How to Survive and Thrive in Iowa — Words of Wisdom from Former Staffers

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 18, 2019 · 11:20 AM EDT

With less than 10 months to go before the Iowa caucuses, hundreds of Democrats have descended on the Hawkeye State to organize and energize voters. Only one candidate will finish first on Feb. 3 — and ultimately, there will be only one presidential nominee — but the experience can be invaluable to younger staff and could help the party in future years.

In 2004, Missouri Democrat Richard A. Gephardt was the early favorite as a neighboring congressman who narrowly won the 1988 presidential caucuses. Gephardt finished fourth, but his Iowa team was an impressive compilation of young talent who went on to help Democrats take back the White House, Senate, House and state legislatures around the country.

Fifteen years later, a dozen of them were more than willing to offer some advice to operatives toiling in the early states, particularly Iowa.

John Lapp (Iowa state director, Gephardt 2004)
“Iowa is an amazing, unique, beautiful place. Embrace it. Keep your head down, work hard, and be loyal. Be willing to do anything rather than just the photo-op type detail. In Democratic politics, there is too often a sense of looking for the next big thing — even quitting for another campaign when it seems like your candidate is down and out. You keep your head high, fight until the last dog dies. And I think that is the real secret of the Gephardt Team — we stayed unified through the highs and lows of the campaign. It’s a real bond we forged, even to this day.”

Lapp was subsequently executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (2006) and is a media consultant with Ralston Lapp.

Lucinda Guinn (Johnson County organizer)
“If you’re pondering jumping on a campaign: Stop it. Go get on the road right now.”

“There are only two industries in the country where young people are able to take on so much responsibility: the military and campaigns. When you are a field organizer, you own your turf — you’re responsible for what happens inside of it, relationships and numbers and everything that comes with it. Organizing is a skill, you can never get enough practice. And it is a great jumping-off point for a long and successful career in campaigns.”

Guinn is former EMILY’s List vice president of campaigns and is now a consultant with 4CM+M.

Preston Elliott (Southeast regional field director)
“Find a good team. Yes, you need to fight for a candidate you believe in, but it’s more important to surround yourself with a good team. It’s easy to be happy when you win, but it’s your team that gets you through a brutal race.”

Elliott was subsequently Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee deputy executive director and 2012 campaign manager for Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

Emily Parcell (Northwest Iowa regional field director)
“A caucus is intense and is unlike any kind of organizing you do on any other campaign. It’s the gold standard of field in my book, and if you have a chance to do one, take it.”

“Don’t overthink who to work for in a crowded field. There’s no way to predict the winner, so work for someone you really believe in.”

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself and make time to take care of yourself. Martyrs don’t win campaigns. Strategy and having a good candidate does. If you need a break, say so and take one. No one ever produced great work at 2 a.m.”

Parcell was Iowa caucus political director for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and is now a direct mail consultant with Wildfire Contact LLC and a senior adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.

Charlie Kelly (Scott County organizer)
“Be MacGyver and do what it takes. Be creative to get the job done. You have to embrace Iowa. If someone invites you to their home for a meal or offers you a beer when you’re canvassing, slow down, take the beer. Be appreciative. You never know who might pull your car out of a snow bank — it might be a precinct captain or volunteer. You have to be a happy warrior. Relationships you build last a lifetime.”

Kelly is a former executive director of House Majority PAC.

Abby Curran Horrell (Northeast Iowa organizer)
“Take advantage of this opportunity! You have a front seat to history and frankly much more responsibility compared to many of your peers in other industries at the same point in their careers. You are helping pick our next president, and that’s pretty cool. Stay in touch with your colleagues and be nice to everyone on your campaign and other campaigns, because you will very likely cross paths with them many times down the road. Politics is a small world!”

Horrell was chief of staff to New Hampshire Rep. Ann McClane Kuster and is the new executive director of House Majority PAC.

Bill Burton (Iowa communications director)
“Work as hard as you can every day, regardless of the polls, regardless of your chances. You can only feel good, win or lose, if you leave everything on the field.”

Burton was subsequently DCCC communications director, White House deputy press secretary, Priorities USA communications director, and a media consultant.

Jessica Post (Cerro Gordo County organizer)
“Iowa Caucus is the Super Bowl of organizing. It’s worth immersing yourself in it. You really have to study public policy and know the candidate’s platform and platform of your opponents because Iowans are much more well-versed. Just make sure they’re open to supporting your candidate before you drive to their farm.”

“Call your best friends from home while you’re out there. Try your best to stay healthy. Do what you can to help out your officemates. Love long car rides. You’ll have memories and stories for years.”

Post is executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Andy LaVigne (Northeast Iowa regional field director)
“Don’t shit talk Iowa, Iowans, or the Midwest in general, even after you leave — and this really goes for anywhere you move to work on campaigns. If you can’t find a way to relate to people who live differently than you, you are in the wrong business.”

“Dress in layers. Keep your office clean — congressional surrogates are not impressed by your stack of empty Diet Coke cans. Don’t speed excessively in Iowa, especially with out-of-state cars with campaign stickers. Don’t be cheap when you buy an air mattress, get the double-decker, the ‘Iowa Hi-Rise.’ Find a laundromat that does wash & fold. It will save your life at the end of the campaign. Tip them well.”

LaVigne is political director at the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Leslie Martes (Polk County organizer)
“The biggest lesson I learned from the campaign was about hard work and perseverance, that you can do a lot with a little. The basic organizing principles will get you through, though you will also go into debt. My parents couldn’t financially support me so that made it more difficult. My mom did send me a Foreman grill, that I still have. Also definitely see the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair.”

Martes is state electoral campaigns director for the League of Conservation Voters.

Travis Lowe (Iowa field director)
“Win or lose, do the job in a way that you’ll be proud of many years from now. The people — your coworkers, the activists you befriend, etc. — are what you’ll remember. Take care of them. And take care of yourself: try to practice a little self-care.”

Lowe is a former DCCC independent expenditure director and is now a media consultant with Three Point Media.

Rebecca Pearcey (Eastern Iowa field director)
“You might never work as hard as you do this cycle. If you’re lucky like we were, you will still be part of this weird gang in 10 or 15 or 20 years. So look around and make sure you actually want to be part of that gang later. And don’t be a jerk to anyone — we still remember the jerks, and we don’t hire them.”

Pearcey is a former DLCC independent expenditure director and is now a senior adviser for Warren’s presidential campaign.