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Organizing for Election Day

Kezia Simister

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An Obama sign in Texas
(Kezia Simister)
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There are 24 days until the election, and all eyes are on the so-called "battleground" states. Are you feeling left out? Well, most of us are. The majority of Americans don't live in swing states. But chances are, you've got one nearby. And what neighbor isn't at least tempted to lean over the fence with a little friendly advice? As part of the get-out-the-vote strategy, volunteers working for both tickets are crossing state lines to build support for their candidates and hopefully tilt the scale by Election Day. In Texas, Kezia Simister checked in with some of the campaign border crossers.

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The recent poll shows John McCain leading Barack Obama by nine points in Texas. But you wouldn't know it from the number of volunteers at the Obama headquarters in Austin. Last weekend, 50 of them crowded into a warehouse for a special training.

"I hope we're all fired up!" Bill Louden shouts to the volunteers.

Louden is mobilizing the faithful at a meeting called "Camp Obama." And when he says ready to go, he means it. These volunteers have pledged to hit the road and knock on doors in a nearby swing state.

The Obama campaign is spending significant amounts on weekend workshops in the critical last weeks leading to the election. The workshops are modeled on the senator's own experience as a community organizer. In 2004, polls favored Kerry going into the election, but the Bush campaign's get-out-the-vote effort made a crucial difference. The Democrats are determined not to let that situation happen again.

But the Obama campaign isn't the only one mobilizing a ground campaign in Austin. Across town, McCain supporters are holding a prayer meeting at Rudy's Bar-B-Q in North Austin.

Dan McDonald leads the prayer: "Father, you are the one who guides, you are the one who ordains the governments of this world. We pray that you give us wisdom as we discuss our government."

About 25 people are gathered around indoor picnic tables, including Brandon Lighton, a 21-year-old with Students for McCain. "The farthest I've ever traveled to block walk is West Austin," he says. When Lighton says "block walk," he's talking about a common organizing tactic--getting volunteers to hit the streets and canvass for their candidate. Only this time, Lighton is going a bit farther than West Austin. He's going to Michigan.

"If you really believe in something and you really believe this is an important election, then that's what you do," says Lighton. "You have to figure out where you can really make a difference, and that's probably one of the bigger swing states."

Donald Green is professor of political science at Yale and author of the book "Get Out the Vote." He says candidates win or lose elections based on their ground game. "A very well-managed campaign in a swing state can probably mean two to three percentage points of the vote," he explains. Moreover, voters recruited through on-the-ground organizing tactics "are often voters who are not going to show up in polls because they are not likely voters."

Back at Camp Obama in Austin, Bill Louden provides a basic training in on-the-ground-strategy for volunteers, along with a little inspiration.

"You guys are our cavalry--you guys are the warriors that Obama is putting forth to go out in the field," says Louden. "You are the last vestige we have to go out there are try and convert these swing states."

Obama staff teach volunteers skills like phone banking, team building and block walking. The campaign demands a serious commitment. Volunteers will go wherever headquarters says they're needed.

Rob and Rebecca Stokes signed up for Camp Obama a day after watching Governor Palin fare better than expected in the debate. "He's gung-ho and I'm gun-shy," says Rebecca Stokes, of her and her husband Rob's distinct styles. "I think between the two of us, we'll balance each other out."

The Stokes were planning a month-long honeymoon in the Midwest. Now they're devoting a week of their romantic getaway to the campaign. "I don't want to just skip across the surface anymore," explains Rob Stokes, "and so I feel responsible to make some sort of change."

The campaigns are keeping their strategies to themselves; they won't even talk numbers. But Obama seems to be better organized in Austin, and Green says that the trend holds true across the country. According to Green, not only has Obama put more money into his ground operation, his campaign has a stronger ability to recruit volunteers.

"He can drop into a campaign rally, and not only draw a very large crowd at the drop of a hat," says Green, "but also get very large numbers of people to sign up as volunteers."

But it's way too early to write off the McCain campaign. They have a similar swing state operation they call the "deployment program." Their training is nowhere near as intensive as Camp Obama, and they seem more focused on phone banking. McCain supporters are still crossing state lines for their candidate. Pat Peale, a Republican in Dallas, is heading to Colorado. Peale worked swing states in 2000 and 2004 with the Texas Strike Force for the Bush campaign.

"The directionů under Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman last time was much more explicit," says Peale. "President Bush had such an organization, and they were very much tuned into what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, and how it needed to be done."

Between the 2000 and 2004 elections, Republicans increased their voter turnout from 107 million to 124 million. But McCain doesn't appear to have inherited that organization. Bush's support has plummeted, and the Christian conservatives who made up Bush's base have been reluctant supporters of McCain. That changed when he brought Sarah Palin onto the ticket, but it may be too late. Still, Green says McCain has a smart strategy.

"They're working with a much more targeted list, they're trying to focus on those kinds of voters who have a high propensity to vote, who seem persuadable or at least seem sympathetic potentially to McCain. That in their view probably gives them the best return for each dollar spent."

And with the election so close in the swing states, anything could happen. Much depends on the decisions made in the next few weeks, which is why each party is keeping their strategy under wraps. Professor Green says it really is a game with both sides scheming and stealing glances at their rival before making a move.

"There's really a chess game going on, and in some ways it's a waiting game. Now that McCain has pulled out of Michigan, there's talk of where those ground troops will be redeployed. There's talk about Indiana, but presumably Ohio would be a more daring choice." The Obama campaign, explains Green, will "counter strategically" as they get a better idea of "where the McCain troops are being deployed."

There's a reason they call them battleground states, and if you're in one of them, keep your eyes peeled for operatives. Expect foot soldiers to come knocking on your door.

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