By Bill Boyarsky
While it’s fashionable for the media and some of his own supporters to be mourning the demise of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, they may well be overlooking an important point—that the vaunted McCain-Palin ticket has peaked.
What else but such blind optimism could be motivating the unflagging energy of thousands of Obama grass-roots workers? These optimists are making phone calls, walking door to door and recording voter information in a huge database. Some are even moving in with hospitable strangers and sleeping on couches so they can work in states far from home.
“The media doesn’t really know what’s going on with the grass-roots campaign,” Obama campaign worker Keith Martin told a dozen supporters in a pleasant and large Los Angeles yard last weekend as he prepared them to make telephone calls to Nevada. They nodded enthusiastically. By the end of the afternoon, their number had grown to 20. Similar events were being held across the country.
Whether these folks are hardheaded pols or softheaded and delusional will be determined by Election Day, Nov. 4. But a strong argument can be made that they—and the strategists who designed the grass-roots operation—are well prepared for a dash to victory over John McCain and Sarah Palin at the end of the campaign.
The timing is right for them. As they made their calls, powerful economic forces beyond their control—and that of McCain and Obama—were influencing the campaign. Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers headed into bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch was being purchased by Bank of America. The collapse of these famous and venerable firms was followed Monday morning by a report from the Federal Reserve that the nation’s industrial output dropped 1.1 percent in August, most of it in manufacturing and much in motor vehicle production. Economic troubles reached from Wall Street deep into neighborhoods around the country, already hit hard by foreclosures, dropping home prices and new difficulties in obtaining credit.
This will change the presidential campaign. Economic turmoil is bound to overshadow the so-called cultural wars that McCain and Palin have tried to ignite. The debate should shift to Obama’s ground.
The Obama campaign is prepared for the shift. Its grass-roots effort is targeted at tossup states, including several suffering from the bad economy.
The drive, along with a successful voter registration drive in key states, has produced a potentially large turnout of Obama voters—one so big that it throws off the turnout estimates pollsters use for their surveys of likely voters. This would mean the polls have understated the Obama vote.
The Web site Pollster.Com, which compiles a number of surveys, said the race is about even. Obama is now leading in states with a total of 238 electoral votes and McCain in those with a total of 224. States with 76 electoral votes are rated tossups. A total of 270 electoral votes is needed to win.
To best follow the election, watch the numbers in the tossup states rather than those for the nation as a whole.
These are the Web site’s tossup states, with the number of their electoral votes and each candidate’s polling score by percentage: Nevada 5, McCain 47, Obama 44.7; Colorado 9, Obama 46.9, McCain 46.5; New Mexico 5, Obama 47.3, McCain 43.4; Montana 3, McCain 49, Obama 46; Michigan 17, Obama 47, McCain 44.3; Ohio 20, McCain 46, Obama 45.9; Virginia 13, McCain 48, Obama 45.9; New Hampshire 4, McCain 47, Obama 45.3.
My Saturday afternoon visit to the Los Angeles home, in an affluent neighborhood several miles south of the UCLA campus, showed the well-organized nature of the Obama grass-roots operation.
Organizer Martin explained that the volunteers were all calling Nevada, where President George W. Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in 2004. Kerry beat Bush in the strongly Democratic Las Vegas area, but Obama will have to increase the margin, plus improve on Kerry’s showing in the slightly Republican Reno area, to win Nevada’s four electoral votes, which could tip a tight national election.
The economy will undoubtedly shape the result. Foreclosures have hit Las Vegas-area subdivisions hard, and casino business is down.
The callers talk about the economy as they phone from lists from the campaign database, which contains information on each voter ranging from sex, age and party affiliation to whether a person sleeps days—important for Las Vegas casino night workers.
Using a script from the campaign, the volunteers asked those answering the phone if they supported Obama or leaned his way or if they were for McCain or someone else. Answers were entered in the VoteBuilder database. Follow-up calls are made to undecideds or leaners, along with personal visits from precinct walkers, increasing in frequency as Election Day approaches.
This is happening in each of the target states. It is the culmination of an effort that began at the start of the Obama campaign. It’s labor-intensive, requiring many thousands of well-organized volunteers. It’s expensive.
But the economy is in trouble, and if Obama can deliver a message strong and clear enough to match the efforts of his grass-roots workers, it could well work.
AP photo / LM Otero
Barack Obama with supporters in Texas. The Obama campaign’s unprecedented voter registration efforts have limited the accuracy of polling in contentious states.