Having arrived here from Mexico when he was 18, Espinal, like many new Latino voters in Northern Virginia, is inclined to vote for the president, in part because of the Republican challenger’s positions on immigration. But he says he is not 100 percent certain and wonders why the Democratic side has not contacted him.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” Espinal said. “One party says one thing, one party says another thing, so it is hard to know.”
In the world of political junkies and campaign workers, the undecided voter in the last days of a hard-fought and massively expensive marathon is an odd bird, a source of frustration and even private derision. After all this, how could they not know?
But on the streets of five highly contested counties in Virginia — which, along with Ohio and Florida, is one of the most important remaining battleground states — plenty of people haven’t made up their minds. Both sides think that what they do in the next six days can make the difference in persuading those last few voters and — more important now — in pressing supporters to act on their intentions.
It is the first time in decades that Democrats and Republicans are making such a strong, late push in Virginia. Romney’s operation has contacted far more Virginians than John McCain’s did in 2008, but even campaign officials don’t know whether that reflects rising enthusiasm or a better-managed effort.
Obama’s campaign contends that it has expanded the grass-roots network that produced unusually strong turnout four years ago, but it is unclear whether it is reaching new voters or merely shoring up support among voters who may not be as excited as they were last time.
But many voters don’t share the politicians’ faith in the effectiveness of their campaigns. “I’ve literally gotten called several times by the Obama campaign,” said Jake Guinard, 23, who lives in Centreville. “I’ll probably vote for him, but of all the Republicans, Romney was the one I was most comfortable with. I just wish they’d both say what they’d really do instead of just calling the other guy terrible.”
Even with the Sandy megastorm forcing cancellation of some rallies and phone banks, and suspension of in-person absentee voting in some populous areas on Monday and Tuesday, what insiders call the ground game has gone into hyperdrive.
According to The Washington Post’s latest Virginia poll, the Obama and Romney campaigns have contacted — by phone, e-mail or in person — 44 percent and 41 percent of likely voters, respectively. Two-thirds of those reached by Obama and nearly three-quarters of those reached by Romney say they were contacted in the past week.
The poll found Obama with a slight lead of 51 percent to 47 percent, but both campaigns are acting as if Virginians are evenly divided.
Campaign volunteers will be back at full force by week’s end, with the most intense outreach occurring in the largest population centers — the Washington suburbs. The multitude of TV ads continued through the storm, and many Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax voters say they have been contacted in recent days.
In the Centre Ridge area of western Fairfax, a neighborhood of middle- and working-class developments that has the county’s lowest voter-participation rate, three teams of volunteers — from the Obama and Romney camps and a labor group that supports the president — go door to door blocks apart from one another.
Their work is slow and frustrating. Most people are not home. Many of those who are do not speak English. The labor team knocks on 150 doors in three hours; 44 people are home and five say they are for Romney. The rest say they support Obama. But will they vote?
“There’s a lot of in and out here,” said Roger Akins, 48, an unemployed resident of The Meadows, a development that includes federally subsidized housing. “For these people, nothing ever changes, Democrat or Republican. I’m leaning toward the president because Romney, that thing with the 47 percent — if you’re going to talk about people behind closed doors, that’s really telling who you are and what you believe. Truly, none of them are really for us.”
Virginia’s 13 electoral votes probably will be won or lost in townhouse communities of western Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties; in the Richmond suburbs; and among military-related families in Hampton Roads. Here, in Virginia’s most heavily populated regions, demographic change has turned the state from solidly Republican into a tossup.
Both campaigns have huge operations in these places, with storefront offices, volunteers making calls day and night, and canvassers armed with clipboards full of information about each voter.
A path to victory
In Leesburg over the weekend, Mackie Christianson, who runs a political group that supports ex-military members who run for office, and Karen Chew, an Iraq war veteran, aimed to knock only on doors of hard Romney supporters. The time for persuading fence-
sitters was over; the job now was to assure that “hard R’s” get to the polls.
The Romney camp says it has made 5 million voter contacts in Virginia, a number it thinks Obama can’t match. (The president’s campaign says it has surpassed both the Romney numbers and their own 2008 tallies.)
“If we don’t do well in Loudoun, we’re not going to win the state,” said Michael Short, spokesman for the GOP campaign in Virginia. But given his party’s recent success in local county elections, Short thinks Loudoun is returning to its Republican roots.
Both sides see a path to victory in Virginia, which Obama won decisively in 2008 with huge margins in the inner Washington suburbs; among black, Latino and young voters; and, most striking, among independents in the booming exurbs.
Obama has scoured Virginia for new voters again this year, said Mitchell Stewart, his battleground states director. That includes efforts to reach voters on college campuses, in suburbs that went heavily for Obama last time, and among blacks and Latinos.
Romney, meanwhile, is trying to run up his numbers in GOP-
leaning communities such as Chesterfield, Virginia Beach and the conservative, if lightly populated, counties of far southwest Virginia, where Romney stresses support for coal mining. In commuter counties, the campaign points to high gas prices, and in the military-
dependent Tidewater, the emphasis is on blaming Obama for looming defense cuts.
Romney is also trying to minimize Obama’s margins in close-in D.C. suburbs by targeting undecided and independent voters.
Christianson and Chew hurried to hit as many doors as they could before Sandy arrived, although both campaigns said the storm was likely to be a political wash, affecting each side equally.
“We know the election’s going to be close,” Chew told people at every door, reading from her Get Out The Vote script. “Can we count on your support?”
Here, as across the state, almost every undecided voter was someone who supported Obama last time but is shopping for change.
“I voted for him, but he wasn’t able to get anything passed,” said Sufian Saeed, who works in retail for Giant supermarkets. He’s had numerous calls from the Obama side, but this visit is his first contact from the challenger. “I’m leaning to Romney, but I won’t decide till election day. I’m not sold on either of their plans.”
“We are at a very pivotal point,” Chew told Saeed. “We really need to make some serious, huge changes.”
Christianson didn’t change any minds in three hours of door-knocking, but she won assurances from a couple of dozen supporters that they will be there Tuesday for Romney.
“My poor husband is hardly getting a hot meal and the laundry just piles up” because she’s out campaigning every spare moment, she said, “but what are we going to do? The country’s going in the wrong direction. Anything we have, we really worked hard for and the idea that someone who’s for redistributing our money could win is just really upsetting.”
Voters in Prince William County — which has voted for the winner in every statewide election in the last decade — have been flooded with mail, e-mail, phone calls and, of course, TV ads.
Elizabeth Parsons, 28, a project manager for a Navy contractor, supports Romney but represents a lost opportunity for Obama. When she took an online survey that her friends had posted on Facebook, Parsons scored as pro-Obama on a number of fronts, including immigration, gay marriage and her belief that the safety net for the neediest Americans should be preserved.
Parsons is drowning in mail from both Romney and Obama: “I feel like every time I go to the mailbox there’s something for me to throw away. Honestly, I think they’re both liars.”
Kelly Goad, 27, an adjunct English instructor on the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College, comes to Panera to talk on the cell with friends and prepare lessons on her laptop. Goad just started a part-time gig at the Springfield Barnes & Noble because “adjuncting does not pay enough for me to live.”
These days, Goad receives at least two pieces of campaign mail a day from both sides. She voted for Obama last time but is undecided despite her support for gay marriage, legal abortions and the president’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Goad is more amused than swayed by the mail, including one piece that called Obama a “radical.”
“It used that word a lot,” she said. “It was very much fast food for the eyeballs — it made me look, but it wasn’t very satisfying. Am I gonna be happy about eating those chicken nuggets? Doubtful.”
Goad thought Obama was terrible in his first debate with Romney, and that’s a big reason she’s considering switching. “I kind of want to spare him,” she said of the president. “He’s tired. He needs to take a nap.”
‘A sort of purple state’
The Obama campaign has had volunteers canvassing Henrico County for months. Although GOP candidates had for decades handily won the suburban county that surrounds Richmond, Obama reversed the pattern in 2008 — the first Democrat to take the county since Lyndon B. Johnson. Last weekend, the Obama team’s mission was to revisit supporters and walk them through how to get to the polls. (And to celebrate when people say they voted early.)
“Sometimes if you visualize yourself doing something, you are more likely to do it,” volunteer Michele Murray, 43, told one woman. A team leader, Murray spends about 30 hours a week overseeing volunteers, hosting phone banks and walking through neighborhoods with a clipboard, map, list of supporters and a green marker.
In this historically conservative county, home to House Republican leader Eric Cantor, Murray said some people are afraid to admit that they plan to vote for Obama.
This month, Murray knocked on a woman’s door and asked whether she would vote for the president. The woman looked both ways, then whispered that she planned to do just that. Murray asked why she was being so cautious.
“I’m voting for him, but I’m the only one. You’re not going to get any support around here,” she said.
“A lot of people think they’re the only one,” said Murray, a stay-at-home mom with three kids.
Murray, who noted that the hurricane had minimal impact in her part of the state, has lived in Henrico for more than a decade, watching as the population grew — a farm turning into a shopping plaza with a Whole Foods, a forest becoming the neighborhood she was now walking. The result, she said, was that her county “has gone from a red state to a sort of purple state.”
Strong military ties
The city of Chesapeake, a few miles from the retired USS Wisconsin, where Romney introduced Paul Ryan as his running mate, should be Republican country. Like much of Hampton Roads, home to the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk and a jet base in Virginia Beach, it has strong military ties. Republican-backed candidates won city council and school board elections this year, and represent Chesapeake in Congress and the legislature.
But like the rest of Virginia, Chesapeake has been changing. It voted twice for George W. Bush, but, in 2008, Obama edged John McCain.
The non-Hispanic white population has shrunk, from 66 percent in 2000 to 60 percent in the latest census estimates. The black population has grown slightly, to 31 percent. Although the number of Hispanics and Asians is up dramatically, they make up barely 8 percent of the city’s 225,000 residents.
Both campaigns are working to gain the edge in Chesapeake from headquarters on opposite ends of Battlefield Boulevard.
On a stormy Saturday, a dozen volunteers along two fold-up tables at the GOP office made last-minute calls to voters.
But the campaigns’ efforts often end up in the recycling bin, which is where Noel Crell, an office manager at an engineering firm, tosses the five Romney fliers she found in the two-inch-high stack of mail on her kitchen table. Almost every night, she comes home to four or five messages exhorting her to vote for Romney. She doesn’t listen to them anymore.
Still, Crell, 49, will vote for Romney, because of the recession. She has watched lines grow at the food pantry in the church across from the firm. Two homes in the subdivision where she has lived for 25 years went into foreclosure.
“I don’t buy things until I can pay for them,” she said, sipping coffee in her remodeled kitchen while her husband, a machinist, put in an extra day of work on a Saturday. “This philosophy of borrow money and borrow more money is not the way I was raised. I say, what the heck, let’s try something different.”
Gerard Brunick, co-owner of the firm where Crell works, has been so inundated with political calls that he screens them now. He tosses fliers that arrive in the mail. He reads the papers — The Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times — to help make up his mind.
Brunick, 66, expects to vote for Obama, although he is disappointed in the president. “There were things he said he was going to do that he didn’t,” he said.
Brunick did consider Romney. “He strikes me as very organized,” he said. “It could be that what our country needs now is some good management. But his approach gives me pause.”
If Romney has out-gunned Obama on yard signs in most of Chesapeake, that’s not so in Turtle Rock Trace, a middle-class neighborhood dominated by modest bungalows. In a block and a half, 13 homes have Obama signs. An Obama worker came through last week distributing them.
“I was afraid to put my sign up,” said Karen Lewis, 73, as she sat in her living room next to a window sill displaying copies of Obama’s books, “The Audacity of Hope” and “Dreams from My Father.” “I didn’t know what would happen. But then I saw others had signs up, so I put mine up.”
A retired Air Force civilian worker, Lewis is a lifelong Republican whose vote for Obama in 2008 was her first for a Democrat since 1964. She’s for the president in part because of his health-care law. When her daughter in Ohio popped a knee, a hospital refused her an MRI because she lacked insurance, Lewis said.
She has received many calls from both campaigns, but mostly from Romney’s. “They’re spending a lot of money here,” she said. “I’m worried.”
Carol Morello in Hampton Roads and Jenna Johnson in Richmond contributed to this report.