Grassroots organizing a bull’s eye
to Barack victory in Buckeye State
FOUR from a group ofvolunteers travel from the Ohioan community of Buffalo to canvass in the city of Garfield Heights, proving that of appears to have a greater presence in as the fight for this pivotal state enter its final hours.
David Ahntholz/NEW YORK TIMES
Organized volunteers fight in
street-by-street ground war
CLEVELAND – The callers, volunteers at a Clinton campaign field office here, had some exciting news last week for the randomly dialed Democrats on the other end of the line. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of was appearing at a high school in the next day, and there was still plenty of room for cheering spectators.
But after 30 minutes of cold-calling, the volunteers, a mix of soft-spoken professionals and grizzled unionists, were beginning to wilt from the rejections.
“Oh really?” one woman at the phone bank was overheard saying again and again. “Even though he’s only been in the Senate three years? Well I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Not far away, a similar phone-banking session was taking place at a campaign office for Senator Barack Obama of , but the task at hand was much different.
There, callers were trying to work their way through a list of people who were eager to volunteer but had been waiting days for an assignment. Some of the 100 or so names had been collected during an Obama appearance the previous night that drew 6,000 people to the Cleveland Convention Center.
“Our rallies fill themselves,” Ann Dailey, a worker, said with satisfaction. Ms. Dailey bolted to answer a ringing telephone.
For all the endless rallies and the 1,400 television advertisements a day the candidates have run in the last weeks, it is the street-by-street ground war that will determine the outcome of the Democratic primary on Tuesday. Phone calls must be made, doors knocked on, and every declared supporter dragged to a polling place, even if it means helping an elderly voter get dressed and providing escort to a waiting car.
“It’s basic retail politics,” said Jim Ruvolo, a Democratic strategist who helped run Senator John Kerry’s Ohio campaign in 2004. “It means getting in their face to the point that they say, ‘If you call me one more time I’m not going to vote.’ Of course, you make sure to call them again.”
Although both campaigns got a late start in , with most field offices opening in the last 10 days, Mr. Obama appears to have a greater presence as the fight for the state enters its final hours. In part that is because he has more money and television spots, but mostly because he has capitalized on a surge in grass-roots organizing that preceded the arrival of paid staff members. Most of them did not show up until a week after the Feb. 5 nominating contests, when it became clear the race would be pivotal.
Chris Redfern, the state Democratic Party chairman, said the Clinton campaign, backed by Gov. and his party machinery, was doing an admirable job. But the energy and organizing prowess of the Obama followers have been unlike anything ever seen before in .
“She’s doing everything right, and had there not been a guy named in the race, she’d be the nominee,” said Mr. Redfern, who is staying neutral. “The Obama army is larger, more enthusiastic, more confident, and they are young and naïve enough to think they can win.”
But that enthusiasm did not help Mr. Obama in . As both sides strategize, organize and propagandize their way to the finish line, they acknowledge that the race remains unnervingly close.
Mrs. Clinton maintains a small lead in the polls, and she is expected to do well in rural areas and among the state’s large white blue-collar electorate. Mr. Obama is counting on heavy support from black voters and the college campus faithful, who are expected to turn out in record numbers.
The nerve centers for both campaigns operate two blocks from each other, on the ragged fringe of downtown Columbus, the state capital.
Although the Obama headquarters are slightly less luxurious, occupying two rows of wallboard boxes in a vacant storefront, both offices have the chaotic feel of a college dormitory lounge the night before finals. They are packed with the young and the earnest, all of them hunched over laptops, cellphones pinched between shoulder and ear; every flat surface is littered with neglected sandwiches, empty bottles of microbrewery beer and maps of the 18 Congressional districts that are the state’s geographic battlefields.
Enthusiasm levels are high in both camps, and what is most striking about the workers is their youth. “This is a young person’s game,” said Isaac Baker, a Clinton spokesman, who at 28 is considered a senior member of ’s field operations. “No one else could endure these kinds of hours.”
Unlike Mr. Obama’s strategists, who were visibly rattled by the presence of an outsider, officials in the Clinton camp allowed a reporter to linger in their tactical command center on Thursday night. In a windowless space nicknamed the field room, Marlon Marshall, 28, was overseeing six workers who were dispatching lawn signs, volunteers and bundles of literature across the state while desperately looking for a misplaced drill to hang a white board.
As Sari Bourne, 23, the out-of-state volunteer coordinator, tried to persuade a Michigan woman to drive to to knock on doors, a worker popped in to announce that there were not enough chairs for the dozens of volunteers arriving for an evening phone bank session.
Although the Clinton campaign declined to reveal the size of its paid army (the Obama camp has boasted of more than 150 paid organizers), Ms. Bourne said she was trying to juggle about 500 newly arrived volunteers, many ending up on the couches of Clinton backers across the state. Like her colleagues, she said she was getting by on three or four hours of sleep each night. The exhaustion contributed to a mishap the day before that led to her BlackBerry ending up in a toilet.
“You come in sleep-deprived and you don’t look your best, but we have a job to do,” Ms. Bourne said. “We’re all getting by on an adrenaline rush.”
Just then the door flew open and someone yelled “dinner.” Twenty boxes of Domino’s Pizza were hurled onto a countertop. A crowd quickly formed, and five minutes later the boxes were nearly empty. “I can’t remember the last time I ate with a fork and knife,” a young man muttered as he grabbed the last slice.
Although both campaigns have made extensive use of the Internet to raise money and promote organizing, the Obama campaign’s Web site has been far more successful in encouraging individuals to plan the phone-banking parties and small-town rallies that have helped fortify the campaign with foot soldiers and infuse it with a sense of momentum. In a scene that has played out across the state, a “Licking County for Obama” notice that went up last month drew 25 people to a volunteer meeting at a public library. The next week, there were so many attendees, the meeting had to be split into two shifts of 30 each.
“Obama fever hits, and everything changes,” said Chris Keck, 27, a student at Ohio State University’s Newark campus, who attended the meetings.
Although they are free to engage undecided voters, this late in the game the thousands of canvassers traipsing across snow-covered lawns are supposed to be focused on the faithful. If the campaigns are doing their jobs, declared supporters will receive another call or two in the next 48 hours. Those who do not show up at the polls will receive another call, and possibly a knock on the door. (In , lists of those who have voted are posted at election sites at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.)
“At this point you have to remind people to go to the polls,” said Robby Mook, the Clinton campaign’s Ohio field director. “That face-to-face interaction makes all the difference.”
Personal interaction can also mean coming across campaign partisans with hand-written signs outside a supermarket. This rather primitive campaign activity – known as “viz,” short for visibility – is supposed to stir up communal excitement and does not cost a cent.
On a recent afternoon, high school students who called themselves “the Hillarettes” stood in the slush at a busy suburban intersection holding Hillary placards. They hooted. They jumped up and down. They shouted slogans like “When I say madam, you say president.” Some drivers honked appreciatively, but many others opened their windows to taunt the group by hollering “Obama.” Gauging from the lewd gestures tossed their way, the Hillarettes were looking a lot like campaign cannon fodder.
But each time they appeared deflated, an affirmative honk roused them into cheers. Jaileen Diaz, 17, one of the teenagers, said she had been a Clinton enthusiast since meeting the senator during a visit to her high school in the Bronx.
“I’m learning a lot about politics,” said Ms. Diaz, who had endured an eight-hour bus ride to . “The Democratic process is very exciting,” she said, pausing as an elderly woman in a offered a thumbs down. “I just didn’t know people could be so mean about it.”
VOLUNTEERS and staff worked in a back room of the Obama state headquarters in Columbus.
David Ahntholz/NEW YORK TIMES