In a suburban Virginia living room, Earline Coe, solid Democrat and Obama loyalist, dials again.
“Hello, may I speak with Ellen?” she says, tapping a pen on a long list of names.
It is supposed to be a good list, one generated by the Obama campaign’s data wonks in Chicago, who have sorted their files of millions of voters and identified these as likely recruits in a renewed version of the vaunted grass-roots operation that propelled Obama’s 2008 victory.
All that’s needed now are yeses, which is what five women are trying to get at a phone bank on this Wednesday evening, especially Coe, who now has Ellen on the line.
“Hi, Ellen,” she says. “My name is Earline, and I’m calling from Obama for America? We’re calling strong Obama supporters like yourself, and — ”
“Oh. I understand that. Yes. Would you be interested in doing any volunteer work? Because we’re holding voter registration this weekend, and — ”
Pause. “Okay. I understand that. Right. . . . And I hope your mother gets better.”
Under the column labeled “I’m in!” Coe circles “maybe” and dials again.
As the Republican nominating contests churn on, President Obama’s campaign is more quietly unfolding in living rooms such as this one in Prince William, a swing county in a swing state where reactivating old volunteers and finding new ones will be crucial to his reelection chances.
While the campaign is putting together one of the most expensive and technically sophisticated operations in the history of American politics, it is also relying again on old- fashioned, grass-roots organizing to make the whole thing fly.
In particular, the campaign is staking success on the “snowflake” theory, in which volunteers become “empowered team leaders” who are supposed to recruit more volunteers, who are supposed to become empowered team leaders themselves, and so on, expanding exponentially into a phone-bank canvassing machine as Election Day approaches.
While the campaign deployed the model in some states during the 2008 campaign, it is being used in all 50 this time, campaign officials say. They predict that their ground army will dwarf that of the eventual Republican nominee.
Others, though, wonder whether Obama — faced with a flailing economy and job approval ratings hovering around 47 percent — will be able to generate the kind of enthusiasm that so energized his last campaign.
Marshall Ganz, a Harvard University professor whose thinking was behind the grass-roots efforts in 2008, said the campaign runs the risk of confusing the technical means of fancy databases and lists with the more important end of finding a compelling vision in bleak times.
“One of the biggest mistakes they can make is to use the tactics they used before without understanding the context that allowed those tactics to work,” said Ganz, who is not currently involved with the campaign. “The question is whether they can rekindle that sense of moral urgency.”
It is the question in the living room on this Wednesday evening, where the volunteers are all women in their 40s or older.
“Come on, ladies!” volunteer Vivianne Vaughn says into the silence.
A few minutes pass, and then — momentum.
In one corner of the room, Alice Clark gets a yes. “Wonderful! Thanks, Deborah,” she says.
In another corner, Marilyn Karp gets some yeses but then is saying, “How about Saturday? How about Sunday? Do we need to sit down and talk?” She finally circles “no.”
On the couch, Earline Coe, who had to borrow gas money to get here, who had to borrow the very cellphone she is holding, looks at the big question mark on the phone’s screen. The line rings and rings. She taps her pen on the list.
* * *
The host, Wanda Pruitt, had set out the chips and dip, and as the volunteers begin arriving at 6:30 p.m. she is, in campaign parlance, snowflaking. She had made calls for weeks at the phone bank hosted at Marilyn Karp’s house, and now she is branching out to host her own.
So far, though, her group is not much of an expansion: Earline Coe and Alice Clark, along with Karp and Pruitt herself, were from Karp’s phone bank. The one new volunteer, Vivianne Vaughn, is a British citizen.
The other person there is a paid campaign organizer who now urges the women to ask people if they could please attend more than one voter registration drive next weekend, and if they could please bring a friend.
“It’s a competition!” she says to stir up energy, which ebbs and flows and ebbs again.
Karp is telling a supporter that if she cannot stay on her feet too long, then “maybe we could meet and talk about the things you could do?”
Coe, who is supposed to be snowflaking off into her own phone bank soon, slides off the couch onto the floor. Taps the pen. Dials.
“Yes, this is Earline. . . . Are you able to volunteer this weekend?”
No. Prior commitment.
Elderly; hard of hearing.
Her phone rings — perhaps a “not home” calling back.
“Hello?” she says, her voice losing enthusiasm. “Yes, I did. I did. My name’s Earline, and I’m with the Obama for America Campaign? And — oh. I’m sorry to hear that. . . .”
She makes a note to call the woman later.
“Oh, Lord,” Coe says after another person hangs up.
* * *
Over the past three years, Coe could have easily become one of those on the other end of the line — a no, a hang-up, a “refused.”
After working for Obama in the last election, Coe lost her job as a retail manager. She got another job, then lost that, too, as the recession deepened. Recently, her unemployment benefits ran out. Her husband’s job as a postal worker could be tenuous.
But her loyalty to a president — who she says made her feel, for the first time, “like I won, like we won, like the people won” — permits no criticism.
She believes things will be better if Obama is reelected. She thinks his jobs legislation will help her. That the payroll tax cut will help her husband, who is feeling the strain of her unemployment, which makes her feel strained, which, when she thought about it one afternoon, made her hold her chin up, cry and look away, which was like snowflaking in reverse.
Though her husband supports her, she is slightly uncomfortable taking the gas money he gives her to travel to campaign events that are keeping her going right now. They give her a sense of purpose, which is why the noes are so difficult and the yeses so necessary.
Perhaps most tellingly for a campaign trying to cast Obama as champion of the middle class, Coe now relates to the president not so much as a symbol of hope and change than as one of perpetual struggle.
“It’s like the obstacles he’s having to put up with, they are my obstacles, too,” she said. “He’s having a rough time, and I’m having a rough time, and we’re trying to push forward.”
To inspire herself, she often retreats to her “Obama room,” a den in her basement where she made a kind of shrine, painting a wall blue and hanging up old, yellowing front pages in plastic bags. They’re from the day after Obama won, from his inauguration. All are from 2008 or 2009.
Coe will log onto NationalField.com, the campaign’s social networking site, where volunteers are supposed to post tips and words to inspire one another.
“Keep winning!” said a recent post on Coe’s page from “National Field Team.”
“Just keep pushing forward,” said the one Coe wrote herself after a difficult day of registering voters.
Lately, she’ll reread the Christmas cards she got from the White House. She knows they are sent to everybody, but they help her anyway.
“Dear Earline,” reads the one mechanically signed by Obama, asking for her support. “I hear about the challenges and the struggles. . . .”
“Dear Earline,” reads the card mechanically signed by Michelle Obama, asking for money. “The president might not always remember your name, but he will never forget your story.”
Inevitably, her own struggle seeps into her phone voice, which can slip into a low, vanishing monotone.
In training seminars, campaign workers have encouraged her to lighten up. “They’ll say, ‘Earline, if you call, and your voice is like this,’ ” she said in the monotone, “people aren’t going to want to volunteer. But if you’re like THIS,” she said brightly, forcing a smile, “then people are like, ‘Okay!’ ”
* * *
And so, in the living room, she forces the smile and dials again. Not home. Not home. She gets up for some chips and dials again.
“Aren’t we supposed to stop by 8:30?” she says after another “not home.” “I’m tired.”
She sighs, dials and gets an answer.
“Hi, Mr. Syed?” she says in the optimistic tone. “My name is Earline, and the reason I’m calling is we’re having voter registration. . . . Would you be interested? ”
“Yes,” she says, brightening. “Uh-huh. . . . Okay. Okay. So, I’ll look forward to seeing you on Saturday or Sunday.”
She leans over the list and circles “yes.”
“I got one,” she says to herself, and dials again.