“So I did what you always do when you meet new people,” offered Professor Wes Oliver as he spoke at Widener Law’s Harrisburg campus on February 5th to an audience unprepared for his next words. “I went out drinking with them all,” he deadpanned, drawing a chorus of laughter from the crowd of students, faculty, and staff on hand to hear him speak about his experiences working on Senator Joseph Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Tales from the Campaign Trail
Professor Oliver offered several amusing anecdotes about his time in Iowa, including talking about a nice couple he stayed with whose lifestyle became slightly misrepresented in a Wall Street Journal article about him. The paper contacted Professor Oliver about the article after “finding out about a Pennsylvania law professor living out of a farmhouse and telling stories about hogs.” Unfortunately, the article described an “elderly couple in a drafty farmhouse” and a “professor huddled under a pile of handmade quilts.” Professor Oliver quickly called his generous benefactors and said, “I did not tell them that you were elderly for dramatic effect, and as far as I know, those blankets are machine made!”
The night of the actual caucuses, Professor Oliver was sent to Creston, the county seat of Union County, Iowa. Noting that, “The caucuses are funny things because it’s public voting.” Supporters of a candidate who has less than fifteen percent of the vote after the first round must join a different candidate’s supporters, but Precinct Captains can go around and try to gobble up other small groups who lack enough to get their candidate over the threshold, or try to poach a couple of extra people from a candidate who has already surpassed the necessary threshold.
Professor Oliver noted that the rules about a candidate’s observers participating in these negotiations were somewhat fuzzy, and he shared amusing stories about what he did that night, including his theory that if you, “Find the prettiest girl you can and convince her to come over, she is worth at least five more votes.” Later, he was kicked out of the building after he responded, “Yes, and I’d do it again,” when an organizer asked him if he had negotiated with the Richardson people. Unfortunately, while Senator Biden picked up three delegates at the Creston caucuses, his overall performance offered less encouraging results. “I got in the car and called my mom to ask how we did since I knew she was watching CNN,” he said. His mother replied, “Did you guys even show up? They haven’t even put up any numbers for Joe Biden!”
When describing why he chose to actively campaign for Senator Biden, Professor Oliver said, “If you look at this man’s career, he quite clearly seems to have his finger on the pulse of national security.” Attempting to convince two women to vote for Senator Biden, he shared this memory; “On September 10, 2001, I was watching Joe Biden on CSPAN, and he said that America was not prepared for the risks we faced in the modern world. He said that America was prepared to face thermonuclear war at the hands of superpowers, but that was not the real threat. Terrorism was the real threat.” He added that only a day later, he was struck by just how prescient Biden’s comments felt. “No one has told us a story that compelling about why we should vote for their candidate,” responded the two women. His elation disappeared when they added that it would take more than that to convince them to vote for his candidate.
“Talking to people one on one really matters. You would think that with all the national coverage, people would have an idea about the candidates, but they really don’t,” said Professor Oliver. He also opined on debates, which he felt tended to delve too often into nothing more than rhetoric about who would be the better agent for change. “There are too many debates in the primaries, so no one watches them, and as a result, the spin about the debate becomes more important than the actual debate,” offered Professor Oliver, noting Senator Biden was a strong debater, even being declared the winner of the Iowa debate by the Des Moines Register.
When asked about what he thought the positive and negatives of the caucus system were, he replied, “People who vote in the caucus system tend to be better informed because the process takes longer and they have to answer why they’re supporting a particular candidate. In a primary, it only takes two minutes to vote. People are less committed.” He added, however, that the caucus system excludes people such as deployed soldiers, police officers, and firefighters.
Professor Oliver noted that the campaign staff went into Iowa with hope because the common perception that the pool of democratic candidates was strong meant that the polls were not necessarily accurate. “We were all kind of delusional. We were hoping for some sort of miracle in Iowa,” he said with a hint of sadness. Calling the people he worked with extraordinary, he added, “We believed in this guy, even though we knew we had little hope.” Summing up his thoughts on campaigning for Joe Biden, he said, “The thing that I think Joe Biden did was that he forced people to talk substance in those debates.”