Dozens of Ted Cruz supporters gathered in a stairwell of a drab dormitory on a recent subfreezing morning, ready for their marching orders.
“What is our purpose today?” bellowed Cruz campaign staffer Ken Brolin, 64.
“Find undecided voters!” the volunteers replied in unison, before bundling up in scarves, snow boots and mittens, and marching out into the early morning light, ready to knock on hundreds of Iowans’ doors.
Welcome to Camp Cruz, the temporary home for an army of volunteers from around the country who have traveled to this snowbound state at their own expense. Their mission: to do all they can to push the first-term Republican senator over the finish line when Iowa holds the first presidential nominating contest in the nation on Feb. 1.
Iowa is close to a must-win for the Texas senator in his battle with businessman-turned-reality-television-star Donald Trump. Cruz’s campaign believes that this passionate horde of followers who have uprooted their lives to stump for him could produce the margin of victory in a tight race.
“We just felt really compelled to come up here and work for Sen. Cruz because we believe our country’s in really bad trouble,” said Lisa Barry, 53. “We’re working till we drop.”
Barry and her husband hired an aide to care for their disabled daughter for a week so they could drive 11 hours from their Port Neches, Texas, home, and campaign for Cruz. “It is hard to put into words the dedication and the passion these volunteers have, and I think it is hard to quantify how big an impact they will have on this race,” said Bryan English, Cruz’s Iowa director.
The Barrys, like all the volunteers, paid for their travel to Iowa, their meals and other expenses. They work 12 hours per day, every day. Volunteers typically approach 100 to 200 homes daily when walking precincts, and reach several hundred households when they’re pulling a phone bank shift.
Some decided that wasn’t enough, and started rising early to wave “Cruz for president” placards during the early-morning rush hour before their morning prayers.
The living quarters in the three-story brick building that houses the volunteers are spartan – there are 48 twin beds and a handful of air mattresses. Volunteers have tried to spruce up their surroundings by tacking red, white and blue crepe paper to the hallway ceilings, pictures of Cruz and his family to their doors, and American flags and balloons throughout.
The campaign plans to open a second dorm in Iowa this week, and then additional facilities in the next two voting states, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Many volunteers are from Texas and unfamiliar with Iowa’s winter climes.
“Obviously the snow and the cold is a whole lot different than what we’re used to. We knocked on doors on Monday, and when we started, it was 2 degrees, so my eyelashes actually froze,” Lisa Barry said.
She said Iowans have been welcoming and several invited her inside their homes to warm up. “I think our dedication and our zeal has meant a lot to the people in Iowa,” she said.
The Barrys didn’t even put up a lawn sign during the last presidential election, but thought they had to go all out for Cruz. He reminds them of Ronald Reagan.
“He ticks all the boxes. He’s a Godly man. He’s a true-blue conservative. And then to see him standing in the Senate and fighting for our conservative values, it’s just been inspiring,” Lisa Barry said.
The “Cruz crew” quickly formed a community. On Christmas, the volunteers shared a holiday meal, and on New Year’s Eve they went bowling. Every Sunday, they go to church together before heading to campaign headquarters in Urbandale.
Volunteers with cars shuttle those without transportation to the grocery store and the pharmacy. After a long day of making phone calls or walking precincts, most volunteers head immediately to bed after they return to the dorm. Those who stay awake past 9 p.m. play dominoes or watch movies on computers.
“We’re just like one family,” said Coleman Griffin, 19, of Tifton, Ga. “It’s amazing to me how much everybody — all different walks of life, all different parts of the country, all different age groups — can come together and accomplish such amazing things working together.”
Eager supporters can form the backbone of a campaign. President Obama relied upon out-of-state volunteers in his surprise victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
But out-of-state volunteers can be problematic because of their lack of familiarity with Iowa's culture — Democrat Howard Dean’s orange-hatted volunteers in 2004 didn’t fit in and came across as overly aggressive.
“I say this as a Californian who’s only lived here 16 years — it took me five years to figure out the Iowa political culture,” said Jamie Johnson, a veteran Iowa GOP strategist who is not aligned with any presidential candidate this year. “I believe that the campaign that uses Iowans to communicate with other Iowans is two to three times more successful than the one that’s sending them in from out of state.”
But several of Cruz’s volunteers had mastered the issues most important to Iowans, notably Maggie Wright, 70, from Burleson, Texas.
As she phoned voters from the campaign headquarters in Urbandale, she was frequently questioned about Cruz’s stance on ethanol, which is made out of corn produced by Iowa farmers. Cruz’s opposition to an ethanol subsidy drew the ire of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
Wright explained that Cruz was not anti-ethanol, but opposed all subsidies. She said Cruz believed removing government from the marketplace could allow Iowa corn farmers to prosper because of market demands.
“That’s what Ted is for, for the businesses, and not for the government to pick winners and losers,” said Wright, wearing a red Cruz T-shirt, three Cruz buttons and a pendant in the shape of Texas decorated with red, white and blue rhinestones.
Wright and her husband, a retired railroad switchman named Carroll, came to Iowa on Dec. 10 to volunteer for Cruz’s presidential bid, and they plan to stay through the caucuses. Their car is painted with images of Cruz and his family and the slogan “Cruz 2016.” They first volunteered for Cruz during his 2012 Senate bid.
“I was invited to his swearing-in. I got to go in the [Senate] gallery, and the tears are coming down and I didn’t have a Kleenex or purse or anything,” she said.
Before she resumed making calls, Wright said she told Cruz before he won his Senate race that she hoped she lived long enough to see him elected president.
“He said, ‘Let’s cross one bridge at a time.’”
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