Tom and Linda Iannelli waited patiently at a table inside a small, taupe-colored conference room at the Merrill Hotel, ready to be personally convinced by Kamala Harris that they should be in her corner on caucus night.
Tom Iannelli pulled out an 11-by-7-inch sheet of paper covered in questions crowdsourced from his online international tech community for the 2020 presidential candidate. Harris, after all, was on the couple’s short list.
“Tom’s got questions from 100 people in his group,” Linda Iannelli joked as Harris glanced down.
“Oh, good lord!” the senator quipped, followed by her signature booming laugh. Linda Iannelli interjected then, asking the California Democrat what she would do as president to make it easier for felons to find jobs.
“I know the work,” Harris said confidently. “I’ve actually done it.”
This was the beginning of just one of five face-to-face conversations on gun violence, foreign policy and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings that the senator had over the course of an hour this past weekend. She spoke with 13 Iowans, eight of them undecided but interested in Harris and open to being convinced to give her their support.
Harris has hosted eight of these gatherings, known as “potential supporter clutches” since October. Featuring about 10 likely caucusgoers identified by campaign organizers, the small events are designed to make the senator make the hard ask of voters.
“Will you commit to caucus in Kamala’s corner?” a campaign aide says she might ask directly.
Faced with any ounce of resistance, the aide says Harris follows up with a question that has come to define this stage of her campaign: “What’s holding you back?”
In the latest CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll released this month, Harris’ support registered at 3%, down from 6% in a September CNN poll and 11% percent in an August Monmouth University poll. It came almost two months after Harris announced a shift to an “all in” on Iowa strategy, and less than a month after the campaign went through a massive restructuring that included layoffs and office closures in all early primary states except South Carolina and Iowa to cut costs.
Harris’ once promising presidential bid has deteriorated from low polling numbers and the need for cash. While she shot up in the polls after squaring off with former Vice President Joe Biden during the first Democratic debate over the summer, she has since become the only candidate to gain and then lose their top tier status.
Her persuasion meetings are part of the work Harris and her campaign are doing to change the trajectory of her campaign in Iowa, a state where caucusgoers will gladly joke that they have to meet a candidate two to three times before they can decide. Her campaign has said that a top-three finish in Iowa is necessary for Harris to remain competitive in other early primary states like Nevada and South Carolina.
The power of these meetings can’t be understated, said Miryam Lipper, Harris’ Iowa communications director.
Harris’ field organizers tell Lipper after the meetings, ” ‘This makes a huge difference; this helps us lock people in who are on the fence.’ ”
“Kamala Harris is good at this stuff, when she looks people in the eye and makes them feel heard,” Lipper added.
But with fewer than 70 days until the Iowa caucuses, the question remains whether these efforts — when she’s only meeting with a handful of people at a time — will be enough.
In the meetings over the weekend, Harris’ tone ranged from serious and passionate about her signature policy proposals and diagnoses of what went wrong with the country to silly and lighthearted.
Douglas Dawson, upon meeting Harris, declared, “I’m a sleep doctor and you need more of it.”
He boasted that he had supported then-Sen. Barack Obama in his 2008 bid over then-Sen. Hillary Clinton: “I was against Hillary and supporting Barack.”
Harris whispered, “I was, too,” with a mischievous smile, clutching Dawson’s arm. Dawson later signed a commit-to-caucus card and agreed to be a precinct leader.
To a pair of teenage sisters, Harris took a motherly or “auntie” tone when she discouraged them from sending intimate photos of themselves to potential partners while discussing her efforts against cyber exploitation.
“We can have a whole conversation about that dating relationship, you know, 99.9% will not end up in marriage,” Harris said with a loud laugh. “So just know that before you press send.”
And at times, Harris became candid about the state of her race. When a supporter said he would also chip in financially, she thanked him profusely.
“Gotta raise that money just to get on TV. It’s a whole situation,” she said.
The California Democrat became animated when describing to the Iannellis the criminal justice work she did in California to help re-enter the formerly incarcerated back to society, she then pitched her latest criminal justice reform proposal that in part would provide grants at the local level to fund similar programs.
“So you have justice issues as well, I recognize it,” Linda Iannelli, a 72-year-old former social worker, said softly.
Once the conversation came to a close and the couple posed for their photo, Harris moved to the next table and was instantly replaced with a field organizer who made the hard ask: “Will you sign a commit to caucus card?”
But only Tom Iannelli, 53, agreed.
When the young organizer asked Linda Iannelli what’s holding her back, she simply said, “I’m still processing, and I take my time.”
“It took us two months to pick out a camera for our wedding gift” some 28 years ago, she told CNN in an interview after the meeting. “It’s like, the decision doesn’t happen like this,” snapping her fingers. “It’s a consideration over time.”
Iannelli said Harris was “extremely personable.”
“I have an immediate connection with her because I did work in preschool and have done social work all my life, so I have justice issues just like she does.” But nothing Harris could say in that moment could have made her commit.
“I’m not a jumper. I’m the oldest of 10 kids,” Iannelli said. “I’m probably looking to see a little bit more about the field before I make a commitment.”
The outsized Democratic primary, now sitting at 18 candidates, has made it difficult for some voters to whittle down their decisions. Voters have signaled they want the field to shrink, and only 16% of voters from a Monmouth University Poll released earlier this month said they wanted additions to the field. Since that poll was taken, two other people — former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick — have announced their candidacies.
But the Iannellis actively want a woman in the White House and regularly donate to women candidates (“No more old men,” Linda Iannelli said). Before signing the caucus card, Tom Iannelli was between Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“I like the way Ms. Harris thinks,” Iannelli said. In that moment, he also agreed to be a precinct captain at caucus night. Captains help the campaign identify possible supporters and volunteers before the caucuses. On the night of, they corral their candidate’s supporters and convert other caucusgoers from nonviable candidates.
“It’s not so much about the details of the plans,” Iannelli said. “She’s been able to make those broader sweeping connections.”
Connie Capper, 53, signed a commit-to-caucus card moments before Harris walked into the room. Capper, who hosts a volunteer of the campaign at her home, decided Harris was the candidate for her during the senator’s speech an hour earlier at the meet-and-greet held a block away from the hotel.
“When I was listening to her speak, I was pretty impressed with the fact that she did not promise anything,” the Davenport, Iowa, teacher said. “Unlike others who are running and making a bunch of promises that they hope to fulfill, she’s like, ‘This will be an attempt,’ but there’s no real promise to it. Just, ‘I have a good record in this area.'”
But inside the square room outfitted with alternating campaign placards taped to the wall, Capper’s admiration grew. The two spoke about gun violence in schools, with Harris asking Capper what instructions and trainings she’s been taught to keep children safe.
“I just thought, ‘Hey, she’s a lot like me, she’s short like me,’ so it reinforced that she’s very open, personal and she knows herself. I guess that would be the end result, she knows herself,” Capper said. The teacher was between Harris, Biden and businessman Andrew Yang before committing.
Of the eight undecided voters, four agreed to sign commit-to-caucus cards and become volunteer precinct captains. Two of the four who didn’t, Kelcey Brackett and Karen Cooney, are elected local officials who will remain neutral until closer to or on caucus night.
As the chair of the Muscatine County Democratic Party and an at-large member of the Muscatine City Council, Brackett said he hadn’t really seen “nearly as much” out of her campaign in comparison to some higher-polling candidates in the county that voted for Obama twice before switching to Donald Trump.
Still, Brackett applauded the technique, saying the first candidate to do something similar in the area was former congressman Beto O’Rourke when he first announced. (O’Rourke has since dropped out of the 2020 race.)
In the small clutches, “the individual gets to meet the candidate directly and they can turn around and utilize that meeting to push for additional support,” Brackett told CNN in an interview.
Lipper, Harris’ communications director, seconded that notion.
“You can get a lot by going to a big room. But you can get a lot more,” she added, “the extra hour and a half you spend in a room, without cameras, but with the people who are going to support your campaign.”