Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
About Chris Cillizza  |  On Twitter: The Fix and The Hyper Fix  |  On Facebook  |  On YouTube  |  RSS Feeds RSS Feed

Insider Interview: Iowa Democratic Operative Jeff Link

Jeff Link's nomadic political career has taken him from the Iowa river town of Burlington to the island paradise of Aruba and back -- all in the space of the last 15 years.

One of the top Democratic operatives in a state known nationally for its influence in the presidential process, Link, 39, carries the intimate knowledge of Iowa's political geography and the Hawkeye power players courted by every Democrat considering a 2008 bid.

Asked to name the key counties that a Democrat must concentrate on to win the state's presidential caucuses, Link rattles off the typical targets (Polk and Dubuque counties) but also notes that because caucus delegates are assigned by primary turnout, a candidate should spend more time in Ottumwa (Wappelo County) in the strongly Democratic eastern part of the state than in Council Bluffs in the Republican west.

As for the profile of the typical Iowa caucus-goer? It's not the stereotypical ultra-liberal; rather, it's a "mainstream cross-section of Democrats," according to Link. "Rarely does the most liberal candidate do well in the final analysis."

For now, Link - and his strategic know-how -- is remaining neutral when it comes to presidential politics, focusing instead on building Link Strategies -- the general consulting and opposition research firm he founded in 1999. "We either run a campaign or do the research for a campaign," explained Link. Among his clients are gubernatorial candidates Steve Westly in California, Jim Davis in Florida and Dina Titus in Nevada.

The firm is also working for Bruce Braley, a former head of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association who is seeking to win Rep. Jim Nussle's (R) eastern Iowa 1st District. The last time that seat was open was 1990 -- the first campaign that Link managed in his political career. Link's candidate, Eric Tabor, narrowly lost to Nussle, 50 percent to 49 percent. With Nussle vacating the seat to run for governor this year, Link admits to being heavily involved with Braley -- perhaps in search of a bit of redemption for that first loss.

Following Tabor's defeat, Link began a political odyssey that saw him working across the country and the world for the next nine years. His most interesting stop? A three-month stint working for the Aruba Volks Party (A.V.P) in 1994; "They won a plurality and formed a government," says Link of his work on Caribbean island.

Link always wound up back in Iowa. He managed Sen. Tom Harkin's (D) reelection victories in 1996 and 2002, served as Vice President Al Gore's Iowa director during the 2000 general election and held the same post for the Democratic 527 group America Coming Together during 2004.

Link's career has not been without some pitfalls. During Sen. Harkin's 2002 campaign, Link was forced to resign as campaign manager after it was revealed that a junior campaign aide had secretly taped a strategy session for then-Rep. Greg Ganske, the GOP Senate nominee. No charges were brought in the case, and Harkin went on to a comfortable 10-point victory.

As for 2008, Link and nearly every other top party operative know that how the caucus turns out depends on whether Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) seeks the nomination. Vilsack, who is retiring this year after two terms as the state's chief executive, has made little secret of his interest in a national bid. The last time an Iowa native ran for president was in 1992; Harkin won 76 percent of the caucus vote that year as none of the other serious candidates contested the state.

"The no. 1 question in Iowa is whether Vilsack is going to get a campaign off the ground and be a candidate," said Link. "People want to know what he is going to do before they get past 'hello' with these other candidates." Most Iowa Democrats are excited about the possibility of Vilsack in the presidential mix but aren't optimistic about his chances. "People are reluctant about Vilsack because they don't think we can elect an Iowan president," Link said.

Link believes that the other potential 2008 candidates can't wait for Vilsack to make up his mind.  They need to make several pilgrimages to the state over the next year to begin the "introductory phase" of the courting process, he said.

Take former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner for example. While Warner is riding high among the chattering class and the national media, he is still unknown among Hawkeye State Democratic voters who "don't know the Mark Warner story," said Link.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, on the other hand, has made a strong first impression in Iowa, a near-necessity for the Midwestern senator who needs to make a splash in the caucuses to have a real chance in 2008.  Link said one of Bayh's most deft moves in Iowa came during a recent visit when he praised Vilsack and referred to them as "brothers."

Several potential 2008 candidates -- including the 2004 ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards -- are already known commodities among Iowa Democrats, but their political futures in the state seem decidedly different, said Link.

Kerry, who came from behind to win the caucuses in 2004, will likely run into a "fair amount of reluctance to go down that road again," he said. As for Edwards, who placed second in Iowa in 2004, his future appears considerably brighter. "People have good feelings about John Edwards in Iowa," said Link. "A lot of people think if the caucuses had been a week later he might have won."

The unspoken titan in Iowa -- as she is everywhere else in the country - is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Link said that he and several friends often joke that the best job in politics would be the lead advance person for Clinton's first visit to Iowa after she wins reelection to the Senate in November. "She'll have a substantial following if she decides to get in," he said.

-- Chris Cillizza

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 23, 2006; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Eye on 2008 , Insider Interview  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: House Leadership Election: Week Two
Next: Minn. Senate: Democrat Klobuchar Gets a Boost

Comments

Your site is realy very interesting.

Posted by: Dublin Flats | March 21, 2006 5:51 AM | Report abuse

What about his time in Pennsylvania, as a staff member and later campaign manager for gadfly Pennsylvania Speaker Robert W. O'Donnell? Very few successes there. Not much insight to try and get Singel elected in 1994 (against Tom Ridge).

I want to suggest that Mr. Link is ending up back in Iowa, because he is not having great successes elsewhere.

Furthermore, if Iowa were reduced in its influence to what is truly should have compared to, say, a New York or even a New Jersey, Mr. Link would fold his tent.

Carribean Islands don't impress. It sounds like a guy who wants to be a big political player and is just lucky that he ended up being born in Iowa . . .

Posted by: Link? Let's see what you are missing: | March 15, 2006 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I hope Tom Vilsack does not get in the race. He will split the same constituency with my choice of 2008 Dems Mark Warner, John Edwards, and Evan Bayh. Those candidates are better than Vilsack, although I respect the man a whole lot.

Posted by: PopulistDemocrat | January 27, 2006 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Not only do caucuses exlude working families, but they encourage bardering for votes. When have you ever heard of people legally making deals to switch votes, yet this is encouraged in a caucus. There is nothing democratic about it at all.

Posted by: Brent Parrish | January 25, 2006 10:22 PM | Report abuse

Hillary is a paper tiger. Her fake centrism doesn't fool anyone. I wonder if her substantial following in Iowa will be as substantial as Howard Dean's substantial following. I think a Hillary nomination would make everyone upset. Democratic activists would be turned off by her rather clumsy looking "reaching out to swing voters" and swing voters would be turned off because her centrism looks fake. And if Vilsack is in the race, Hillary's not going to be much of a titan in Iowa.

Posted by: Q | January 25, 2006 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Yes, my definition of fair is that more people participate. That's why a primary is more fair.

Your definition of fair is flawed. Not everyone can participate even if they want to. The caucuses are always on a weeknight, usually starting at 7 pm. That eliminates everyone with an evening job or other evening committments. I suppose people could take time off from their jobs, if their boss lets them and they have the accrued vacation time. But those are impediments to participation. The average voter wants to just that, vote. And their vote should count for just as much as the party activist's vote. We're all citizens.

My caucus experience has been in Lee, Story and Johnson Counties. I've been a delegate to the Johnson County convention twice, once as an alternate, once as an actual delegate. It was my observation that beginning at the county level, the pros take over. Guys like me have no input whatsoever. The platform and the process leading up to the state and national conventions are completely controlled by the party activists and leaders.

It was fun to take part, but I never deluded myself into believing I had any impact, even if I supported the eventual nominee.

Posted by: tl | January 25, 2006 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I disagree. The system is not "rigged". Any registered voter can participate and, in fact, is encouraged and sought after to participate. I don't know what precinct you're in, but I've been in 4 different ones in the Des Moines area over the past 22 years and the process has always been fair and open. If your definition of "fair" is that more people participate, then I guess a primary is more fair. My definiton of "fair" is that everyone can participate if they want to and the rules are known in advance and enforced. By that definition the Iowa Caucuses are most definitely fair.

Posted by: Peggy H | January 25, 2006 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Peggy:

Iowa can switch to a primary; it just won't be first in the nation. To me that's a game. I enjoy the game and all those candidates that come to the state. But that doesn't change the fact the Iowa Dems (and GOP) would rather be first than fair.

As far as it being grassroots democracy at it's finest, we'll just have to agree to disagree. Every caucus I've been to has been a wrestling match for delegates and a dog and pony show for every kook with an agenda trying to hijack the process.

The reason Dean (and the others who get little support) don't do well in the caucuses is they are not very appealing candidates. They don't do significantly better in primary states, and they wouldn't do significantly better in Iowa if there was a primary.

The caucus process doesn't measure depth of committment as much as it reinforces the strength of a small number of individuals who control the system, and to a large part the agenda. Only about 10% of registered voters usually participate in the caucuses. The reason is the system is rigged against the majority of voters, and that's not democratic.

Posted by: tl | January 25, 2006 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I've participated in every Caucus since 1980 -- not quite '76, but a long time. If you know anything about politics you know that Iowa cannot switch to a primary. We have an agreement with New Hampshire that we have the first Caucus and they have the first primary. This agreement was just affirmed by a committee of the DNC so it's not likely to change anytime soon despite all the grousing. The Caucuses are a great party building tool (for both parties)and grassroots democracy at its finest. It is true that they require some effort, but so what? It makes us take the process seriously. The reason candidates like Howard Dean don't do well in the Caucuses is because their support is shallow. People express support in the polls but then don't bother to show up because it takes more than 10 minutes. What's wrong with a process that measures depth of commitment? It's not a game anymore than an election is, and I've been through plenty of both. I've found it's usually the people who lose who don't like the game.

Posted by: Peggy H | January 25, 2006 12:41 AM | Report abuse

I don't think Brent's comments are outrageous. He's right. And I've participated in every Iowa caucus since 1976. The state should switch to a primary. Participation would increase.

You have something against increased voter participation?

Posted by: tl | January 24, 2006 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Brent, pretty outrageous comments. Guess your guy lost in 2004?

Posted by: Daniel D | January 23, 2006 11:07 PM | Report abuse

I disagree that somehow Governor Vilsack entry into the Presidential race would take Iowa off the map. If I were a candidate, I would still run in the caucus. Any other candidate who boycotts might be feeling like Clark and Lieberman the day after Iowa in 2004.

Also having worked an Iowa caucus in 2004, I was impressed that Iowans actually gave a darn about the issues enough to do research on thier candidate and spend two hours in a crowded caucus room. They do take their responsibility seriously, so even if you disagree with their influence, at least be appreciative they do take voting seriously. We have enough non-voters and those who take voting as trival in this country.

Posted by: Daniel D | January 23, 2006 11:04 PM | Report abuse

After spending six months working as a campaign staffer in waterloo IA in 04 I must say that the IA cacuses are a bigger threat to democracy then George Bush. God forbid you work 2nd shift have two jobs or kids and can't get caucus night off then you just don't count. Caucuses are bad for working famlies and they are bad for America.

Posted by: Brent Parrish | January 23, 2006 10:48 PM | Report abuse

When national politicians come to Iowa, I rarely hear them mention farm programs, much less dwell on them. As a matter of fact, we Iowans would be insulted by anyone blatantly appealing to such a small percentage of our electorate. We have the intellectual capacity to consider many issues at once, and the curiosity to press candidates on many fronts. This is unlike the special interest groups on the coasts and in the urban areas who may be ethnically diverse, but are largely single-issue voters. Don't be too quick to look down your nose at this bellweather state----history shows we really do have our finger on the pulse of the nation.

Posted by: Rolf Mosbo | January 23, 2006 7:10 PM | Report abuse

message to Jeff Link
You did good in PA with Bob ODonnell and the PA Clinton Campaign in 92. See you been to other exciting places since then
larryotter@hotmail.com

Posted by: larry o | January 23, 2006 4:26 PM | Report abuse

message to Jeff Link
You did good in PA with Bob ODonnell and the PA Clinton Campaign in 92. See you been to other exciting places since then
larryotter@hotmail.com

Posted by: larry o | January 23, 2006 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Chris your post today just reinforces to me that both Iowa and New Hampshire have way too much influence in the nominating process for both parties. Mr. Link describes the typical Iowa caucus voter but is that truly the typical Democratic voter nationwide? Democrats have a diverse party and the nominating process should reflect that. It's long past time we revamp the entire system which permits a heavily white and rural state such as Iowa to have this kind of disproportionate influence.

http://www.intrepidliberaljournal.blogspot.com

Posted by: Intrepid Liberal | January 23, 2006 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Almost every time (except 1988 and 1992), the winner of one party's Iowa caucus has won the presidency. So, saying Democratic winners of the caucus don't achieve national success doesn't mean the caucuses themselves are a poor predictor of national success, just that the Democratic caucuses are.

Posted by: PBS | January 23, 2006 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I have attended the Iowa caucuses since 1968 and have come to realize what an impediment they are in terms of selecting a viable democratic presidential candidate. Jimmy Carter is the only caucus winner to go on to win the presidency. So out of touch with reality, the democratic candidates come to Iowa vowing support for ag subsidies even though the farm constituency consistently and overwhelmingly votes Republican (farm income represents less than 3% of Iowa's total personal income). Further, Iowa's demographic does not match the Democratic party or the rest of the country.

The 2004 caucus winners were especially dismal. Niether Kerry nor Edwards could mount an effective campaign against the worst administration in history. My fervent hope is that Governor Vilsack will enter the race like Senator Harkin did in 1992 and make the 2008 caucus similarly meaningless.
I +

Posted by: Lloyd E. Anderson | January 23, 2006 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I have attended the Iowa caucuses since 1968 and have come to realize what a impediment they are in terms of selecting a viable democratic presidential candidate. Jimmy Carter is the only caucus winner to go on to win the presidency. So out of touch with reality, the democratic candidates come to Iowa vowing support for ag subsidies even though the farm constituency consistently and overwhelmingly votes Republican (farm income represents less than 3% of Iowa's total personal income). Further,Iowa's demographic does not match the Democratic party or the rest of the country.

The 2004 caucus winners were especially dismal. Niether Kerry nor Edwards could mount an effective campaign against the worst administration in history. My fervent hope is that Governor Vilsack will enter the race like Senator Harkin did in 1992 and make the 2008 caucus similarly meaningless.
I +

Posted by: Lloyd E. Anderson | January 23, 2006 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Yes, this was very informative, Chris. Thanks.

Posted by: H_o_o_s_i_e_r_Ten | January 23, 2006 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this Chris. Very interesting info to add to archives.

Nice job.

Posted by: Casey Morris | January 23, 2006 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I welcome Vilsack to the 2008 race, if for no other reason than to make the Iowa caucus meaningless to the media. It's already fairly meaningless to the country.

I don't say this to attack the state of Iowa. However, the caucus is a game more than it is an election. It's a test of organization over ideals, and should be treated as such. Since it is not, it's forced irrelevence (by Vilsack) is a boon for the Democrats, and ultimately a boon for the country.

Posted by: ElSid | January 23, 2006 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I supported Edwards in the last Iowa caucus, but was underwhelmed by his performance as the VP candidate. Of course, that may have been due to factors beyond his control.

It will be interesting to see if Vilsack runs for president in 2008. Even though I think he's been a good governor and has strong support among Iowa Democrats, I would not consider it a slam dunk that he will swamp the opposition. I certainly would consider supporting another candidate.

Having said that, I sure wish we would dump the caucuses for a primary. That would be much more "democratic".

By the way, Burlington is on the Mississippi River, not the Iowa River. We Iowans know more than just our political geography.

Posted by: tl | January 23, 2006 10:10 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company