were four!”
As I watched Sen. Dodd, who at that time was one of the more powerful men in Washington, trying to formulate a response for a geriatric who thought homosexuality was contagious, I realized democracy might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Or maybe it’s even better than expected, depending on your point of view.
Of course, that’s not to say the small, angry crowd was representative of your average Iowa Democrat (or Republican, for that matter). The group was simply representative of the type of people who would wake up very early on a Saturday morning to yell angry questions at a candidate who was polling at less than one percent. Of course, I’m in no position to judge. After all, what kind of weirdo moves to Iowa to work for a candidate polling at less than one percent?
Me. I am that kind of weirdo.
Those of you who don’t pay close attention to politics may be asking yourself, “Who is Chris Dodd?” That’s the same question I was asking Wikipedia in the spring of 2007 after a friend told me about a job opening on his Iowa presidential campaign. And as the lack of a “President Dodd” in the White House shows, it’s also a question thousands of caucus-going Iowans never bothered to ask or answer.
In all fairness, Dodd’s resume should have appealed to voters in a Democratic Primary. At the time he had over 26 years in the Senate and an impressive legislative track record on issues the party holds dear. But in a race featuring names like Clinton, Edwards and Obama, he had about as much chance of winning the nomination as this article has of winning a Pulitzer.
But to me, it didn’t matter. Truth be told, I didn’t even care which party he was with. I was sick of my job, and my girlfriend lived in Iowa. The fact that Dodd authored the Family Medical Leave Act and was the chair of the Senate banking committee was much less important than the fact that working for him meant I would no longer have to drive four hours to get laid.
To be clear, I’m not telling you this because I think you care about my personal life. I’m telling you this so you understand what motivates someone to move to rural America to join a presidential campaign that has no real chance of winning (when I say rural, I mean it. One of my counties only had one stop light.). For me it was sex (or love, if my now-wife asks). But in 2007 putting on a “Chris Dodd for President” shirt gave someone about as much sex appeal as wearing a pair of neon Crocs. Obama was the “sexy” candidate. As an attractive college girl put it when we asked her who she was supporting, “Uh… the black guy.”
So why did others take the job?
For many of the higher ups, it was an act of loyalty. They’d worked for Dodd for years, they liked him, and they were all in. Some are still working for him to this day. For others, it was simply the best job they could get. But for a few campaign consultants, working for Dodd was a calculated risk.
As a political consultant or high-level staffer, working for the wrong candidate in a primary can seriously damage your career options in the general election (and beyond). Months of bad blood and dirty tricks don’t magically disappear at the convention. You think Hillary and Bernie supporters are going to kiss and makeup once a clear winner emerges? If Donald Trump wins the nomination, do you think Jeb Bush’s staff will be welcomed home with open arms? Not likely.
In the general election and beyond, the best jobs go to those who backed the right horse. But who was the right horse in 2007?
In hindsight it’s easy to view Obama’s nomination as preordained. But in early 2007 Hillary Clinton seemed like the surest thing, and John Edwards seemed the most likely spoiler. To complicate matters further, rumors of a last-minute Al Gore run refused to die.
In other words, if you weren’t yet sold on Hillary’s inevitability, there was no clear choice. And going against Clinton was a surefire way to burn your bridges if she won.
But choosing a candidate like Dodd, Joe Biden or Bill Richardson, who posed no real threat to the frontrunners, was the same as making no choice at all. Of course, this strategy was not without risk. Because longshot candidates are usually low on funds, picking a candidate too low on the totem pole (Kucinich, Gravel) means your paychecks might bounce.
“We wanted a candidate who wouldn’t alienate us with the eventual nominee, but at the same time we wanted to make sure we’d get paid through Iowa,” a former Dodd consultant told me. “That’s why we chose Dodd. We knew he wouldn’t run out of money.”
As previously mentioned, Dodd was the chair of the Senate banking committee, which means employees of JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and pre-financial meltdown AIG were lining up to donate to his campaign despite the fact that it was likely going nowhere. He wasn’t pulling in as much as Clinton, Obama or Edwards, but his clout with the banking industry was enough to fund a legitimate field operation in Iowa, and, of course, pay the consultants.
“Choosing to sit out the  primary and work for Dodd was one of the best political gambles I’ve ever made,” a former consultant said.
This explanation probably sounds like a cop-out – a simple way to explain away an embarrassing campaign failure. But considering his impressive post-Dodd resume, which I’m not allowed to share, I’ll take him at his word. Had he jumped on the Hillary bandwagon early in the primary, his career would have had a much less impressive trajectory.
That’s not to say these consultants didn’t want the campaign to do well. Most if not all tried to help as best they could despite clearly seeing the writing on the wall. After all, if they could turn nothing into something, it would only increase their chances of landing a job with the eventual winner. But win or lose, they were happy to simply play the waiting game.
The willingness of some high-level staffers and consultants to work for a smaller campaign while waiting to see how things play out makes perfect sense. But what about the low-level field organizers who end up working ridiculous hours and getting paid less than minimum wage? Where do you find people willing to do the grunt work of making calls and knocking doors for a candidate with no support?
Some longshot campaigns rely on ideology. Rand Paul supporters are motivated by their candidate’s libertarianism. Someone supporting the Mike Huckabees and Rick Santorums of the world are probably motivated by religion. Others, like those who joined Obama or Sanders early on, want to be part of a movement. But what motivates someone to join a longshot campaign of a candidate whose ideology is nearly indistinguishable from that of his rival candidates?
The campaign itself often tried to use Dodd’s years of experience as a way to set him apart from the pack (unfortunately, so did Biden and Richardson). As one of many attempted slogans put it, “Results matter!” But according to a staffer involved in the hiring process, the campaign was forced to leverage people’s lack of “results,” luring talented but green individuals to the fold by offering them positions that were beyond their reach with the top tier candidates.
This helped with manpower, but the trade off was a major lack of experience. Finding out that my new manager was several years younger than me didn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence. Although I’m sure he felt the same way when he found out his new employee was several years his senior. Luckily, we both liked to get drunk and gamble, so it wasn’t really an issue, and the early staff turned out to be fairly competent, all things considered.
“I think our first round of organizers were better than any of their counterparts on other campaigns, really. Mostly midwestern, very hard working,” a staffer involved in hiring told me. But as summer turned to fall, the campaign failed to move the needle, recruiting became more and more difficult.
“By the next round of [hires], it was a lot harder,” he said. “People got that the Dodd campaign was the Dodd campaign, and it all got weirder and weirder. By September I was basically like, ‘Your English sounds good and you say you have a car, come on board!’”
This is the same person who months early had no qualms with hiring me even after I told him I had no experience and wasn’t a really a Democrat. But as things played out, it became clear that my issues were minor compared to some of my coworkers.
“There was a dude who, when I offered him a cup of water on his first day, he replied, ‘No thanks, I’ve been weaning myself off it slowly and I’m down to a glass a day,'” a staffer involved in recruiting told me. “No sh#t.”
While there are many explanations as to why someone might join a longshot campaign, there are very few reasons people decide to stick it out until the bitter end. Of course, some people do quit or jump to other campaigns. But in my Iowa experience, most of us willingly went down with the ship. Why?
Some of it comes down to money. Even the paltry amount paid to field staffers is preferable to nothing (although since we’re talking about Democrats, I suppose that depends on how much money you can get by going on unemployment). And some of it comes down to laziness and burned bridges. If you quit your job to move to Iowa, chances are you couldn’t easily reverse that process.
But at the end of the day, even on a campaign that isn’t motivated by ideology, it comes down to loyalty. Why else would people spend months getting hung up on by angry voters who want nothing to do with their candidate? Why else would someone spend time pleading with people to come to poorly attended events in microscopic towns where the only restaurant around proudly advertises both steak and pizza? Why else would someone stick around a campaign where new supporters constantly turned out to be confused geriatrics who pushed the wrong button on their phone during a robocall?
Loyalty is the only reason someone would keep up that sort of charade – loyalty not only to the candidate, whom we genuinely liked, but also loyalty to the other idiots who were dumb enough to sign up for the job. Even when I discovered the dump we lived in had bed bugs or when I was forced to kill a bat that flew into my toilet, I didn’t seriously considering leaving. As one friend from the campaign put it, “It was a horrible experience, but all these years later, if anyone who was there with me calls, you can be damn sure I’m picking up the phone.”
There’s also something liberating about working for a campaign where despite your best efforts, nothing really matters. A campaign where combing through a sex-offender registry searching for known Hillary Clinton supporters isn’t frowned upon by an immediate supervisor. A campaign where inconspicuously drinking at your desk while making calls in order to cope with constant rejection was semi-tolerated. A campaign where a surrogate speaker from Minnesota randomly tells a table full of potential supporters about the time his gay friend was killed by a male prostitute while “cruising.”
“He was a black fella, and he was gay. Everybody knew, nobody cared. But one day he picked another fella up and brought him back to his place, and wouldn’t ya know it, the guy bludgeoned him to death.”
Do you think that story went over well with the elderly females at the event? Youbetcha!
While longshot campaigns often attract many staffers of questionable quality (myself included), the same is true when it comes to supporters. Whereas the top tier campaigns are bustling with help, and ideologically-driven campaigns find a niche, the closest thing our office had to a regular volunteer (with the exception of some great IAFF guys) was a semi-homeless drifter with a giant goiter who came around asking for old light bulbs. He was a nice enough guy, as far as drifters go – sort of a local celebrity. He became an unofficial office mascot. But in the end, even he didn’t caucus for Dodd, and went with Obama. And considering the campaign’s answer to Obama’s “Yes We Can!” slogan was “Why Not Dodd?” I couldn’t blame him. Seriously, just look at this ad:
Holy Christ. Whoever took money for that ad should be ashamed. When a campaign’s best attempt at answering the question of why its candidate should be president is “Why Not?” supporters don’t exactly come running. To be fair, I do remember one volunteer who drove from several states away to help with phone calls in the days leading up to the caucus. During his calls he would tell people he hadn’t been this excited about a candidate since Illinois Sen. Paul Simon ran for President in 1988.
If that’s not the authentic word-of-mouth enthusiasm every candidate craves, I don’t know what is.
While longshot campaigns tend to attract their fair share of strange people, that’s not to say there were no legitimate, sane supporters (not to mention all the unconditional support we received from local Democrats who took pity on us even though they were supporting other candidates). The super-fans were few and far between, but they were wonderfully loyal. For example, early on in the campaign, a retired milk truck driver and lifelong Democrat came to me at an event and told me Dodd was “his guy.” He and his wife treated me like a grandson and stuck with us to the very end, probably out of pity, much to the chagrin of my counterpart on the Edwards campaign who was desperate to make his numbers. Why did they stick it out? They didn’t want to go back on their word.
Another wonderful woman in a rural county agreed to support Dodd after hearing him speak at a small rally in her hometown, and she never backed down. One supporter isn’t normally something to brag about, but because her precinct was so small, she actually managed to steal a county delegate from Hillary and give it to Dodd. She almost singlehandedly kept Dodd from tying fringe candidates like Kucinich and Gravel at zero. After it was all over, I sent her flowers. I’m not sure if that’s legal, so don’t tell anyone.
And despite all the negatives, if there’s one thing I took away from the ordeal, it’s that even campaigns that fail miserably can have an unexpected impact on an election. In October of 2007, Hillary was still being touted as the inevitable nominee by the press, and the other campaigns were getting desperate, sensing it was now or never. During a debate in Philadelphia on October 30, Obama and Edwards did their best to land a punch, but nothing would stick. Then, moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton about a recent proposal to give illegal immigrants in her home state driver’s licenses, a move she said “made sense.”
When asked if anyone disagreed, only Sen. Dodd dissented, claiming that despite his strong support of immigration reform, it was the wrong move.
Not wanting to attach herself to a polarizing issue, Clinton quickly backpedaled, claiming she wasn’t actually in favor of the plan.
“Wait a minute. No, no, no,” Dodd said. “You said, yes, you thought it made sense to do it.”
“No, I didn’t,” Clinton replied, channeling the Monty Python argument sketch.
Moments later, Edwards and Obama were piling on Clinton for her doublespeak, and everyone quickly forgot that Dodd was even involved. But that moment marked the beginning of the end for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential ambitions. From then on, her campaign was on the defensive, and the myth of the inevitable candidate was shattered.
I don’t know why Dodd came out against the licenses for undocumented immigrants at the debate. I like to think his experience with the angry crowd earlier in the year played a part, and that he recognized they weren’t all racist hicks (Dodd declined to be interviewed for this article, so who knows?). But, in the end, it did his campaign no good, and millions of dollars later, he came in seventh, finishing behind not only Obama, Edwards, Clinton, Richardson, and Biden, but also the collective “Undecided” vote.
For a man who had spent nearly three decades as a force to be reckoned with in Washington, it had to be a major blow. But surely he saw the defeat coming. Why didn’t he quit before the caucus and save himself the humiliation? It’s the same question you might ask recent candidates like Martin O’Malley and Rand Paul. Hell, unless something radically changes tonight in New Hampshire, you could even ask the same thing to Jeb Bush.
Another high-level staffer told me that by the end of summer, internal polling indicated that the window to caucus viability had clearly closed, but no one would listen. Another consultant I spoke with claimed Dodd was advised to drop out in December, but he refused, holding out hope for a miracle 4th or 5th place finish that might buy him clout for a cabinet position with whomever won.
“You stay in the race because things can break late,” one former staffer told me, citing John Kerry’s Hail Mary-comeback against Howard Dean in the 2004 Iowa Caucus. “You never know what can happen,” he added, referencing the John Edwards sex scandal.
Of course, Edwards’ scandal happened too late, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are a far cry from Howard Dean, but he has a point. After all, if polls are correct, John Kasich is making a last-minute surge in New Hampshire, which no one would have believed just a few days ago. And in light of what happened to Joe Biden, who performed only slightly better than Dodd in Iowa, I suppose the strategy wasn’t all that far fetched.
Unfortunately, it backfired spectacularly. The fact that Dodd had moved his family to Iowa during the caucus didn’t sit well with many constituents back in Connecticut. And the economic collapse of 2008 certainly did the Senate banking chairman no favors, especially considering he’d spent the previous year campaigning out of state using contributions from the financial sector. Fairly or not, it was a bad time to be associated with big business.
Ultimately, he decided not to seek a sixth term in 2010 but managed to push through the Dodd-Frank Act and the Affordable Care Act before leaving office. Regardless of how you feel about his politics, there’s no denying he left his legislative mark on the country. And regardless of the dismal performance of his campaign, there’s no denying his debate performance in Philadelphia left his mark on the 2008 election.
I’m not trying to overstate the importance of candidate who barely made a blip in the caucus. You can certainly argue that Hillary Clinton’s collapse was inevitable, and it would have taken place even without Dodd. But you can just as easily argue that if she had made it through that debate unscathed, she might have cake-walked to the Democratic nomination. We’ll never know what might have happened. All we know is what did happen. And at the end of the day, it was Dodd who drew first blood on the 2007 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and for better or worse, helped change the trajectory of the election. And while his Iowa campaign might have been miserable in most respects, in hindsight, it was one of the most interesting things I’ve experienced.