In Virginia, a Test of the Obama Machine

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.


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."

After McDonnell's 2009 win, in an 18-point blowout, his team took over and revamped the state party. Republicans made further inroads in 2010 (winning three congressional seats) and 2011 (taking control of the state senate). McDonnell, an early and enthusiastic Romney endorser who remains popular, is now in the process of throwing his organization behind Romney, and the state party has opened nine Virginia field offices -- a ready-made infrastructure for the nominee to step into.

"We never stopped," Rexrode said. "Everything we've done since 2009 has been building toward this year."

Added Pete Snyder, chairman of the GOP Victory combined campaign: "It's been a really tough time to be a Democrat in Virginia since the president was elected."

Democrats don't deny it. But they say the biggest difference between 2008 and the ensuing years of Republican success was simple: Fewer people voted. And that's why organization -- the critical effort to find, motivate and turn out voters one by one -- will be the key.

Some 3.7 million Virginians voted in 2008, a record high for the commonwealth. In 2009, the total was just over half that, at 2 million. In 2010, it was 2.1 million, and in the 2011 legislative elections, just 1.5 million. In those numbers, the Obama campaign sees a simple math problem: All it has to do is get all those people who stayed home the last three years -- many of them low-propensity voters such as youths and minorities -- back out to the polls.

"People got complacent. People thought, OK, we got Barack Obama elected, now everything's going to be OK," said Gayle Fleming, a 64-year-old realtor who volunteers three days a week at the Arlington campaign office. "My baby brother voted for the first time in his 50s. People who had never been political before came out and voted and thought, 'OK, I'm done.'"

Now, she said, the campaign has to remind those people that the job is not finished.

That idea was the theme of Obama's heavily nostalgic Saturday rallies, which led off with a video recounting the dark days of the 2008 financial crisis and introducing the campaign's new slogan, "Forward." (The bleachers behind Obama in Richmond got blue "Forward." signs, while those on the floor in front of the president answered them with red placards reading, "Not back.") Another pre-speech video took the crowd back to such 2008 highlights as Sarah Palin making fun of community organizers in her Republican convention speech, and the Fox News anchor who wondered if Obama's fist-bump greeting was actually a "terrorist fist jab."

The president, for his part, tore into Republicans in Congress and portrayed Romney as out of touch. "We've come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years," Obama said. "Virginia, we've got to move forward, to the future that we imagined in 2008."

To a remarkable degree, Saturday's rally revolved around the Obama campaign's organizing efforts. For nearly an hour leading up to the president's late afternoon speech, the program consisted almost entirely of pleas for volunteer commitment. A video about the importance of voter registration was followed by testimony from two team leaders, followed by a video about the virtues of "the neighborhood team leader model," followed by a leader and four members of her team, followed by two field staffers talking up the grassroots campaign model. After Kaine spoke, two more organizers took the stage to drive home the point.

"This campaign will not be won by debates, or talking heads, or campaign ads," said Sai Iyer, a 22-year-old VCU senior who is one a few dozen honorary national co-chairs of the Obama campaign. "It will be won by the number of doors we knock on, the voters we register, the people we talk to."

So relentless was the pitch for involvement that the rally began to feel a bit like an Amway meeting. But it was a stark contrast with Romney's events, where the Republican -- who is, perhaps, under no illusion that he leads an inspirational movement -- can rarely be bothered to mention that he has a website, much less issue calls for mass mobilization.

Stirring the legions who flocked to him in 2008 will not be easy for Obama this time around. Thanks to the campaign's hard work, the VCU arena was full, but it was hardly jam-packed, with empty seats here and there and no reports of anyone being turned away. In the standing-room floor space in front of the president, a troop of Boy Scouts who had led the pledge of allegiance had plenty of room to wander, sit, and lie down as they waited. Last time Obama campaigned in Richmond, in 2008, he crammed 13,000 fans into a larger venue, the Richmond Coliseum, though that was just weeks before the election, not six months.

Still, the Richmond crowd on Saturday was an unqualified success for Team Obama compared to the president's first speech of the day in Columbus, Ohio, which drew 14,000 to a 20,000-seat venue, leaving the upper tiers conspicuously unfilled. As Republicans reveled in pointing out this deficiency, the Obama campaign brushed it off by noting that Romney has yet to draw a crowd a third of that size. (Remember when Romney spoke to a pathetically small crowd in a giant stadium in Detroit in February? Democrats are happy to remind you.)

In states like Virginia, Obama's chances in November are likely to hinge on whether he can engineer an electorate that looks and feels more like 2008's than those of the intervening years.

Obama himself, in his speech in Richmond, drove home the theme.

"If there's one thing we learned in 2008, it's that nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change," he said. "When enough of you knock on doors and enough of you pick up the phone, when enough of you are talking to your friends and your coworkers, when you decide that it's time for change to happen, guess what? Change happens. Change comes to America."