Ground Game

Getting out the Obama vote in a Western swing state



Oct. 7, 2008. The white-erase board on the wall says 29 days until the election. This is my first day volunteering for Obama's Campaign for Change in Steamboat Springs, Colo. The newest polls for this state show it's 44-44, Obama v. McCain. According to those who spend a lot of time studying the way states are leaning, there are 15 different combinations for Obama to reach 264 of the 270 electoral votes needed. If that happens, Colorado's nine can push him over the top.

Dylan, 19, Obama's field organizer for Northwest Colorado and apparently my boss, is in Denver today for training along with Kati, the volunteer coordinator, and Topher, whose job title is a mystery. All three are college students taking a leave of absence. I was greeted by Eric, another young volunteer who arrived a few days earlier. Eric is an attorney from Salt Lake City, an independent who confessed he may have previously registered Republican. We laughed when we realized we were both here in Colorado for the same reason -- that we were Obama supporters and our own home states were a done deal, his red and mine blue.

In the first two hours I realized I have a lot to learn. There are Obama specifics. I was pretty familiar with his health care proposals and some economic stimulus stuff. But I had to bone up on his voting record on guns so I could answer questions. The right to bear arms is a big deal in rural Colorado, just like Humboldt.

Today I learned how to answer the phones ("Colorado Campaign for Change") and that we are completely out of bumper stickers, buttons and lawn signs. We've had five requests this morning from people walking in, including a pretty grimy-looking guy who just got off a six-day shift on an oil rig. He was "from McCain country," he told us, which is basically everywhere except Steamboat here on the Western Slope of the Rockies.

The office is lively, with phones ringing and people wandering in and out. Sue came in to make reminder phone calls to those working the phone banks the next two nights starting at 4. Eric and I joined them on the phones for a few hours then we all quit early to watch the second Obama-McCain debate from Tennessee.

The computer systems are pretty sophisticated. The data is not just voter registration info like party affiliation, age and gender. If it were, it would be out of date already anyway. The furious push up until Monday, the day I arrived, was registering new voters. Another 500 names were turned in by the deadline here in Routt County.

The database is massive and "turf" can be "cut" in many different ways. If we make calls during the day, we use an "over 60" cut since retirees may be home. (What we found was that many of those "over 60" were still in the workforce in these economic times.) When we are calling strictly for volunteers to work a few phone banks per week, we call identified strong Obama supporters only, an easy job even if they say no. Then there are intermittent voters of all stripes, including Republicans and many, many Undeclared. We're after them. We learn some of them have moved. Some are committed McCain backers, which they let you know about pretty quickly. When we find Obama voters we ask them to volunteer, too. We're going to need lots of help. The purpose of all this calling is to clean up the database so the big list in the sky can be cut and used more efficiently without extraneous names, especially in the last critical weekend before the election. The list grows smaller and better every day.

In addition to phoning and data entry, I started to canvass. It's like phone work except door-to-door, face-to-face. Before I left Humboldt I got a few tips from my Jehovah Witness friends about not getting discouraged and making a little noise, like whistling, before approaching a house. You don't want to startle anyone.

I found out whistling isn't necessary because every house and most apartments have a very large dog and sometimes two or three. We quickly assess dog friendliness and have learned that yes, your choice of dog says something about you. I'll take an owner of a border collie or a lab any day. When one woman opened the door gently restraining her golden retriever, I knew I'd found a friendly face.

One evening we walked the streets of Hayden, about 30 miles west. Extreme pockets of poverty like we saw in Hayden exist throughout this nation and along with it, a smell of hopelessness, lots of suspicion and ignorance. Over and over we hear how Obama is going to take away our guns and raise everyone's taxes. ("No, he's not" and "Only if you make more than $200,000," not likely here in Hayden.) We are told, he's a Muslim. ("He's a Christian.") Once we heard, "His daddy was from Iraq."

We usually don't double up, because canvassing solo we can hit many more houses, correcting and whittling down our database. Mostly we listen to what's on the minds of these potential voters and try to answer questions, one-on-one. I met Deborah, who works 50 or more hours a week on her computer at home and hopes that Obama really will come up with a plan for inexpensive government health insurance. She's 58 and goes without, hoping to make it through to 65 when Medicare takes over. Marita, a 60-something Filipino who married an Army guy 40 years ago, was angry about how many foreign countries, including the United States, have invaded and occupied her country of birth. She wanted to know when were we going to stop. Sally, who answered the door of a house the size of a shed, said she didn't want to talk about the health insurance she didn't have, but the job she can't find. Tracey owns the pizza joint in Hayden. She says she keeps cutting her employees back on their hours and working more herself and she was exhausted. I was exhausted just watching her three-year-old race around the patio as we talked.

These visits are persuasion calls. We hope, by providing accurate information, we can reduce their fear of the unknown, this new leader and the direction he hopes to take this country.

Sometimes my own hope runs pretty low. I'm starting a list of these people of Hayden and I'd like to return for another visit in two years. If things are not heading in another direction by then I will work against whoever it is in office.


Twenty-one days to E-Day. Weekday mornings are quiet, with the younger volunteers and staff sleeping in, then showing up with oversized coffees. Afternoons we prepare lists and map walking territories. Evenings we canvass and make phone calls, followed by the all-important data entry. The first report on how many calls, how many doors knocked, how many people we talked to, is due by 9 p.m. Then all data is entered and reported up the chain of command by midnight. On weekends the pace picks up, often with three canvass and calling shifts each day.

The other day we regulars traveled an hour and a half east over the great continental divide to the city of Dillion. There we received training on the critical last four days before the election, called "get out the vote" (GOTV). The room filled that day with volunteers who broke roughly into two groups: the graying oldsters like me and the young people. The new Quinnipac poll on Colorado this week shows 52-43 percent Obama, we learned today, but we can't trust it. Greg, who is field organizer for the Western Slope and boss of my boss, Dylan, reminds us how close it was in 2000 (remember Florida?) and again in 2004 (remember Ohio?). It just can't happen again.

I have gotten to know my newest supervisor, Miranda. She's a powerhouse -- just 21, fresh from college with a degree in campaign management. She has volunteered -- volunteered! -- to head up the final GOTV push into Moffat County, one hour west of Steamboat, which is in Routt County. I've called voters in Moffat. I even went door-to-door last Saturday. Let me tell you what I know about Moffat. It is poor (except for the few big ranchers) and voted 74 percent Bush-Republican in 2004. It is also a place prisoners are sometimes released -- I met one Saturday -- and it reportedly has a high rate of meth abuse. And guess what? Miranda wants me on her team.

Actually, I'm OK with that. Working in Steamboat Springs with mostly like-minded progressive people is fun, but we just reinforce each other. (I say "mostly" because there were three guys in the Panda Restaurant yesterday with T-shirts reading "NOBAMA" on the front and "NONIGGER" on the back. Sweet.) Moffat County is a bigger challenge. Our assignment is to wring out another hundred or so votes for Obama than Kerry got in 2004. I don't know how hard that's going to be yet because I haven't studied the voting reports. Miranda has, and she says we can do it. But then, Miranda is the type who would say, if you flap your arms fast enough, you can fly.


I raced up the stairs to the campaign office and almost missed the opening. If there's one thing I've learned about the Obama organization, it's discipline. There's a specific chain of command; data deadlines must be met and conference calls start on time.

"Hi guys, this is Barack" came booming out of the computer's speaker. He was the coach delivering a halftime speech to his foot soldiers in the battleground states. I'm sure he didn't know there was a member of the press listening in, but what could they do? Fire me? I'm a volunteer.

The first half of the chat was predictable. When the history of this campaign is written, he told us, rhetoric soaring, it will be a story of the effort made by people like us, mostly volunteers, sleeping in strange beds and sharing bathrooms, working hard to change the course of the country.

Then he shifted gears. "With 18 days to go, to be this close and fall short is unacceptable." And he was concerned that some staff or volunteers may be "communicating a certain arrogance or sense of entitlement" because we are leading in the polls. "None of that high-fiving," he warned. "You are all ambassadors of this campaign" and we were never to forget that this election is not about us; it's about the people of this country and their struggles.

"So go out there every day and work like we're 10 points down," he said. "If I hear about anyone acting cocky, I'm going to come down on you guys. ... Remember, 18 days ago McCain and I were tied. People are counting on us. I'm leaving everything I got on the field and I expect you to, too."

Then Campaign Chair David Plouffe got on the conference call to wrap it up. He reminded us about all the swings in this election season that were coincidentally 18 days long: Up in Iowa, down in New Hampshire. Down in Pennsylvania, up in Indiana. Obama's historic acceptance speech at the convention, then tied in the polls with McCain -- just 18 days later.

Plouffe also delivered a warning of his own about the evil media: Make no mistake. The press is just itching to write the McCain comeback story!

The mood in the room was somber when the call ended. Then Dylan, Cassidy, Kati, Topher and Eric -- all avoiding eye contact and making no comment -- went back to work.


Things aren't going very well in Craig, a city of 9,500 and the only population center of rural Moffat County. For the last three weeks Miranda and I have gone there on Saturday to knock on doors. We meet at the park at 10:30 a.m. with our clipboards, buttons and literature, and three people show up to help -- the same three people. We've also made literally hundreds of calls to Craig Democrats and Undeclareds asking for volunteers with almost zero response. Somehow we are supposed to come up with enough volunteers to fill six shifts a day (three phone banks and three canvass) for four straight days of GOTV, Nov. 1-4. According to our training, if a Dem, Undeclared or Obama-leaning Republican has not voted, we are supposed to find them and drag them to the polls before 7 p.m.

We returned late Saturday to Steamboat tired, but not entirely discouraged. If my door-to-door work is to be believed, Craig is no longer 74 percent Bush-McCain country. I met a 30-something guy who works at the coal-fired power plant, the only industry in Moffat except hunting. After we talked guns, he said, "You know, I think I am voting for Obama. I have too many friends who've been to Iraq. Six years is enough. We have our own problems here at home." There was one woman in a nice house up by the community college, a Republican, who pulled the door closed behind her so we could talk on the porch. She said she was voting for Obama, but she didn't want to upset her husband. And then there are new people in town, those who have moved here since the last election. One is a rancher-woman in her 70s who wanted to be closer to her kids. And then there's Brianna and her husband Jason, the finance manager at the local car dealership. Every Saturday, Brianna shows up to knock on doors, often bringing her two young kids if she can't find a neighbor to watch them. She once even paid a babysitter $30 I'm sure she needed elsewhere so she could attend a GOTV training session out of town.

Miranda slumped over her computer late that Saturday, raking over names in the database. She chose a dozen or so known Obama households and wrote down their addresses. We were tired of making phone pleas for help to answering machines. I returned the next day, teamed up with Brianna and both kids, and punched addresses into my GPS. It's one thing to ignore phone messages, asking you to volunteer. It's another thing to say no to someone standing on your porch. We also started stopping at any house with an Obama sign to ask for sign-ups (Brianna's terrific idea). That day I returned to the office with 16 shifts filled for our GOTV effort. Heck, we even signed up a 17-year-old Subway sandwich shop girl who said she liked our cool campaign buttons. We felt like we had turned some kind of corner.


There's lots of excitement in Steamboat this week. No, we are not likely to see any of the top names in this presidential race -- no Michelle, no Sarah -- heck, no Todd. But Tuesday we got a bus loaded with Mark Udall, son of Mo, a congressman who's running for U.S. Senate, and Rep. John Salazar. I have been ignoring most of the Colorado races and ballot measures. I don't want to clutter my brain for an election I can't vote in. But knocking on doors, I can tell you John Salazar, a no-nonsense rancher, is a shoo-in for reelection.

Then on Friday former Gov. Roy Romer showed up in his Rural Tour bus for the Obama-Biden ticket and stopped for breakfast at The Shack. Traveling with him was Ken Salazar, a U.S. senator who is even more popular than his brother John. That night Salazar, in his cowboy hat and bolo tie, was on the Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC) explaining how the political dynamics of Colorado are shifting. "The (Obama) ground game has already delivered. In 2004 we were 200,000 down. Now (Democrats) are even with Republicans." He said there has already been a dramatic surge in mail-in balloting and early voting, two keys of the Obama plan.

After meeting the Salazars, I came to believe Obama may be riding on the brothers' coattails this election in this state. I don't care. Team Craig will take all the help we can get. We just got the final tallies of eligible voters for Moffat County: Republicans, 4,351, Undeclareds, 2,716 and Dems, a distant third with 1,432. Those are daunting numbers. At an environmental group's meeting last night -- yes, in addition to the Dems, there are 10 registered Greens in the entire county -- someone told me if any Dem gets 40 percent of the vote in Moffat, that's a resounding victory. (John Kerry received only 25 percent in 2004.)

Now we have our target: We'll shoot for 40 percent -- 3,410 votes out of 8,525. We'll still lose Moffat County big time Nov. 4, but if everyone does their job we won't lose Colorado.


I can't look at the polls anymore. There are half a dozen showing "the wind at our backs," as Obama said yesterday as he got on the plane to visit his dying grandmother. But what about the national AP-GfK poll of "likely voters" just released? AP is a reputable pollster, right? It says 44-43 Obama.

"The race is tightening."

"McCain gains with voters making less than $50,000."

"McCain gains in rural voters."

"McCain leads by more than 20 percent among whites with no college education."

The polls can't all be right. And what does GfK mean anyway? I don't have time to do a computer search, but it looks like something on the Jon Stewart Show -- "G# f@#K!"

I'm swearing off polls for the duration. Besides, we're packing up yard signs, buttons and literature. We have one hard weekend of work left before GOTV and election day. We just have to get the latest canvass walk and phone lists out of the printer in Steamboat and we're off to Craig.

Then my cell phone rings. "Don't come in," said Miranda. "We've received a threat. We've had to evacuate."

Apparently one of our canvassers knocked on the wrong door and left literature. When the guy returned home, he made four increasingly threatening phone calls to the office ending with, "I know where you are and I'm coming." The police were called and all canvass and phone teams cancelled that Friday night. Through the magic of caller ID, we learned he is a whacko well known to the Steamboat police. While they searched for him, two volunteers snuck back to the office for the Craig lists.

The next day a dozen volunteers, more than we've ever had in Craig, completed three shifts of knocking on doors and three phone banks. The lists are now brutal. I've been working here for more than three weeks, and Miranda, Brianna and others, three months, identifying Obama supporters, trying to convince those who are convinceable, and tagging them for the GOTV push. Most people have been canvassed or phoned, so those left on these lists have moved, died, or don't want to be found, hence the pit bull in the front yard.

I combed through two squalid trailer parks and three large housing complexes where people rent month-to-month. Sitting on the stoop enjoying a smoke and a beer was a woman in her 30s. I was looking for her boyfriend "Marcus." Yes, she said, they both registered for the first time and were Obama supporters. She was thankful to learn that they could vote early at the courthouse. Monday was their only day off. In 2004, voters often had to wait two hours to cast their ballots.

My results that day were pretty slim. I came back with a total of three "likely Obama."


Seven days until E-Day. So far we have been commuting to work in Craig, an hour each way. This week we're moving into Craig's new Obama headquarters, the basement of Brianna's house. We have our laptops to cut turf, two borrowed printers, reams of paper and plenty of clipboards. We also just heard a rumor there are 700 GOTV volunteers coming from out of state to help in western Colorado alone. Team Craig might get a few, but we can't count on it. The plan this week is to call more Dems every day to fill the rest of our GOTV shifts with Craig people. We have poll watchers already scheduled, access to an attorney if it becomes necessary, a hospitality crew to make sure we're all fed, a growing list of canvassers and a "visibility" team to wave signs on election day along Highway 40 -- also known as Victory Avenue.

One week. I think we're ready.

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