Most of the people who made Barack Obama the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination – a status that new polls suggest will be confirmed when New Hampshire voters go to the polls Tuesday – flew out of Iowa with the candidate on caucus night.
But the man who was most responsible for the win – aside, perhaps, from the candidate himself – did not make the trip.
John Norris, the old Iowa political hand who was an early and essential adviser to the Obama campaign in the first-caucus state, was back to practicing law and chairing the Iowa Utilities Board.
That put Norris far from the limelight that is now shining on Obama and those around the Illinois senator whose first-place finish in Thursday’s Iowa caucuses reordered a nomination race that just a month ago was supposed to be a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton.
It is where Norris likes to be. Though he made a bid of his own for Congress in the impossible year of 2002, he does not generally seek the attention or the power that other strategists covet. Veteran campaign adviser Steve Cobble, who got to know Norris when they were both working on the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1988, says, “John Norris is the greatest organizer in modern presidential politics and nobody knows his name.”
That’s not precisely true. Barack Obama knows Norris’ name. And the candidate has not hesitated to praise his essential ally in Iowa.
The senator knows that, to a greater extent than anyone else, Norris gave Obama’s Iowa campaign its structure and focus. He introduced Obama to the right people in Dubuque and Keokuk, he figured out where to open offices and direct resources, he helped define the themes and the images of a run that saw an African-America graduate of Harvard Law School connect with white farmers, teachers and store clerks in a state that demands more of presidential candidates and their campaigns than any other.
This is not the first time that Norris has achieved the seemingly impossible in Iowa and, by extension, in American politics.
In 1988, as a young progressive activist, he coordinated Jesse Jackson’s campaign in the state. It was Norris who convinced Jackson to target his campaign toward Iowa’s hard-pressed farmers in a move that would artfully illustrate the candidate’s ability to leap lines of race and region. When Jackson won 11 percent of the vote in the overwhelmingly white Hawkeye state, it was one of the first signs that the civil rights leader’s 1988 campaign would be a far more serious and successful quest than his 1984 bid.