WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — In New Hampshire, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign is embracing activities like bowling and a potential poetry reading to forge relationships with activists and voters.
In Iowa, party activists are discussing Senator Elizabeth Warren’s dozens of campaign organizers in awe-struck tones.
And though Joseph R. Biden Jr. started campaigning late in both states — which party leaders have noticed — he is rapidly adding staff in an effort to get fully organized by Labor Day.
Democratic officials and veteran strategists in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that will kick off the 2020 presidential primary, say there is still time for campaigns to build out their organizations in a race they describe as unusually fluid.
On-the-ground organization is hardly a guarantee of gaining the nomination: In 2016, Donald Trump rejected traditional organizing, while one of his most persistent foes, Ted Cruz, had an extensive and innovative operation in Iowa. Mr. Cruz won the state’s Republican caucuses, but was soon overtaken by Mr. Trump.
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But early organizing can be critical for get-out-the-vote operations and is important for candidates who want to capitalize on any bursts of momentum.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, early impressions of the two dozen candidates’ ground-game operations are beginning to form. Here are five takeaways about the organizational state of play for the leading candidates, based on conversations with party activists, campaigns and voters:
Biden has work to do
The former vice president enjoys decades-long friendships with party leaders in both states, and he has accelerated his campaign travel, making an extensive swing through Iowa and New Hampshire in the last week. Multiple Iowa trips are planned for August.
But Mr. Biden starts from behind organizationally. He entered the race at the end of April and began with a lighter public schedule than many of his opponents, allowing other earlier-launching campaigns to lock down experienced talent and build more visible volunteer operations first.
In Iowa especially, the impatience with his efforts among some activists was palpable this month following Mr. Biden’s shaky debut in the first presidential debate.
“Based on that debate performance, it was pretty bad, and you get here and it’s like, ‘Where is he?’” Ryan Marquardt, the vice chair of the Madison County Democrats, said in an interview at a party picnic in West Des Moines before the Fourth of July holiday. A smattering of Biden canvassers were at the event, but were dwarfed by organizers from other campaigns, even as Mr. Biden himself prepared to campaign elsewhere in the state.
In New Hampshire, party activists sounded more encouraging notes. Mr. Biden’s team was visible at a recent event with New Hampshire Young Democrats, and they led cheers to warm up a crowd in Dover (“J-O-E for 603,” a reference to a New Hampshire area code).
“They’re obviously trying to get more people excited,” said Kathy Sullivan, the former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, adding that the Biden outreach “started late simply because he got in late. He didn’t have the hires right away.”
Mr. Biden’s campaign said the team had hired more than 60 people in Iowa and plans to continue hiring through the caucuses. In New Hampshire, they claim to have 44 staff members, with many of them dedicated to organizing. A senior Biden adviser pointed to Labor Day, when more voters traditionally start tuning in to the primary, as a goal for having a robust early-state organization. On Saturday his team planned to host 12 canvassing kickoff events across New Hampshire as part of the campaign’s broader “national day of action.”
Warren is setting the organizational pace
There is a “persistence picnic” slated for Toledo, Iowa, and a “policy potluck” in Cresco. There is a “pints-and-policy” house party scheduled in Des Moines, an evening of acrylic painting in Sioux City and a trivia night in Burlington.
And that’s just a snapshot of the Warren team’s plans for Iowa on Thursday.
“Her people are everywhere,” said Mr. Marquardt, the Madison County official, relaying a story he heard about a Warren campaign representative seeking to recruit supporters in a yoga class. He described her organizers as trying to embed themselves in communities across Iowa, rather than relying exclusively on traditional tactics like phone banking.
In New Hampshire, said Judy Reardon, a veteran Democratic strategist, “They had a robust field staff early on and the field staff has been able to establish themselves in their areas.”
The Warren campaign declined to divulge the exact number of staff members it has in Iowa and New Hampshire, except to say that there are more than 300 people, with 60 percent of those hires based in the first four states, but as of May she had around 50 staffers on the ground in Iowa.
Booker has organizational strength. He needs a breakout moment.
On the Sunday before the first debate, State Representative Kris Schultz, a prominent progressive leader in New Hampshire, joined a call with Mr. Booker and other state officials to hear an update on his campaign. After the debate, his campaign checked in again.
“Cory Booker’s campaign has been amazing in New Hampshire,” said Ms. Schultz, who, like many voters in that state, is still considering a long list of candidates. “They have the A-team for sure.’’
The challenge for Mr. Booker: Despite all of the retail politicking efforts — including 35 events in Iowa and more than 40 appearances in New Hampshire, his campaign said on Thursday — he is routinely mired in the polls at this early stage.
Still, his team has been building for months on the ground, hoping to be well positioned to capitalize on any burst of momentum. He has about 30 staff members in New Hampshire, where his campaign has been engaging with voters since April; in Iowa, he has nearly 50 full-time employees along with more than 80 of his family members who live in the Des Moines area.
Buttigieg and Harris are building out their footprints
Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris were slower to expand their teams in Iowa and New Hampshire than rivals like Ms. Warren and Mr. Booker.
But activists say they are seeing increased activity from both of them.
Ms. Harris is planning a five-day bus tour through Iowa for next month, where she has more than 65 staff members, her campaign said. In New Hampshire, they have 30.
“They’re in the process of building up the ground organization here with all the fund-raising she’s had since the debate,” Ms. Sullivan, the former party chair, said.
In April, Mr. Buttigieg had one employee in New Hampshire, and on May 1, he had four in Iowa. He now has 39 people on staff in New Hampshire. In Iowa, he has more than 50 full-time staff members, as well as 27 paid interns.
Some of his supporters have embraced the term “Pete-up,” — a reference to meet-ups — where attendees are urged to brainstorm about friends and family members who might be interested in learning about Mr. Buttigieg, and to plan ways to connect their networks to the campaign.
The Buttigieg team is also looking for unconventional and even fun ways to build relationships with voters and potential volunteers: There was a bowling event last month in Manchester with his New Hampshire state director (“Feeling in the gutter about the primary? Put a pin in your worries,” the invitation said) and there is now discussion of a poetry event.
Sanders is taking a less traditional path
The Sanders campaign does not take the typical route of prioritizing engagement with local party leaders.
But while other candidates ruffle feathers if they are perceived as ignoring in-state gatekeepers, many activists are now reluctant to question Mr. Sanders’s method after he delivered a stronger-than-expected showing in 2016.
“Four years ago, he didn’t seem to have much on the ground, much going on,” said Jan Bauer, the former Democratic chair of Story County, Iowa, and a longtime party activist. She is supporting Governor Steve Bullock of Montana, but has heard from several other campaigns.
“But come caucus night, everyone discovered there was a lot going on here that was underground.”
Mr. Sanders began his campaign holding big rallies that doubled as opportunities to sign up supporters, and his aides view events as a chance to recruit volunteers and sign them up for the campaign app.
For example, Mr. Sanders did a multi-parade swing through Iowa on the Fourth of July, with his campaign giving out stickers and seeking to engage voters along the way (not everyone was receptive; one father insisted his daughter remove her Sanders sticker).
In New Hampshire, which Mr. Sanders won by around 22 percentage points in 2016, he has a core of die-hard supporters that helps ensure an on-the-ground presence, despite slipping in the polls recently.
“Bernie obviously has the lion’s share of his activists and volunteers with him from just four years ago,” said New Hampshire’s Democratic Party Chairman, Raymond Buckley. “It makes it pretty easy to build a solid foundation from.”
His campaign did not respond to requests for information on how many employees it has in the early states, but it announced earlier this month that it had 45 staff members in New Hampshire.