Political volunteers take the fight across Md. line

October 18, 2008|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,rick.maese@baltsun.com

Bobbie Monahan has a plan if her candidate, Barack Obama, doesn't win on Election Day.

"I swear to God, I'm going to Canada," said the 63-year-old homelessness counselor.

And with that, Monahan boarded a bus heading north. But not for the border.

She and dozens of other Obama supporters were bound for Philadelphia on a recent weekend, among the thousands of Marylanders who've been devoting time to the dueling presidential campaigns - and leaving the state to maximize their impact.

The concept of exporting volunteers and resources to competitive states isn't new. But state political observers say the scale, the impact and the stakes have never been higher than this year.

With the battlegrounds of Virginia and Pennsylvania just a short ride away, Maryland Republican and Democratic officials have been diverting more and more resources over the state line.

"I think this level of cooperation was almost nonexistent before," said Mike Cryor, chair of the state Democratic Party. "For the most part, we'd been operating as silo states: You take care of yours, I'll take care of mine. I don't think we had organizationally the strength to provide sustainable resources to our adjacent states before. But given the organization and the enthusiasm, we're able to aid these states like never before."

That could bode especially well for the Democrats. More than 180,000 Marylanders have signed up as volunteers for Obama's campaign. Each weekend more than 1,000 of them pile into buses and join caravans to chase the race across state lines.

Monahan's bus departed from the Northwood Plaza shopping center in Northeast Baltimore and took volunteers to Temple University. There, they received their marching orders, split into groups and started visiting neighborhoods to knock on doors and register voters.

For the Obama campaign, it hasn't been enough to outspend and out-register Sen. John McCain. Democrats have been determined to win the battle on the ground.

For years, campaigns relied heavily on television ads and direct mailings. But both campaigns are also preaching the value of in-person contact with prospective voters in the weeks leading up to election.

Technology has made communication and outreach easier, and, for Democrats, the enthusiasm surrounding their candidate has inspired many to join the fight.

When Obama opened his office in Baltimore last month, more than 153,000 Marylanders had already volunteered to help his cause through his Web site. That total has since grown to more than 180,000.

"We were all taken aback by the 150,000 number," said Jason Waskey, Obama's director for volunteer outreach in Maryland. "It was daunting trying to figure out how we were going to contact them all and plug them all in. But you just sit down and get it done."

Many volunteers are charged with simply calling other volunteers, which can lead to a viral spread of their campaign message.

On the first day of phone-banking in Bethesda, a volunteer reached a woman in Silver Spring. Fifteen minutes later, the two were seated next to each other, dialing other prospective volunteers all over the state.

Both parties have operated phone banks 12 hours a day, and have been dialing Pennsylvania and Virginia area codes thousands of times these past several weeks.

Republicans were not able to say how many McCain volunteers had signed up in Maryland. But they've similarly sent carloads of supporters to Virginia to help in the swing state, usually two or three dozen at a time.

"I concentrate more on what we're doing with our volunteers than how many we have," says Chris Cavey, chair of Maryland for McCain. "If they have 180,000 and I have 80,000, well, I'd rather have 80,000 working than 180,000 in the count."

Both campaigns report a sense of vigor, excitement and energy that eclipses past elections. Cavey says it's only smart politics to take that sentiment and put it into action where it can have the biggest impact on the race.

"The presidential electoral process is a zero-sum game," he said. "You've got to get to 270. Electoral vote No. 290 is great, but if you can't get past 268, you're in trouble. The practicality of it is ... Pennsylvania and Virginia are our neighbors, and they're in better position right now to get him to 270 than we are."

It's that attitude that brought many volunteers to Northwood Plaza on a recent Saturday morning. Called a "Drive for Change," the Obama campaign set up 14 meeting points across Maryland. Buses and caravans went to places such as Richmond, Va., and Philadelphia.

"That's what got me to sign up," said Ken Pack, 63, who last volunteered in 1968 for Eugene McCarthy's campaign. "If they said we were going around Maryland, I wouldn't be as excited. You want to go where you think it'll matter most."

A couple of weeks earlier, Betsy Johnson visited an Obama office to pick up a lawn sign.

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