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Elizabeth Warren bets on persuading Iowans who like her second-best

A woman left with a box of Get Out the Caucus literature from Elizabeth Warren's Waterloo, Iowa, field office.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Dave Schwartz, a retired cinema teacher, has a big job on Monday night.

Standing in Elizabeth Warren’s “liberty green” corner during his local caucus, he’ll keep an eagle eye out for any neighbors who have backed a Democratic candidate who doesn’t reach the crucial 15 percent threshold to win delegates.

Once it’s time for those people to realign and pick another candidate, Schwartz, designated a volunteer “persuasion captain” by Warren’s hyper-organized campaign, will pounce.

“My job will be to try to persuade them of the commonalities between their candidate and Warren and try to bring them into the fold,” he said.

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Under the arcane rules of the Iowa caucuses, the Warren camp is hoping to eke out a win on Monday simply by being many voters’ second choice, and her extensive ground game operation has maintained a laser focus on that strategy.

Persuasion captains like Schwartz, whom the campaign has tapped in many precincts in an unconventional effort to sway undecideds and people forced to pick a new candidate as the caucus process winnows the field Monday night, could hold the key for Warren as she seeks to triumph over her rivals.

Schwartz and other Warren persuasion captains plan to cozy up to supporters of lower-polling Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota should she fail to make the cut, hoping to bring them over to the remaining woman in the race, or by charming backers of billionaire Tom Steyer, who Warren’s organizers have kept a close eye on in some districts where he’s pushed a populist message similar to Warren’s.

Warren has lagged behind Senator Bernie Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden in polls of people’s first choice to be the nominee, but often shows up as voters’ most popular second-choice candidate. Warren’s team has worked especially hard to maximize that in recent weeks, courting voters who have expressed preferences for candidates who are polling below the 15 percent threshold while knocking on voters’ doors, according to interviews with volunteers and endorsers.

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Now, they are hoping that extra attention, plus final appeals from trained persuasion captains, will pay off on Monday in the nearly 1,700 caucus locations where Iowans will make their choice.

While second place isn’t usually what a candidate aspires to, in the unusual world of a caucus it can actually propel a candidate to victory if enough people are forced to realign due to their preferred candidate not making the cut. Many candidates already are looking to make deals with the campaigns of those who may not hit 15 percent: Biden’s team is reportedly working to form second-choice alliances with Klobuchar, a pact that her team has shrugged off.

But the second-place strategy is not a sure bet for Warren. One January poll, from Focus on Rural America, that counted the second-choice picks of voters whose first-choice candidate polled below 15 percent found that Biden, not Warren, would win after their realignment.

“Most polls have Warren as the lead second choice, but I think that’s in part because there’s no Bernie people in our second-choice calculation because Bernie was viable in our poll,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist and cofounder of Focus on Rural America.

Warren said Wednesday that she was happy to be the second choice of so many Iowans, though she joked that the label fell short of true love. “I think it’s a good thing,” she told an NBC reporter. “It’s not a basis for getting married but it is a way to think about how we come together as a party and build the kind of inclusive coalition we need to build to win in November.”

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In recent weeks, Warren has been pitching herself as a “unity candidate” — someone most Democrats can be happy with, whatever their first choice. Iowa’s caucuses will be the first on-the-ground test of that theory.

Peter Leo, chairman of Iowa’s Carroll County Democratic Party and a Warren endorser, said he carefully courts voters while door-knocking, especially if they are committed to a candidate who he believes might not reach the 15 percent threshold Monday night.

“You want to be able to stay in touch with those folks and remain part of their thought process, even though they may have even told another campaign they’re committed to caucus for them,” Leo said. “Get inside the room and anything can happen.”

Warren is even personally pitching herself to many undecided voters in small groups her campaign calls “clutches,” as The Washington Post first reported. “If I can plant the seed of ‘Maybe she’s the one,’ and then they get invited to one of these clutches or they get a personal phone call from her, that can lay the foundation for her to be the one who closes the sale before caucus time,” Leo said.

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Her team has been careful to stay friendly while persistently door-knocking, never pushing for a sale too hard or alienating other candidates’ supporters.

“That’s really what we’re planning for is being the nicest team in the field,” Warren organizer Olivia Ellis said on the Pod Save America political podcast. “So that people feel not only comfortable but excited coming into our corner if their first choice isn’t able to make it.”

Warren no longer has the largest organizing team in the state, having been surpassed in paid staffers by Sanders and Buttigieg, but she was the first to get on the ground in a serious way last year, building local relationships and a team of volunteers. Persuasion is always a big part of caucuses, but specifically naming and training volunteers as “persuasion captains” is unusual and a sign of Warren’s tight organization. Political experts agree Warren has one of the best ground games in the race and say the boost she is likely to get from that is not reflected in recent Iowa polling, where she’s in a close fourth or third place, following a late surge for Sanders.

“She is going to overperform her state and national polling numbers,” predicted Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of Iowa’s Democratic Party who endorsed Warren Friday. “These polling numbers simply don’t reflect the ground game.”

Some Warren backers hope that she will also be helped by last week’s endorsement from the state’s largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, which the campaign has touted on billboards around the state, and the fact that Medicare for All, which tripped up Warren in the fall, has dropped as a topic of conversation with each candidate turning to their closing pitch.

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“Nobody’s talking about Medicare for All anymore,” said Warren endorser and Iowa state Senator Claire Celsi. “Literally no one’s talking about it.”

But in a state where most caucus-goers continue to say their top priority is beating President Trump, it’s unclear if Warren’s broad second-place appeal and hyper-organized ground game will be enough to unseat Iowans’ fears about her electability.

When asked by a group of volunteers in Cedar Rapids on Sunday what they should say while knocking on doors in these final days, Warren had a rapid-fire answer: “This woman is our best chance to win, and there’s a whole lot of reasons that that’s so.”


Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.