Rather than utilizing the convention simply to anoint the nominee, Democrats hope to deploy it as a organizing vehicle in North Carolina.
Four years ago, Obama’s team used the Denver convention to assemble a grass-roots army of thousands that was widely credited with helping him win Colorado, a battleground state that propelled him to victory against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). They packed Invesco Field the night Obama spoke with a record convention crowd of more than 84,000 — but only after taking many of their names and e-mail addresses and asking them to help for the duration of the campaign.
Whether Obama can amass a similar army in Charlotte could determine his fate in North Carolina and nationally in November. The president’s field operation — a network of offices and on-the-ground staffers, along with volunteers focused on registering voters and turning them out on Nov. 6 — is widely viewed as one of his leading advantages against his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. But it is hard to judge the effectiveness of the operation until the convention, when the army will either assemble or it won’t.
Steve Kerrigan, the chief executive of the Democratic convention, said holding a convention in a swing state does not automatically swing that state in your candidate’s direction. “It’s how you use it,” he said.
“There were 44 Democratic conventions before the Denver convention,” Kerrigan said. “We lost 22 states that hosted us and we won 22 states. It was an even split because we used the convention as a nominating tool, and then we moved on.”
That changed dramatically in 2008, when 25,000 volunteers were signed up at Invesco Field. The rest, Kerrigan said, is history.
“We think the Colorado model is a useful model, a useful benchmark,” said Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager.
Locked in a much tighter race this time, Obama is investing more heavily in state-level organizations than he did four years ago. In North Carolina, that means 47 offices and a staff of dozens coordinating phone banks, door-knocking expeditions and neighborhood parties meant to rally voters to action.
It also means a convention focused less on introducing the president and more on engaging his troops and the public. There is an outdoor street festival on Labor Day open to anyone. One of the key themes of the convention will be inclusion and community service, meant to connect with a broad range of Democrats, and a final day of speeches at a huge outdoor stadium where tens of thousands of seats will be made available to the public, not just delegates.
Romney and his allies, in contrast, are spending much more of their money on the airwaves, bombarding North Carolinians with television ads rather than trying to match Obama’s field operation on the ground. And in Tampa, where the Republicans just held their convention, the biggest public event was a party thrown by Rep. Ron Paul’s insurgent campaign.