This content is not available in your region

Yang turns to large number of out-of-state supporters in Iowa bid

Access to the comments Comments
By Benjamin Pu and Alex Seitz-Wald  with NBC News Politics
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks at the Ideal Social Ha
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks at the Ideal Social Hall on Jan. 30, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.   -   Copyright  Joe Raedle Getty Images

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Andrew Yang has a lot of ground to make up in his ground game.

In a state with a quirky voting system where organizing is essential, presidential campaigns spend months recruiting and training local precinct captains across the state, who can make-or-break a candidate's chance of success on Monday in the highly personal caucus system.

But as many as half of Yang's precinct captains are not Iowans — an unusually high percentage, according to a Democrat familiar with the campaign's strategy.

That could make it difficult for Yang, who is running his first campaign for office, to hit the high bar he has set for himself in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses. Polls show him at roughly sixth place.

Take Katy Kinsey and Dani Hernandez — they're precinct captains, not from Iowa, and have never caucused before. From Washington, D.C, and Chicago, respectively, they currently live in a group home they co-founded in Davenport, Iowa, dubbed the "Sorority of Yang." It serves as a hub for the campaign in the region by hosting supporters who have come to Iowa to help.

"All of his policies are brilliant, and they're meant to fix the world," said Hernandez.

"We would love for precinct captains to be Iowans," Hernandez added. "I think every campaign that is here has found that with 1,600 precincts in Iowa, that it's been kind of hard to get all of those precincts filled."

NBC News spoke to over a dozen precinct captains who attended events along Yang's 17-day bus tour across the state. All but one said they have never participated in the Democratic caucuses before; several captains said they weren't residents of Iowa.

One Yang precinct captain from Kansas said he would be representing the campaign in the town of Le Mars in northwest Iowa, but had yet to visit there less than a week out from the caucuses.

Veteran Iowa Democratic operatives say the reliance on out-of-state help is a risk for Yang, whose main challenge will be hit the viability threshold of 15 percent in at least some precincts. If a candidates doesn't reach that threshold in a caucus, his or her supporters can switch to a candidate that is viable.

Precinct captains, who are usually volunteers from the local community, typically make a short speech before caucus-goers start moving to the corners representing each candidate, and they assist in counting supporters.

The Yang campaign gives out customized baseball caps to the captains so they're easy to identify. They say "MATH" — a Yang signature acronym that stands for "Make America Think Harder" — and have a small Iowa flag stitched under the brim.

"I drove 16 hours to come here from Texas," said David, who declined to give his last name, and will be serving as a Yang precinct captain for Henry County while living in a Yang supporter's basement. "I took three weeks of vacation to come here."

David said he voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and will likely vote for him again if Yang is not the Democratic Party's nominee.

Yang national press secretary S.Y. Lee said in a statement that the campaign knows "that the best person to inspire and engage an Iowan is their family, friends, and neighbors."

"We have prioritized recruiting of precinct captains from within the state of Iowa and we have recruited more than 1,200 precinct captains, the majority of which are from the precinct they live in," said Lee.

The Iowa Democratic Party said out-of-state precinct captains is not a new phenomenon and other campaigns in the past have used them.

"There is no rule that precludes nonresidents from serving as campaign precinct captains," said Mandy McClure, the Iowa Democratic Party communications director. "Every campaign precinct captain needs to identify themselves to the precinct chair before the caucus meeting. Nonresidents are not allowed to participate in the presidential preference process."

On Monday night, people who can't vote in a given precinct will be confined to a part of the room away from people participating in the caucus, which can make it difficult for non-resident precinct captains to relay instructions to supporters and cajole undecided caucus-goers.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign told NBC News that all of their precinct captains are Iowans. However, NBC News reporters have met with people who identified themselves as Biden precinct captains who will be coming from out of state. The Sanders campaign said a "vast majority of precinct captains are Iowa residents," but admitted some rural areas have precinct captains from out of state as well.

Chris Gidley, 33, will be serving as a precinct captain in Waterloo and said his passion for Yang will make up for organizational short-comings.

"I think we're playing from behind because of that lack of experience," said Gidley, who caucused as a Republican in 2016 and voted for Gary Johnson in that year's general election. "I'm not entirely concerned because the passion of this group leads to a quick learning curve to understand at least the basics of what they need to do to caucus."

Debbie Kyler, 64, will also be serving as a Yang precinct captain in Waterloo and was the only precinct captain that NBC News found who has participated in a Democratic caucus. She waved off concerns about the relative inexperience of the captains.

"There's a first time for everything," Kyler laughed.

Yang himself is still predicting victory.

"Imagine the headlines after Andrew Yang shocks the world and wins Iowa on Monday," he told a crowd in Washington, Iowa, last week. "That's going to be a very funny evening for us, the political world will be like, what just happened?"