DES MOINES, Iowa – In what may be the closest caucuses (search) ever, four presidential campaigns are leaving nothing to chance once vote-counting begins Monday night. They're using new technology and old-style political organizations to help their troops barter and beg their way to victory.
"It's Iowa-meets-Washington in an incredibly close race," said Dave Nagle of Waterloo, Iowa, founder and defender of Iowa's caucuses, a three-decades-old staple of presidential politics.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry, all of whom are in contention, will watch their fate play out in schools, living rooms and other meeting sites across the state. Iowa Democrats will divide up and debate the pros and cons of their presidential picks.
Complicated caucus rules allow for vote-switching after the caucuses begin, making polls unreliable and campaign planning chaotic. That doesn't stop strategists from trying.
The fun starts about 5 p.m. Central Time, when precinct captains (search) start gathering at caucus sites. They will begin calling supporters who have not arrived and check off the names of those who have shown up.
At 6 p.m., it's time to "have all supporters with cell phones call supporters not there yet," says a memo titled "Caucus Clock," which was distributed to caucus leaders by one major campaign.
The names and numbers on the precinct captain's list have been methodically collected for months. The average supporter has been called dozens of times - twice on caucus day - and catalogued in a campaign computer by age, sex, profession, policy interests and voting history.
On caucus day alone, the campaigns of Gephardt and Kerry will place 60,000 automated and live telephone calls to supporters. They are told when and where there caucuses will be held. If they need a ride, they've got it.
The caucuses are called to order at 6:30 p.m., and local party business gets taken up first. Precinct captains quickly count heads to determine whether all their supporters have turned out and whether any of their competitors' backers may soon be up for grabs.
Thirty minutes later, caucus-goers split into groups - Edwards voters here, Gephardt people there, Kerry folks in the back and Dean backers along the wall. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, may get a significant showing at a few caucuses.
In most precincts, caucus rules require candidates to draw 15 percent of the room's total or forfeit all of his backers. Voters whose candidates don't make the threshold are fair game.
Supporters of the remaining candidates will pounce on the free agents, plying them with arguments and deals.
"I hope Howard has a few people in there who have trade horses because he there's going to be some horse trading (search)," said Nagle, a Dean supporter.
Dean and Kerry have invested in telephone technology that will allow leaders in selected precincts - about 100 for Kerry and dozens for Dean - to punch the figures into cell phones, which feed the data to campaign headquarters in the state capital.
In Des Moines, Kerry's team will use the numbers to estimate his performance for the night and make sure the media doesn't distort the results based on entry polls. Dean's braintrust will use the new technology to communicate back and forth with precinct captains, helping them keep pace with the fast-moving delegate totals.
Just two weeks ago, some Dean advisers were hoping for a blowout and considering throwing some of his supporters to other campaigns in a bid to reshape the race. That was wishful thinking, a senior Dean official said Thursday, noting that the candidate's lead has evaporated.
Even the strongest campaign will miss the threshold in some precincts. They will try to divide and steer their supporters to other camps that are not a threat to their overall victory plan. But the strategy is difficult to negotiate with four top-tier candidates and, besides, Iowans won't necessarily listen to advice from headquarters.
Referring to Dean's campaign confines in Vermont, Gephardt strategist David Plouffe said, "This notion that Iowans will take instructions from Burlington is fanciful. Our goal is for our people to be ready Monday night, self-sufficient and talking Iowan-to-Iowan."
In past years, free-agent caucus-goers switched their allegiances when promised delegates positions at county conventions. Others demanded the precinct's blessing on a policy for the party platform.
Each of the campaigns are writing memos - or "talking points" - for swaying the free agents. They identify common traits between their candidates and any who might not make the threshold.
For example, the Dean campaign will tell Kucinich backers that Dean also opposed the war in Iraq; Gephardt voters that Dean also wanted to repeal President Bush's tax cuts; Edwards backers that Dean also considers himself a political outsider; and Kerry backers, many of whom are party elite, that Dean is the most like to win.
With Dean's disapproval ratings on the rise, strategists for Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt hope to pick up each others' voters in an anti-Dean rush.
Sometimes, voters realign for reasons that have nothing to do with selecting the most powerful man on earth. The school teacher who came for Kucinich lines up with Gephardt because she shops at his precinct captain's store.
Or vote-switchers swarm to Dean because his corner looks crowded, and nobody wants to line up with a loser in front of the neighbors.
"We all have the sense to know that when you people from out of state leave, we're still neighbors," Nagle said.