The ups and downs of the ground game campaigns: “We’re votin’ for the n***er!”

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Alex Massie featured an encouraging dispatch from a Democratic operative in Ohio last Wednesday: The Ground Game: The View From Ohio. It’s impressive stuff:

I got placed in Bowling Green, right by Bowling Green State University. [..] The county is a swing county, but that is mostly because there are 50,000 rural families and 25,000 Bowling Green residents combined with 25,000 Bowling Green students. [..] No candidate has carried Ohio without carrying Wood County (BG is the county seat). One would think that this historical oddity would almost mandate a heavy McCain presence, but alas there is none to speak of.

I spent a little bit of time at the Obama state HQ in Columbus yesterday. It was jaw dropping. They had taken over an old mega-church. The first floor was a warren of staffers running around all very young and all very busy. The basement was probably the size of a supermarket, lined with table after table. Each table was staffed by four youngsters, all responsible for a different city, county, task etc. It looked like the command center for a massive army. No windows, no natural light, but filled with kids who probably had no idea it was 8am all hovering over computers, maps, data sheets. There were 600 staffers there, all dedicated to Ohio, at 8am. I’m amazed.

Phonebanking for Obama

Volunteers phonebanking in San Francisco (Images used under CC license from Flickr user SanFranAnnie)

In another recent dispatch from the trail, the Denver Post emphasised the mindboggling extent to which the ground games of both campaigns are driven by sophisticated micro-targeting:

The campaigns are wary about giving specifics, but [..] McCain and Obama campaign strategists have created intelligence reports of sorts on voters, neighborhoods and cities.

Using formulas parsing voter history, the kinds of magazines people read, cars they drive, credit cards they own and jobs they hold, they have mapped tossup precincts, tossup homes and tossup voters.

They look at neighborhoods, cities and counties that have seen demographic shifts. A Democrat or a Republican who has always been a loyal party voter may get a call from the other side based on where they just moved or a newspaper they just started subscribing to.

Volunteer headquarters everywhere are bustling, the underlying data machines are humming — and then there’s the way the Obama campaign uses its mass rallies to convert sympathisers into volunteers and plug them directly into those microtargeted data. Fivethirtyeight’s Sean Quinn reported from Ohio as well on Thursday:

When local field organizer Christian Lund took the stage just prior to Joe Biden’s appearance on Tuesday night in Marietta, he asked those in the attendant crowd of about 4,000 to look at the sheets in their hands. Each sheet held four names, and each name had a phone number and a bar code for later data scanning. Lund asked the people in the crowd to make four phone calls to this targeted group, and then he demonstrated.

Lund got voicemail. Over the microphone, he left a message informing his phonee about where and when to early vote, as well as where and when the Obama volunteer office was located in town and what it’s hours were. After he was finished, it was the crowd’s turn. “We even got extra cell tower juice just for tonight” Lund told the crowd, so go ahead and make four quick calls on Barack Obama’s behalf. They did. [..]

The goal is gathering a larger and larger volunteer base. A whole night’s shift of phone calls may seem intimidating to a lot of people, particularly introverts, but it’s pretty hard to say no to four calls. Cleverly, Obama’s campaign reasons that the most difficult part of volunteering is the first four calls or knocks. [..] Once over the comfort threshold, a potential shift volunteer now feels invested in the work.

Volunteers phonebanking in Stoughton, WI (Images used under CC license from Flickr user Barack Obama)

But beyond all the cutting edge technology and unprecedented organisation, make no mistake: the shoe leather work is as exhausting as always – perhaps even more so in this over-saturated, closely contested race. Finding persuadable voters is like looking for needles in a haystack. Observes Time’s Karen Tumulty pounding the pavement with an Obama volunteer in Virginia:

Saturdays in the suburbs aren’t the ideal time to find people at home. I followed Brian to 13 houses on his list, and no one answered at 10 of them. (He left an Obama brochure in the door of each.) At one, the woman at the door told him she was “leaning” toward McCain, though I thought she seemed more settled in her decision than that. At another, a teen-aged girl told him: “My dad is a super-strong Republican. You’re probably at the wrong house.” (He duly marked that down, to save future canvassers the trouble.)

[We] approached another house on the list and found a father and son raking the front yard. “I’m voting for McCain,” the father told us. But his 19-year-old son, a college student home for the weekend, told us he plans to send in his absentee ballot for Obama. His reason? “Palin’s a retard,” he said. As for the lady of the house? McCain, the man said. “She has to live here. The kids I can kick out.”

It’s no different in Denver:

On a walk through a southwest Denver neighborhood last week, Obama volunteer 26-year-old Raj Grewal was having little luck — even at homes with cars in the driveway. Most front porches were cluttered with ballot initiative and U.S. Senate race fliers.

A New York corporate lawyer who took a sabbatical to volunteer for Obama in Colorado, he received only one response: A women yelled from the door that she was too busy.

Phonebanking for Obama in Indiana (Image used under CC license from Flickr user aflcio2008)

What do they do it all for? Aside for sheer idealism, what keeps the volunteers going? There’s the rare but unambiguously encouraging moments when you find that one uncommitted voter and persuade him, of course. But maybe it’s also the moments that really bring home just how surreal politics, and this race in particular is. That are at once telling and typical for this race, and upside-down bizarre. You can consider this latest one from Quinn’s field reporting sad, of course, in it’s own tragic way, but reading about it made me laugh out loud. It also neatly ties in with Sozobe’s post last week:

So a canvasser goes to a woman’s door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she’s planning to vote for. She isn’t sure, has to ask her husband who she’s voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, “We’re votin’ for the n***er!”

Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: “We’re voting for the n***er.”

A seachange election; people voting for their economic interest over the old culture war divisions. And that in the year that the first African-American presidential candidate is running. Class wins out (even) over race – what more can you say?

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