Tomorrow evening, the citizens of Iowa will make the first concrete decisions in the Democratic National Convention delegate selection process. Speculation runs to two extremes.
Either John Kerry's surge in every Iowa poll represents a candidate about to stun his opponents with a finish much stronger than anyone expected just 10 days ago - maybe even an outright win - or the reputedly superior campaign organizations represented by Howard Dean's legion of imported supporters and Dick Gephardt's army of so-called 'big union bosses' will prevail, crushing the Kerry insurgency and consigning him to also-ran status on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.
I've been reluctant to issue a prediction for the Iowa outcome. It's still very fluid, and even with all the good news for Kerry, hard to call. As a great political philosopher once observed, there are the known knowns, and the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns, and the unknowing knowers and the knowing...well, you get the point.
There's also the danger of falling short of high expectations, which has made an outright Kerry win The Outcome Which Must Not Be Named.
Still, I'm feeling pretty confident. Cocky, even.
Because I think the known unknown that the punditocracy has most dramatically underestimated is the Kerry ground operation. There are questions, as I posted about earlier, about the effectiveness of Dean's out of state enthusiasts, and no matter what Joe Trippi says about his 'hard count,' it's really too hard to count. Gephardt's union support seems rock-solid, and they'll show up tomorrow, but they don't seem to push him much over the 20% mark.
There are a few Kerry factors, though, that seem to escape almost everybody's notice.
First, a name I've mentioned in passing elsewhere. Michael Whouley.
Whouley is a master of on the ground organizing and has intimate familiarity with Iowa at ground level. While Joe Trippi seems to have spent a lot of the last week pursuing his new-found love affair with news cameras, spinning his count and his canvassers, Whouley has been virtually invisible, just doing the work. The work he does, though, has provided success time after time. Give him enough tools, and he'll build you a victory.
So what's in Michael Whouley's toolbox? A number of things that have gotten as little attention as the mastermind himself.
First, there's Iowa Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge, First Lady Christie Vilsack, Attorney General Tom Miller and 27 state legislators, each with their own network of relationships and political operations, each with their political reputations staked on a Kerry win. Those thirty endorsements could represent hundreds of influential Iowans standing up and speaking out for John Kerry tomorrow night. The impact on the undecideds and second ballot switchers could be especially important.
Then there's the veterans. The campaign is estimating 10,000 veterans will stand for Kerry at the caucuses. It's probably the element of the campaign that's received the most attention, and it's attention that's well deserved. The impact could be immense - there are no doubt precincts where Kerry will reach threshold on the basis of the veteran's vote alone. While the Dean camp continually complains about being underpolled because many of their supporters are first time caucusers, so are many of the Kerry vets. A fair number of them, in fact, are first time Democrats.
One of the most widely overlooked groups backing Kerry are the volunteer firefighters. They're spread througout every corner of the state, and they're among the most respected members of every rural community. They're opinion leaders by virtue of their service to their neighbors. While they may not be huge in number, they're potentially enourmous in influence.
There's also been a significant outreach to the women's vote, which has netted a statewide network of Women For Kerry who have committed to bring five friends to their caucus.
Finally, there's the second ballot. Supporters of campaigns that fall below 15% will have a chance to join a campaign that's reached the plateau of viability. Some of them won't, if history is any indication. Iowa caucusers aren't shy about going forward as Uncommitted, and a certain number will doubtless decide not to decide again this year. The questions are where those who make a second choice will come from, and where they will go.
I'm prone to assume that Dean and Gephardt will have threshold virtually everywhere. That's a tougher proposition for Edwards, whose growning popularity is reported to have outrun his organization. Given a couple more weeks, he might walk away with the whole thing, but I doubt that there's time.
Kucinich may collect a handful of delegates in some college precincts, but in most places, he'll be lucky to turn out a handful of adherents. There are some Clark loyalists who are going to stand for a candidate who isn't running in their state, but they'll generally be orphaned after the first count.
So where do they go? How likely is an Edwards supporter (probably the lion's share of the potential switchers) to go to Dean or Gephardt? Not very, I'd argue. They'll split between Uncommitted and Kerry, depending on local circumstances. Some of the Kucinich loyalists might find themselves in the Dean camp just on the war issue, but I suspect most of them will head for the Uncommitted corner as well. Someone stubborn enough to stand for Clark in the first place is likely to go into the uncommitted column as well.
The net effect? An extra 3-5% for Kerry, and a bulge in the Uncommitted column.
While Gephardt turns to hard hats in hard times, and Dean counts on high tech and hard counts, the Kerry ground campaign is all about high touch and people who count.
Plus/minus a couple in every case...