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Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Patient Bob Clem, of Sioux City, pets Gracie, a therapy dog owned by Ran Newberg, on Wednesday at UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's in Sioux City.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Great Southern Bank has donated to the Sioux City Journal's Goodfellows Charity. Employees are shown Oct. 22 at the bank's downtown Sioux City location.

Campaign organization could be critical; Warren’s team still tops

DES MOINES -- With an historically large field of Democratic presidential candidates and a race that appears destined for a closely contested finish, campaign organization is poised to play a critical role in determining the outcome of this year’s Iowa caucuses.

Organizing is always critical to success in the Iowa presidential precinct caucuses, the first official step in the process of picking the next U.S. president. Every four years, caucus campaigns work to identify, engage and ultimately turn out supporters on caucus night. The strategies vary, but the bottom line remains the same: make contact with as many people in as many places as possible, and convince them to stand in a room on caucus night in support of the candidate.

There are many candidates from which to choose this time around: 18 officially. And much of the field is well-liked by Iowa Democrats. So the competition for support is fierce.

And the race has become competitive, with four candidates --- Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden --- leading the pack in polling on the race. In the most recent poll in Iowa, those four leaders were separated by just 5 percentage points.

That makes the work of those caucus campaign organizations over the next three months even more crucial. This year, as much as ever in Iowa, those organizations’ performance will go a long way toward deciding which campaigns are successful on caucus night.

“The stakes are so much higher and it really does put more emphasis on the ground game,” said Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democrats.

The consensus among political watchers in Iowa is that Warren has the most impressive caucus campaign organization. The U.S. Senator from Massachusetts made an early, significant investment in her organization here, a move that was met at the time with some skepticism. The question was whether it made sense, still almost a year out from the caucuses, to invest that much money into a campaign organization at a time when precious few people were truly paying attention to the race.

Nine months later, Warren’s campaign organization remains the gold standard, and her support has grown steadily to the point where she has become the consistent leader in polls on the race in Iowa, albeit by narrow margins.

“At the time she got some guff for taking that big bet so early, but it seems like it paid off for her,” Bagniewski said. “It seems like she’s the odds-on favorite to win the caucuses because of that organization, because of that team, because of the work she’s put in here.”

Warren’s campaign has more than 20 offices and more than 100 paid staffers, and has held organizing events in all 99 counties, according to the campaign. Warren events have become well-known for the “selfie lines,” in which supporters line up to have a photo taken with her. And that presents yet another opportunity for her staff to engage supporters.

“Early on (the Warren campaign) went heavy with the organizing in Iowa, and I don’t think that has changed. They’ve continued to expand, and they got a huge head start,” said Sam Roecker, a veteran political strategist in Iowa who earlier this cycle worked on John Hickenlooper’s now-defunct campaign.

Warren said the decision to invest in a grassroots campaign early in Iowa aligns with her overarching campaign theme of building a government that works for all Americans, not just the wealthiest.

“If the only way that we can select a Democratic nominee for president is to go suck up to corporate executives and lobbyists and billionaires, then our democracy will keep working better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top,” Warren said in an interview. “So for me it was important to run a real grassroots campaign --- not a photo-op campaign, but a real grassroots campaign. That meant financed by grassroots donors and it meant spending that first money that came in on field organizers ...

“I think of what our team does every day as repairing our democracy just a little bit.”

The Buttigieg team turned a big summer of fundraising into a robust Iowa caucus campaign organization, one that has grown to rival Warren’s.

The Buttigieg campaign also estimates it has more than 20 offices and more than 100 staffers across the state.

That boost in campaign organization has coincided with --- and perhaps aided --- a rise in the polls for Buttigieg, who has surged to where he now has the second-highest rolling average in Iowa polls, behind only Warren, according to Real Clear Politics.

“It seems like they’re catching up fast and building that organization,” Roecker said of the Buttigieg campaign. “It seems like over the past month or two they’re one of the ones that they’ve really come together and made organizing and building that team a priority.”

That organizational growth was apparent at the state party’s recent fall fundraiser in Des Moines, where the Buttigieg campaign put on a show that included a downtown rally before the event and choreographed, flashing lights inside the stadium during the show.

The Buttigieg supporters’ organizational display was on par with the Warren team’s, which was similarly impressive.

“They’ve built quite a team that really has risen to the occasion. They’re behind Warren, but for them to be in the position they are really is impressive,” Bagniewski said of the Buttigieg campaign. “It has been impressive to watch.”

The Buttigieg campaign says it has focused on relationship-based organizing. Instead of focusing only on making phone calls, the organization works to create events like house parties where supporters can invite friends, family, co-workers and neighbors.

Sanders’ campaign has 112 staff working out of 12 offices across the state, with plans to add more in the coming weeks, the campaign said. True to the candidate’s message of leading a political revolution led by the grassroots, the Sanders campaign claims thousands of volunteers have held more than 1,600 organizing events in Iowa, including phone banks, community canvasses, and training.

“We are taking the most ambitious path to the nomination, relying on our ability to energize and mobilize constituencies that are often the most difficult to turn out, including first-time voters, students and young voters, working class people with multiple jobs and low-income voters who feel ignored by our political process,” Misty Rebik, the Sanders campaign’s Iowa director, wrote recently in a memo to staff and supporters.

Both the Sanders and Biden campaigns said their goal is to have a precinct captain in each of Iowa’s 1,600-plus precincts.

The Biden team has easily the most campaign offices: 24 with more potentially to come. The Biden team also has roughly 100 staffers working in Iowa.

The Biden campaign has focused on direct voter contact --- a different approach than the relational strategy by the Buttigieg campaign --- and has worked to capitalize on the former vice president’s many personal relationships in Iowa and robust databases of supporters and potential supporters, the campaign said.

Biden’s polling average in Iowa has slipped in recent weeks, although he has remained in the top tier and competitive with his fellow front-runners.

“At the end of the day it’s a good, old-fashioned organizing, and it’s built on relationships,” Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz said. “And we’re fortunate that we have the candidate that understands the importance of relationships.”

Bagniewski and Roecker said Amy Klobuchar’s campaign, which saw a slight polling bump after the most recent debate, has grown and could help the U.S. Senator from Minnesota sustain her momentum.

For Klobuchar and the rest of the field, however, Bagniewski said time is running out for candidates to get hot. And if they do, it may be too late to grow an organization in a way that can be competitive with the four front-runners.

Cory Booker’s team also made an early, significant investment in Iowa. His support has not grown like Warren’s --- Booker’s rolling average in Iowa polls is just more than 1 percent. Despite that, Booker said recently during an episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa Public Television that he believes that organization is what can help him pull off an underdog success story in Iowa.

“That is how you win Iowa. That is how (John) Kerry who was polling at 4 percent went on to win,” Booker said. “I’ve won every election, as I was saying earlier, as a grassroots underdog insurgent. That is how we’re going to win here and we’re going to win it by going directly to the people if we can build the organization to sustain it.”

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Saluting veterans
Sioux City VFW canteen closure a sign of changing times for veterans groups

SIOUX CITY -- The interior of the Sgt. Floyd VFW Post 1973 canteen resembles a garage sale more than a place where veterans could share a beer, swap stories and listen to people sing karaoke.

Dishes, glasses, table decorations and other assorted items -- all for sale -- cover tables inside the building at 2126 Court St., where the VFW post has met and welcomed the public since the late 1970s.

On Sept. 15, the canteen closed for good, due to changing times that saw fewer and fewer people coming in to hang out. It's a far cry from 1993, when post commander Lee Fischer, fresh out of the Army, joined the VFW. Back then, the canteen drew crowds to listen to music, have a few drinks and socialize.

"When I came back, this place was really hopping," Fischer said. "It seemed like it was always busy here."

[Read more: 96-year old Wakefield veteran recounts his Utah Beach story, 75 years later.]

That changed over the years. Post members got older. Younger veterans, busy with jobs and young families, have more activities competing for their time and choose not to join. Nightly crowds at the canteen dwindled, and the building began to need costly repairs. After some difficult discussions, post leadership decided it was time to close the canteen.

"Our post is still open. We're still trying to help veterans," said Fischer, an Operation Desert Storm veteran. "The canteen just wasn't making it anymore."

The VFW post's situation undoubtedly sounds familiar to members of veterans organizations across Siouxland. Faced with aging membership and the deaths of scores of dedicated members from the World War II and Korean War generation, groups like the VFW and American Legion find it challenging to continue to perform basic functions such as providing honor guards at veterans' funerals, much less operate a bar.

Many veterans returning from deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq or other Middle East countries have children involved in a host of activities. Understandably, young veterans nowadays have less time to devote to activities that don't directly involve their families.

Jesse Brothers, Sioux City Journal 

Sgt. Floyd VFW Post 1973 Commander Lee Fischer shows items for sale at the post's canteen, 2126 Court St. The canteen closed Sept. 15 because of dwindling attendance.

"It's hard to get new members," Fischer said. "People have a whole lot busier lives now."

As a result, some veterans groups are downsizing, trying to save limited resources so they can continue to serve their members and communities.

With declining memberships and two old buildings not easily accessible to aging veterans who used walkers or wheelchairs, two Sioux City American Legion posts -- Edward Monahan Post 64 and Duane M. Nelson Post 1981 -- merged in 2014 to form the American Legion Monahan-Nelson Post 64.

The merger and move to a renovated building at 4201 Floyd Blvd. have helped membership remain steady, post commander Dennis Hageman said.

"We've got more attending our meetings," Hageman said.

PHOTOS: 19th century Sioux City Corn Palaces

With the larger membership resulting from the merger, the Legion post has remained active, Hageman said, sponsoring Iowa Boys State participants and a girls softball team, forming a Legion riders motorcycle group and providing color and honor guards at veterans' funerals. Several members gather on Tuesday mornings for coffee, breakfast and conversation.

The purpose of veterans organizations goes beyond providing a place to share a few drinks or tell war stories, Fischer said. The groups help fellow veterans, whether it be providing a ride to a Veterans Administration clinic or giving financial assistance to someone facing an emergency. Fischer pitches potential members on that service to other veterans when asking them to consider joining.

"Just to support your other veterans. You might need support some time," said Fischer, who said the post's membership numbers are holding steady.

VFW Post 1973 hopes closing the canteen will allow the members to continue that support. Fischer said the post will sell the building, which includes three apartments upstairs, plus all the furnishings.

[More Veterans Day coverage: South Sioux City's Freedom Park allows visitors to reflect on veterans' sacrifices.]

"Nobody really wants to, but we're hoping it's for the best," Fischer said.

With proceeds from the sale, the VFW hopes to relocate and reopen the canteen. In the meantime, the Monahan-Nelson American Legion has agreed to allow the VFW to hold its meetings at its post.

There are many members who belong to both organizations, Hageman said, so it makes sense for the Legion to open its doors to the VFW.

"We're all fighting for the same thing," he said.

Meanwhile, both organizations will do what posts in other communities continue to do, recruit new members who will hopefully carry on their missions. If they can't, it doesn't matter where they meet or if they have a canteen -- there won't be enough people involved.

"If we don't have volunteers and members, we can't help people," Fischer said.

Decades: 40 photos looking back at Sioux City in the 1920s