Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Devoted Volunteers Build Foundation for Palin in Iowa

From: Real Clear Politics

Last December, Michelle McCormick penned a letter to Sarah Palin, addressed it to her political action committee, and dropped it in the mail.

An unassuming 28-year-old north Texan who works in the oil and gas industry, McCormick had experienced a family crisis similar to the one that had befallen Palin's family when the former Alaska governor's daughter Bristol became pregnant in 2008. McCormick wanted to let Palin know that how the vice presidential candidate handled the situation while in the national spotlight helped guide McCormick through her own family difficulties.

McCormick didn't harbor much hope that she would get a response, but about three weeks later she received a personal reply from Palin.

Six months later, McCormick now spends every weekend (and an increasing number of weekdays) in the nation's first voting state of Iowa attending GOP Central Committee meetings, collecting names of activists in counties across the state, and doing other volunteer organizing in advance of a Palin presidential campaign that she considers inevitable.

"If she was willing to take the time to respond to somebody who is a nobody in Texas, that just shows me what kind of heart she has," McCormick told RCP. "She's a very high-profile individual, and she's got a lot of people making demands on her, and I thought this is someone I really want to help get into the White House."

McCormick is one of the more devoted members of a dedicated nationwide group called Organize4Palin, in which an all-volunteer effort is setting the groundwork for a Palin presidential launch that its members believe is only a matter of time.

Although Organize4Palin purports to have active chapters in over 30 states, the backbone of its operation is in Iowa, where Palin would likely have to win the caucuses in order to remain a viable candidate, if she were to enter the race.

"It's not cheap, but I try to budget and don't go on extra shopping trips, and I don't have cable," said McCormick, who has been staying in inexpensive hotels and supporters' homes during her travels across Iowa since March. "We do have a pretty big caffeine budget."

McCormick said that she is "100 percent" sure Palin will run for president, and is considering moving to Iowa full time while she awaits an announcement. If she does move to the Hawkeye State, McCormick would be following in the footsteps of Peter Singleton, a 58-year-old California lawyer who has been leading the charge in Iowa, where he has made his home for the past eight months.

When Singleton first visited the state in August 2010 -- with a vague notion of planting seeds for Palin ahead of the caucuses that were still a year-and-a-half away -- he was so unfamiliar with the political environment here that he had to Google "election AND Iowa" before plotting his initial moves ahead of the midterms that November. Almost a year later, Singleton is no longer a political novice.

"I've probably met with 1,000 people in this state in one-on-one meetings or a couple people at a time," he said. "The one-on-one meetings and the two- and three-people meetings are the heart and soul of what we're doing, and believe me, the other guys don't do that. They take a radically different approach."

Singleton has become such a fixture in Iowa politics that he is often confused for a SarahPAC staffer when conducting his work. While professing certitude that Palin will seek the presidency, Singleton is equally emphatic that he has had no direct involvement with the potential candidate.

Asked about a phone conversation he was overheard having with Palin aide Rebecca Mansour a few hours before the pro-Palin documentary, "The Undefeated," premiered here last Tuesday, Singleton paused for several seconds before offering a nothing-to-see-here explanation.

"Rebecca and I are friends," he said, explaining that they met years ago on the website "She was probably asking me what the crowd was like and how things were going."

At the cookout that followed the premiere of the film, it was clear that it was Singleton -- and not any paid Palin staffer -- who was running the show as he dealt with logistics and worked to introduce attendees to one another.

With just a short time to prepare the event, Singleton showed off the reach of his Iowa rolodex as he took the lead in cultivating an invitation list that resulted in nearly 1,000 Iowans attending the barbeque outside the Pella Opera House. The crowd included local residents and rank-and-file Palin supporters, who mingled with a few prominent state Republicans, including 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats and Secretary of State Matt Schultz.

Schultz told RCP that he received his invitation only the day before the event from Richard Rogers, who identified himself as the Organize4Palin regional director for Polk and Story counties.

"When I've been around the state at different events, I've seen different volunteers for Organize4Palin where they've set up booths and have tried to get people interested," Schultz said. "I thought the event was very well organized. I was impressed with how Governor Palin stayed around and met with a lot of people and didn't just come and leave. . . . I enjoyed the movie and my impression of her increased as a result."

Singleton, who is not independently wealthy, says he is making a significant financial sacrifice by volunteering almost all his time to a campaign that does not yet exist -- and may never. That uncertainty raises one delicate question: If Palin has already decided against a White House bid, as many political observers have concluded, is it callous of her to tacitly encourage Singleton, McCormick and the untold number of other supporters to continue setting the stage for her?

Last Tuesday in Pella, Palin had an opportunity to signal to those devoted volunteers to pack up and go home when asked by this reporter what she thought about their efforts. Surrounded by a crush of supporters and journalists on her way into the cookout, Palin instead replied that she "greatly appreciated" the efforts of volunteer organizers, especially because of their willingness to support someone who is "untraditional" and "not a part of the Republican establishment."

This encouragement is certain to inspire them to redouble their efforts going forward.

Despite Palin's lack of a readily apparent game plan, Singleton and McCormick profess confidence that she has a strategy for winning the Republican nomination, even if it is not always clear what it is. Neither has actually ever met Palin, and in Pella last Tuesday, they appeared more eager to chat with influential Iowans and everyday caucus-goers than to get a glimpse of the star of the show.

"We're not experienced political operatives, although we're certainly getting experience," Singleton told me.

"There are things you can't do if you don't have a campaign. We see the other candidates, and they have money and structure. So we're not trying to be a campaign -- we're not authorized to be one -- but what we can do, we're doing quite well. We're developing really substantive relationships across the state."

Soldiers for the Cause

Although Singleton has made himself increasingly available to the press, neither he nor McCormick has aggressively sought media attention. They come across as laid-back when discussing the limits of their crusade. And each reacted with similar humility when asked why they're not worried about getting more feedback from the woman to whom they have essentially devoted their lives.

"The way I look at it is, we're soldiers," Singleton said. "We're holding a patch of dirt, and when we get reinforcements and when we get air power, those aren't decisions we make. We don't worry a lot about the things that we don't have any control over."

Singleton and McCormick may be the chief out-of-state amateur operatives in Iowa on Palin's behalf, but they are not alone. Their efforts are bolstered by a substantial network of state residents whom they have signed up to help in their endeavors. No one would reveal just how many Organize4Palin volunteers are on the ground in Iowa, but several sources told RCP that the group has had a presence in the vast majority of the state's 99 counties.

Myrna Beeber, a 68-year-old registered nurse from Guthrie County in west-central Iowa, first met Singleton at a Palin book signing in Des Moines late last year and has been actively organizing on her behalf since March.

Beeber now speaks the language of a campaign operative and paints a picture of an organization that may be lacking in political experience but nonetheless has a structure in place that is as impressive as the passion of its members.

"I'm a regional director, so I have nine counties that I work with," says Beeber. "I go to their central committee meetings, I speak with people, and I tell them what we're doing. I get cards filled out. We're building a database of people, and whether they're supporters or not is irrelevant, and I'll tell you why I say that: If you're acquainted with Sarah Palin at all, she's a magnet. When she hits the ground in Iowa, it's going to be a tornado, and everyone will be drawn to her."

The conventional wisdom of most Iowa GOP officials and operatives is that Palin has already missed the boat, and that other candidates -- particularly Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- have filled the void that the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee created by not actively making her presence felt in the state over the last few months.

The palpable dismissiveness that many top state Republicans have developed toward the idea of a Palin candidacy is evident, even when it is masked by a heavy dose of Iowa niceness. But conversations with some of the less-familiar faces involved in the run-up to the 2012 caucuses produce a more favorable picture of Palin's level of support here -- and the outline of how it might expand exponentially if she were to enter the race.

"When Sarah Palin's name comes up, one of the reactions from Republicans here is she has too many negatives and can't win, but I think that's just talking points that they like to regurgitate," says Iowa Rep. Walt Rogers, who says that he would support Palin if she were to run. "I like her because I think she has character, wisdom, vision and courage. All those things make a good leader to me. I think she would change the whole paradigm of the race."

Rogers, whose House district encompasses parts of Waterloo and Cedar Falls, said that he first met Peter Singleton in February or March and has been immensely impressed with his efforts.

"He has certainly worked hard and gotten himself out there and been to almost every county, and he's got a good handle of the relational and structural dynamics of what's taking place," Rogers said. "If she were to announce, I think the grass-roots campaign that's already there would kick into high gear, and it would be not far behind -- if not ahead of -- all the campaigns that are out there now."

Madison County GOP Chairman Joe Van Ginkel, who attended the film premiere in Pella at Singleton's invitation, said that he is officially neutral in the race but would likely back Palin if she were to get in. Like Rogers, Van Ginkel has been impressed with the scope of Organize4Palin's reach in the state.
"The funny thing is she hasn't declared, but they're set up better than anybody," he said.

The Clock Is Ticking

But even with someone as unconventional as Palin, certain exigencies of the political calendar still apply. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did not officially launch their successful presidential campaigns until the fall, but each future president had done significant behind-the-scenes legwork before then, and even Palin's most ardent Iowa supporters generally agree with the prevailing wisdom that a post-Labor Day launch would be exceedingly difficult to pull off.

"Having worked on three caucus campaigns myself in the past, she's going to have to have a structure to it if she wants to run because it's all about talking to people not once, but two, three, four times," Steve Scheffler, the president of the influential Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, told RCP. "Surrogates can do that to some extent, but in the end, the candidate is going to have to make the closing deal."

Organize4Palin's volunteers insist they are not just tilting at windmills. Instead of using their limited resources primarily to target elected officials and established operatives, for instance, Singleton and his crew have devoted more of their time and energy toward making significant inroads with the burgeoning Iowa tea party.
Craig Bergman, a state tea party stalwart who has worked in politics for 20 years, including stints on the Alan Keyes and Ron Paul presidential campaigns, said that Palin is well positioned to make some serious noise.

"Her grass-roots support is times 10 what Ron Paul's is," Bergman said. "The Ron Paul people are very intense but narrowly focused, whereas Palin attracts lawyers, doctors, soccer moms, business people, young people, all across the gamut. They're not as rabidly intense, but there are many, many more of them."

Bergman predicted that Palin would be the front-runner in Iowa "the minute she declares," which he expects her to do, in part to preserve her political brand that he says will die out if she instead sticks to the cable-TV and paid-speech circuit and lets down the devoted supporters who are counting on her candidacy.

"People are looking for someone who is a leader -- someone who will take the fight on the issues to Obama," Bergman said before dismissing the idea that Palin would suffer from being perceived as unelectable. "A lawn chair could beat Barack Obama with 10 percent unemployment and $4 a gallon gas. That means Jon Huntsman could do it; that means probably anybody but Mitt Romney, because RomneyCare is so demotivating."

Palin would need about 30 days to organize ahead of the Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 13, according to Bergman, who believes that she should participate in the traditional early demonstration of support.

Organize4Palin has not yet decided whether to lead a major straw poll push, but Singleton said that he has no doubt about Palin's willingness to hit the ground hard once she gets in.

"We're happy to have the other guys completely underestimate us or completely not see what we're doing, because first of all, they have formidable resources that we don't have," he said. "Also, we plan for the other guys to bring their 'A' game and make no mistakes. But when they make unforced errors like underestimating what we're doing, that's great."

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