Marylanders for Obama look to the battlegrounds

October 19, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

With his party's nomination finally in hand, Sen. Barack Obama urged Democratic leaders in Maryland and elsewhere to realize that an extraordinary organizational effort would be needed for him to win in November.

He was young and inexperienced, and he was black. He had to be more than an inspirational speaker. We have to change the game, he said.

His evolving plan required doubling and redoubling what is often called the ground game: voter registration and turnout. He would need a 21st Century version of what campaigns have always done. By many accounts, his campaign has gone at least a step beyond the old formulas.

Candidates have always needed a cadre of true believers. The Illinois senator had this core group, but he knew he needed more. He needed a record-setting registration effort. It set out to arouse a new Democratic electorate: the famously unmotivated young voter.

Final figures are not available from the Maryland state elections board, but there is ample preliminary evidence that the campaign has succeeded in this state. The number of new voters ages 18-20 increased 64 percent between 2004 and 2008.

David Paulson, the Maryland Democratic Party's communications director, says the party had hoped to register an additional 140,000 people this year. Last week the number was 186,000 - and rising. A total of 200,000 may be in reach, he said.

The registration numbers seem all the more remarkable because Maryland is not "in play."

As the campaign went on, the original core group grew. Volunteers by the hundreds of thousands showed up at campaign headquarters all over the country. Some of them signed up for something the campaign began to call Camp Obama - a training program for canvassers, door knockers and others. There were so many volunteers that the campaign could be discriminating.

Many volunteers, including Marylanders, literally moved to battleground states. They're working in places like Pennsylvania and Virginia, living for weeks at a time with "supporter families."

"Marylanders are going farther and staying longer," says Jason Waskey, a Harford County native. He lives now and works in Mr. Obama's Bethesda headquarters.

The Obama campaign is even more sophisticated than the computer-driven effort pioneered by candidate Howard Dean in 2004.

At every Obama rally, someone asks the audience to type a number into their cell phones so the campaign can add their cell number to the list of potential volunteers. There are about 195,000 volunteers in Maryland.

Calls are made in front of a computer screen displaying the voter's party, voting history (not including their choices) and issue concerns. Canvassers can then follow up later. It's faster than the old campaign boiler room.

"We've been making 20,000 calls a day, and we're not at capacity." Mr. Waskey said. On one recent day, the Maryland phone banks logged more calls to undecided voters in Southern Virginia than the local campaign team made.

Mr. Obama has expressed confidence that American voters have moved beyond the so-called Bradley effect, where voters tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate, but don't. The campaign's ground game could nullify that effect - if, indeed, it still exists.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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