The first weekend I spent in Iowa, I was involved with the "emerging storm," what they called the weekend before the big one. We were expecting some 500 people that weekend and Anna, the "firebase captain," retained me in the Storm Center to help out with the throngs of folks that would be swarming the place. While I did help people get to the canvas training and to the route checkout, not that many people actually showed, so I had a lot of downtime.
The Storm Center was formerly some kind of office and retail space. It reminded me of the Bike Friday building, where all these various offices and rooms had been arranged and re-arranged in a haphazard way. Of course for us it was a temporary thing, so nobody spent too much time trying to make it seem more upscale. Dean signs were plastered on every wall and window, handwritten signs indicated "stations" for the canvassers, and Iowa maps and network cords were everywhere.
I placed myself in charge of restocking the snack table. The campaign had purchased something like four or five palettes each of Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, bottled water, and Frito-Lay potato chip bags. Whenever one got low, I went back into the dark storeroom and hauled out another box. I soon developed a love-hate relationship with the granola bars.
You see, when I was staying out at Camp Wesley Woods, I rarely had the opportunity to get breakfast or dinner, as I was reliant or others for transportation. So I survived mostly on a diet of Chewy Granola Bars. It could have been worse, but I doubt I will ever eat another one.
So, surprisingly, there was a lot of downtime that first weekend while we waited for the crowds that never really did show up. I think we sent out some 58 canvassers on Saturday. I sat around a lot, jumping up when someone came in the door, learning slowly how to recognize the staff folks from the newbies like myself.
On Monday, I took a long walk through downtown. I went out with the goal of finding a floppy drive for my laptop, as the data collection team was transferring things back and forth on floppy disks and I had neglected to bring my own. So I went downtown, found the mall and the food court. I found the drug store, where I picked up some ChapStick (I really needed it). I met the CBS reporter who was working the area (she had dropped a glove and I had recovered it for her). What I couldn't find was a computer store.
I did eventually find one, after consulting the phone book, and it turned out to be a block from the Storm Center.
On Tuesday, Anna, who had kept me in the Storm Center all weekend, sent me off to be part of a special call team. We met Eric, one of the more dedicated and compulsive staff members, who had converted the snack storage room into a secret call center. He had stacked plywood on top of piles of water bottles to make tables. He had blacked out the windows with Dean signs and had even sequestered his own supply of chairs.
Eric was quite attached to the chairs. He wanted someone in the call center at all times so that nobody could come in and reappropriate them. He even taped the emergency exit shut with duct tape. We were all sworn to secrecy and we hid the chairs every evening behind a stack of giant signs.
Our job in the PrAP-C (Eric's acronym) was to call the thousands of people who had signed up for the following weekend. I learned quite a bit about how amazingly disorganized it had been up to that point. Lists of incoming people would be handed to volunteers who had no access to the database and had no idea what was actually going on.
With our own laptops hooked up to the network, we in the PrAP-C were able to see the database that had been set up for the Iowa Perfect Storm and check out individual records. I later learned that the database had been built by a 19-year-old programmer in only two weeks, and from my point of view, it looked like it. With no interest in getting technical, let me just say there were data control holes you could drive trucks through.
We divvied up the sheets between the eight of us. I would up with IN through MI. My calling partner was Bill Endicott, a political author from the D.C. area (look him up on amazon.com). Eric, being compulsive, assigned each of us two cell phones. The idea would be that we could take return calls on the incoming lines while placing calls on the outgoing calls. That didn't work so hot, since about half of the return calls came in on the outgoing phones anyway (caller ID). The situation became much worse when the California calls were divvied up between six more cell phones, which were initially going to be given to us but instead were just arrayed on a table where they rang annoyingly all day.
We did three long days in the PrAP-C, starting with the east coast in the morning and finishing with California at 11 p.m. Unlike the phone banking calls, these people were generally glad to hear from us, however, some of them did comment on how they had been called three or four times already.
Life in the PrAP-C was pretty dull. There were certainly some interesting people in the room, like Anthony, a young theater guy who would often break into song with his alto voice. There was a chance that he was going to appear on American Idol the next week (I'll have to ask him about that). Then there was Karl-Thomas, a young political junkie from Texas. We became friends, sneaking out for lunch when Eric was distracted.
Ah, Eric. He must have had some military background, because he was an amazing taskmaster. Amazing in the "aren't we volunteers?" way. At 11 p.m. on Wednesday, after going at it for thirteen hours, I stood up and told him. "Okay, that's it. I'm done." Eric's response: "Actually, no, you're not." My response: "Actually, Eric, I am." Eric wanted me to, at that point, re-confirm all of the data entry I had done up to that point, which would have taken 2-3 hours. I don't think so.
PrAP-C sessions were sporadically interrupted by Nader (say "nodder"), who was selecting certain Stormers for firebase duty in the outlying areas of Iowa. I was assigned Fort Dodge, about 90 miles north of Des Moines, and Karl-Thomas was assigned as my data management guy.
Thursday afternoon, Eric declared "Mission Accomplished," despite the fact that people were still signing up at the rate of ten an hour. He found some lucky soul to baby-sit the two dozen cell phones and put any return call data into the database. Since Karl-Thomas and I didn't need to deploy until the following morning, we got out of everybody's way and had an enjoyable dinner at Domino's.