Just Show Up: A Field Guide to Campaign Volunteering in Iowa – as an Asian American from California

An Iowan neighborhood canvassed by the author. (Photo credit: Kevin Xu)

By Guest Contributor: Kevin Xu, Model Majority Podcast

Last week, I traveled from my home in San Francisco, California to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was my first visit to Iowa, and what better way to travel the state than as a campaign volunteer? I’m a political junkie, and the Iowa Caucus has always held a certain mystique: the complex and archaic caucuses procedures, the cold harsh winter warmed only by Midwestern charm and hospitality, the first ballots in the presidential primary — how could I not be enthralled? 

I wanted to experience it. I wanted to help. And I wanted to represent the Asian American community out on the campaign trail in my own small way.

So here’s what I did to make it all work.

I wanted to experience it. I wanted to help. And I wanted to represent the Asian American community out on the campaign trail in my own small way.

Pre-game

Two weeks before the caucuses, I reached out to a handful of campaigns via their out-of-state volunteer sign up forms, providing my name, email, phone number, where I would be going, and which day(s) I planned to be available.

Because I was (and still am) open to supporting multiple candidates in the Democratic field, I wanted to volunteer for multiple candidates — all of whom I like for different reasons. Because I could only be in Iowa for four days, I decided that I would volunteer for the first three campaigns that responded to my outreach. I also saw this is as an opportunity to assess which campaigns were most organized and responsive to volunteers. (I told you I’m a junkie right?). 

The first three campaigns to respond were the Warren, Biden, and Yang campaigns. Before I booked my flight, I asked each campaign where in Iowa they most needed volunteers, and all three said the Cedar Rapids area. So I booked my flight to the Eastern Iowa Airport.

 (Out-of-state volunteers can also ask a campaign for “supporter housing”: a spare couch or bed in the home of a local campaign supporter. However,this is a pretty big ask. When I worked as a presidential campaign field organizer, I remember being exhausted trying to find extra beds and couches from my strongest supporters, many of whom were already doing a lot of work for the campaign. For my trip to Iowa, I didn’t want to burden another field organizer with that task. But if you don’t have the means and still want to volunteer, make the ask and see what happens.)

After booking my flight, my La Quinta Inn room on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, and a rental car, it was time to pack up and go. Iowa is cold, and I’ve never experienced a Midwestern winter before, so I just packed my entire ski outfit as well as some extra layers. I was ready for the worst Iowa weather could throw at me.

Before boarding my flight, I downloaded all the episodes of the Des Moines Register’s “Three Tickets” podcast, which explains all the history, strategy, and idiosyncrasies of the Iowa Caucus. I could think of no better way to pre-game for this adventure.

Canvassing

The main (perhaps only) thing you do during the final stretch of an election is canvassing: go door-to-door in a neighborhood selected by the campaign to have face-to-face conversations with voters about your candidate. 

It’s exhausting work, but it’s definitely not a waste of time. In-person conversations are still the most impactful way to both turn out an existing supporter and to persuade an undecided voter.

Face-to-face interactions are extra important for the Iowa Caucus, because caucusing itself is an in-person activity where local voters show up to their respective caucuses to physically show their candidate preferences in front of their neighbors. (For more details on how a caucus actually works, listen to this Model Majority Podcast episode on Caucus 101.) Canvassing really moves the needle more than most other voter contact activities (such as phone banking or text banking) and most campaigns focus their resources on this activity during the final days before an election.

Every campaign provides canvasser training. A staffer will tell you where to go, give you a packet containing a map and a list of voters to contact, and a sample script for what to say if someone answers the door. Armed with this, and maybe a few personal anecdotes about the candidate and the campaign, you’re ready to go, either by yourself or with a more experienced partner who can help show you the ropes. 

I ended up canvassing alone mostly because I wanted to knock on as many doors and to talk to as many people as possible. I knocked on a few hundred doors, and for about 70%, people weren’t home. But, out of the people I did connect with, the conversations ranged widely: I met voters who were definitely supporting the candidate I was representing, undecided voters who wanted to hear my opinion, voters who weren’t planning to caucus, and even a few confused Republicans.

Without exception, everyone was nice and cordial — even if they were not interested in talking to me. Iowans are used to strangers knocking on their doors during campaign season. Midwestern nice is real. 

Canvassing is a massive data collection operation. You record everything you do, and return that information to the campaign so it can be uploaded immediately into the campaign’s database. This is how campaign senior staff can maintain a real-time, macro-level view of the campaign, and adjust strategy and resource allocation as necessary.

Without good volunteers, there is no good data. Without good data, there is no winning campaign. 

Caucus-goers prepare to caucus in Iowa. (Photo credit: Kevin Xu)

Caucus Day

On the morning of Caucus Day, I received a surprise assignment from one of the campaigns: they wanted me to be a precinct captain!

I was to be the campaign’s representative at one of the 1,681 caucuses on Caucus Day. I was to be friendly and helpful to the Precinct Caucus Chair, a local volunteer from the Democratic Party in charge of running the caucus. I would set up a corner in the caucus room with campaign signage so supporters for my candidate would know where to go during the caucus. I was also to generally observe and make sure the caucus proceeds correctly according to the rules. For that last duty, I received training on all the caucus rules and math. 

This was my chance to see a caucus up close!

The precinct I was assigned to was in a small town of roughly 600 people. The location was in the library of the local elementary school. As we got closer to 7pm — the official caucus start time — people started streaming in.

It was pretty clear that I wasn’t a local. So, I introduced myself and my purpose, and everyone treated me nicely. Many were impressed and thankful that I came all the way from California to help with their caucus.

In all, about 20 people showed up. The conversations among caucus-goers during the persuasion period (called “realignment”, detailed in episode 3 of the “Three Tickets” podcast) were incredibly respectful and civil, even and especially when disagreements come up. Civil discourse is alive and well in small town America. Everyone, from the local mayor and math teacher, to the recent high school grad and former student of that same math teacher, got a chance to speak and share their views. People listened respectfully. Even a Republican showed up and switched his party just to participate, and he was treated as warmly as the lifelong Democrats. 

Part of the caucus proceeding that rarely receives media attention is that all attendees are asked about the issues they want to see on their party’s official platform. This can influence state-level government priorities. In my caucus, a retiree passionately talked about climate change and how that would affect his grandchildren. A mother shared her view on how this small town of ~600 is a “child care desert” and encouraged people to work with her to build the town’s first child care service. Another woman talked about her desire to see better foreign policy, so America can be respected in the world and be a positive force. 

Iowans are informed voters, and they care about a wide range of issues — from the hyper-local to the super-global.

I won’t pile on to all the discussions about this particular Iowa Caucus being a huge debacle. You can read about that literally everywhere. For what it’s worth, I had a great time being part of this Iowa caucus. My experiences restored my faith in civil discourse more than anything else I’ve witnessed in the last three years. 

I had a great time being part of this Iowa caucus. My experiences restored my faith in civil discourse more than anything else I’ve witnessed in the last three years.

Should You Do It?

In short: absolutely!

I know being able to take time off work, travel to another state on your own dime, and work for free for a political candidate is a luxury and a privilege. It’s not something everyone can afford.

But, if you do have both the means and the motivation, the experience is unforgettable. During my four-day stay in Iowa, I met passionate volunteers who came from San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Delaware, and even Paris! Volunteering and canvassing is not only a good way to exercise our civic duty, it’s the most effective way to burst out of our bubbles, interact with different communities, and continue growing our empathy for others. You don’t have to travel to faraway places to do it; you can and should also consider volunteering for a local campaign. You never know what you might learn going door-to-door even in your own neighborhood!

Volunteering and canvassing is not only a good way to exercise our civic duty, it’s the most effective way to burst out of our bubbles, interact with different communities, and continue growing our empathy for others.

One last note: representation. I was often one of the only, if not the only, Asian person in a campaign office, a training session, and certainly in my small town caucus location. I wish I’d seen more people from our community. My experiences show that you don’t need to know anyone on a campaign to volunteer for one.

I hope this guide can help many more Asian Americans get politically involved. We can’t all be ceiling-shattering Hollywood stars, barrier-breaking athletes, or trail-blazing political figures. But we can all show up to any campaign to volunteer, contribute, make our voices heard, make our faces seen, and let everyone notice that Asian Americans of all stripes and colors are politically engaged, too. 

All it takes is showing up.


Kevin Xu is co-host of the Model Majority Podcast and former White House Policy Communications staffer for the Obama administration.

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