In Virginia, a Test of the Obama Machine

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Obama's turnout operation turned reliably red Virginia blue in 2008 and has a massive head start this year. But the GOP won't be taken by surprise again.

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Reuters

RICHMOND, Va. -- In the days and weeks leading up to President Obama's Saturday campaign kick-off rally here, his army was hard at work.

In Arlington, a Washington suburb two hours' drive from Richmond, 10 Obama die-hards ranging in age from 18 to 64 had spent their Thursday night on cheap cell phones, reading from papers labeled "POTUS/FLOTUS in Virginia Recruitment Sheet" and ringing a bell every time they got a commitment to attend. In Charlottesville, a University of Virginia student named Lauren Bryant personally made 80 phone calls in the days preceding the event, then convinced her 37-year-old cousin Nathan Rodgers, a not-particularly-politically-active Richmond-area liberal, to go with her. On Friday night, Valerie Salaam, a 51-year-old Richmond-area project manager who donated her money but not her time in 2008, was among a few hundred volunteers who gathered at the event site to be trained, and was assigned ticket-taker duty.

In this pivotal swing state, the Obama reelection campaign was revving up for its first test drive.

In the small Tidewater town of Surry, two Obama-supporting independents, 59-year-old Nancy Rodrigues and 71-year-old Mike Abley, had gotten an email weeks before from the Senate campaign of Democrat Tim Kaine, the former governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and started making plans. In Vienna, just outside the Washington Beltway, a neighborhood team of eight women who'd been meeting at each other's houses since January made plans to carpool. The campaign distributed glossy, full-color, beautifully designed tickets at its 13 offices around the state -- not because tickets were actually required to get in (they weren't), but to make people feel like they ought to show up.

The result: When the president took the stage at Virginia Commonwealth University for his first official day of campaigning for reelection, the stands were filled with 8,000 adoring fans who greeted him with screams of enthusiasm.

The point, for the campaign, wasn't just to create a 2008-vintage tableau of Obama whipping up a big crowd, though in these days of political disaffection and economic sluggishness that's no small thing. Even more than that, it was to send a message: In Virginia, a state Republicans safely banked on in presidential elections for decades until it flipped in 2008, the Obama organization is back.

"We are going to win this thing," Obama told the Richmond crowd, "door by door, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood."

In 2008, that's exactly what happened in Virginia, a state last won by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964. The commonwealth had never seen such a blitz, from the 75 Campaign for Change field offices that dotted every corner of Virginia's vast geography to the $25 million in Obama television ads. It wasn't just a matter of the Republicans' limited financial resources -- John McCain's campaign spent less than $8 million on ads in the state -- it was that the GOP was fatally slow to wake up to the previously unthinkable prospect of losing the upper bound of the Confederacy.

This year, the Obama team is promising to mount a similar all-out effort, but there will be a major difference: He won't be running virtually unopposed.

"McCain spent very little money in Virginia. They assumed it was a Republican state," said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political observer and former VCU professor based in Richmond. "That's not going to happen this time. You're already seeing the super PACs airing ads here. [Republican Mitt] Romney will not be at the same disadvantage as McCain in Virginia, and he's certainly not taking it for granted."

More than any other factor in this election -- the spin, the television ads, the speeches and debates -- Democrats hope Obama's vaunted grass-roots operation will give them the edge in the 2012 campaign. The former community organizer's massive field organization isn't just the bedrock of Obama's turnout strategy; it's a key philosophical component of his self-styled image as the leader of a people-powered social change movement. And it works. In 2008, according to one academic study, the ground game likely flipped the outcome in several states.

At this point, the Democrats have a major head start on the Republicans in Virginia. Multiple early polls show Obama leading Romney, including a Washington Post poll last week that put the president's lead at 51 percent to Romney's 44 percent.

The Obama campaign has opened 13 field offices, with a paid staff of dozens, and has been mobilizing its volunteers -- phone banking, holding house parties, registering voters -- for months. Last week, more than 500 people packed the office in Falls Church, in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, for a "Women for Obama" event with the president's senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has virtually no presence in the state, thanks in part to the fact that the Virginia primary wasn't competitive after only Romney and Ron Paul managed to make the ballot. Romney campaigned in the state for the first time last week and just announced the hiring of a Virginia state director.

But the Virginia GOP has come a long way since four years ago, when a leadership fight and years of neglect had left the state party in disarray. As a candidate for governor in 2009 -- the commonwealth's state-level elections are held in odd years -- Bob McDonnell and his team studied the Democrats' recent successes and set out to even the score.

"Oh-eight was probably the worst electoral year in Virginia Republican history. We lost two incumbent members of Congress and a Republican-held open seat, our Senate candidate lost, and obviously Obama won," said Dave Rexrode, who was McDonnell's deputy campaign manager and now serves as executive director of the state GOP. "After that, [the McDonnell campaign] did a thorough analysis of what went wrong, a top-to-bottom review. We started over and created a new model of how to do campaigns in Virginia at the grassroots level."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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