The best presidential candidates know how to turn a town hall into a confessional. In high school gymnasiums and coffee shops across Iowa, they will urge everyday Americans to pour their hearts out, occasionally in a flood of tears. And the candidates will respond, almost in kind.
Hillary Clinton has relished these moments in the final days of her hard-fought Iowa campaign. At one town hall in Knoxville on Monday, Clinton appeared moved when a woman asked her about her faith. She gave an extended meditation on religion in her public life. “I am by no means a perfect person,” Clinton answered in a hushed voice. “I will confess that to one and all. But I feel the continuing urge to try to be better, to try to be more loving.” Days later, an elderly woman named Annette Bebout called out at an event in Newton. “Come on up here,” Clinton said, putting her arm around the 73-year-old Bebout as she began to cry openly, telling a story about losing her home after her husband’s death.
“I could see her eyes water,” Bebout said of Clinton afterward, choking up again. “She cared.”
After her 2008 Iowa loss to then-Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton was criticized for failing to connect, casting herself as an establishment favorite with big events and a “ready to lead” message. Eight years later, Clinton has thrown herself at the state with a single focus in mind: to connect with its caucus-goers both in public and in private in a way she did not eight years ago. In tearful town halls and private after-hour beers, she has shown an uncanny willingness to sympathize, glad-hand, and overwhelm Iowans with personal attention. And she has made a point behind the scenes, aides say, to personally oversee the knitty gritty of the grassroots field operations.
The full-court press of empathy contrasts her with her opponent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who tends to connect from a distance, with barnburner speeches, not handshakes and selfless. Rather than linger, Sanders often rushes off after an event is done, aiming to squeeze as many events as he can into each day. In a similar way, Donald Trump in partial to giant rallies, with a strict cordon maintained by the Secret Service. The Republican frontrunner has spent just one night in Iowa since launching his campaign.
Clinton’s allies say if she wins the Iowa caucuses against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in four days, it will be in large part because of her personal efforts. “She’s really made a tremendous effort in connecting one-on-one,” said Rep. David Loebsack, who has endorsed Clinton and supported then-Sen. Obama eight years ago. “She is really good at that.” Polls currently show her just a few points ahead of Sanders in Iowa, and trailing significantly in New Hampshire. A loss in Iowa would set her up for a long, grueling campaign in states where she will not have the same organizing advantage as in Iowa.
To show her commitment, Clinton often goes for beers at the end of a long day with her Iowa staff to help boost morale out of view of the press, aides say. She does happy hours with volunteers, and asks them at off-the-record meetings in bars like Parlor City in Cedar Rapids and Exile Brewery in Des Moines to become caucus precinct captains. Aides say this extra effort has yielded more commitments, more involvement and, barring a massive turnout, a solid corps of Iowans to show up on caucus night.
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Before each town hall, aides say, Clinton gets briefings from local organizers to get a sense of where a town or area stands. She also collects organizing numbers from her aides after each event. The Clinton campaign from its headquarters in Brooklyn does not micromanage the Iowa operation, but Clinton wants to stay keenly aware of what is going on in the state.
At events Clinton expresses her gratitude to her volunteers, often naming them at the start of each event, a tip from the Obama ’08 playbook. “I feel very honored to have the enthusiastic support of so many young people across Iowa. They are working in my campaign. They are volunteering in my campaign,” Clinton said on Thursday at Newton. “And it means the world to me.”
Aides say she has pushed for this style of campaigning herself. As the race became more competitive early last summer, Clinton was on a flight between campaign stops when she told Iowa state director Matt Paul how impressed she was with the Iowa organizers and volunteers, according to an aide familiar with the conversation. She told Paul she wanted them more involved, beginning another round of charm offensives with local voters.
Clinton’s top allies in the state say they feel the difference compared with eight years ago. Dale Todd, a veteran of Iowa politics who helped Obama in 2008, is a volunteer who helps organize major campaign events for Clinton. “Each time I see her, she knows more about me. She asked me recently about [my son] Adam and [my wife] Sarah, where were they. Another time she grabbed my hand and says thanks for your help with this event—she knew I had helped book the venue. She’s paying attention to detail,” Todd says. “She is light years today from what it was in 2007 and 2008.”
She first met Bryce Smith, now 24, at a small business roundtable in a produce packing plant during her first visit to the state. Smith told a story of working through college debt while trying to run a bowling alley in his hometown. Clinton’s campaign reached out to him again and again, and Smith has met her a total of eight times.
The most recent occasion was a town hall hosted in the bowling alley, where Clinton spoke in front of the lanes—but didn’t bowl—and then signed bowling pins near a stocked bar and a grease-crusted frier. “She’s letting people know that she’s still there she still cares and wants them active,” Smith said, who lent his space to Clinton for the event.
There is no way to know whether the shift in approach is enough until Democrats gather Monday to decide at the caucuses.