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.
Norris would go on to play a critical role in the campaigns of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, managing Harkin’s 1992 presidential bid to an easy win in the Iowa caucuses of that year and to victories in the Idaho and Minnesota caucuses that followed. Norris remains a trusted campaign and policy adviser to Harkin, former Governor Tom Vilsack and other Iowa politicos.
Invariably, when national Democratic contenders begin scoping out Iowa in anticipation of a caucus run, they are told to hire Norris.
Even before the Obama campaign, his reputation was as a political “miracle worker.”
That’s because it was Norris who, in 2003, took on the unenviable task of restoring John Kerry’s viability as a contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nod. His successful completion of the task earned Kerry an Iowa caucus win and a Democratic nomination that once seemed unattainable.
Going into the 2008 presidential race, Norris initially committed himself to Vilsack’s quixotic bid for the Democratic nomination. When the former governor quit the race and backed Clinton, however, Norris threw in with Obama. He bet on the Illinoisan at a time when the senator trailed both Clinton and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards in Iowa.
With the help of Norris, Obama began to get a hearing from the grassroots Democratic operatives who are critical players on caucus night.
Norris counseled the Illinoisan to avoid the negative campaigning that always spells trouble for contenders who attempt to impose a national strategy on the distinct political culture of the Hawkeye state. And Obama listened. “Barack positioned himself as drawing distinctions with Hillary,” explained toward the end of what became the most intense caucus contest ever seen in Iowa. “You don’t want to get too negative — he’s come close to the line but I don’t think he’s gone over it with Iowa voters.”
Norris argued that Clinton went too far in December when the New York senator “made it personal by calling (Obama) naive — that was the first personal attack in the campaign. It’s not a good position to be in — being forced to go negative in the last month.”
As the pressure mounted on Obama, Norris kept reminding him that Iowa was different from other states. And the candidate kept listening to the local boy.
While some questioned the wisdom of bringing Oprah Winfrey to Iowa to campaign for Obama, Norris recognized the critical role that the visit could – and, ultimately, did – play in distinguishing his candidate from the pack of Democratic contenders.
“There were so many candidates and (there was) so much going on in the state, really I think her ultimate value was to help us cut through the clutter of news and dominate some attention for Barack Obama,” argues Norris, who adds that, “That pre-appearance and appearance and post-appearance of her just helped more people hear Barack’s message.”
Obama was wise to trust Norris. And those who seek to understand what happened in Iowa on Thursday – and what may, as a result, happen in the rest of the country – would be wise to consider the strategist’s assessment that what worked in Iowa will work in New Hampshire, in other primary and caucus states and, ultimately, in November.
“(Obama’s) attitude about bringing people together — as he says addition and not division — is a much more constructive politics for this country,” Norris explains. “The Democratic Party perhaps owns that message more now because of Barack Obama’s leadership.”