By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
CONCORD, N.H., Jan. 7 -- For months, Barack Obama's presidential campaign has focused its organizational abilities on the small, well-defined canvas of Iowa and New Hampshire, where the senator from Illinois has been able to make his case face to face with large proportions of the electorate and aides had the time to build support precinct by precinct.
After Tuesday's primary, that compact canvas will be ripped apart, replaced by a nationwide campaign less suited to the kind of intensive organizing that Obama has used to such effect in the first two voting states. He will have to campaign in Nevada, which holds a caucus on Jan. 19; in South Carolina, which will vote on Jan. 29; and in more than 20 states that vote on Feb. 5, including giants such as California, New York and Texas.
For Obama supporters around the country, the question becomes: Where next? Can the campaign, with all its momentum, hold its own in a nationwide fight for delegates against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who despite her current troubles still has most of the Democratic establishment behind her? With so little time available, and so many fewer opportunities for personal contact, can he win over voters in states in which he has until recently lagged far behind Clinton in the polls?
Obama campaign officials say they are more than ready for what is to come, pointing to vibrant volunteer networks in all the coming states, as well as offices and paid staff on the ground in all but five of them -- Delaware, Connecticut, New Mexico, Arkansas and Tennessee. The campaign has placed a particular emphasis on Feb. 5 states with a caucus, such as Minnesota and Colorado, believing they will be well suited to Obama's grass-roots approach.
Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, said the campaign is planning to compete on Clinton's home turf of New York because the state awards primary delegates proportionally and by congressional district, and not in a winner-take-all fashion. If Obama does well in parts of the state, as his campaign expects, he could walk away with as much as 40 percent of its delegates.
The campaign expects to do particularly well in about half of the Feb. 5 states that hold "open" primaries, meaning they allow independents to vote. These include the biggest prize of all, California; Hildebrand says volunteers have been making an average of 6,000 completed calls to voters per night.
More immediately, campaign officials are highly confident in their organizations in Nevada and South Carolina. Hildebrand said the campaign expects to make an all-out effort in Nevada, although Clinton is backed by Rory Reid, a Clark County commissioner and the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid. Obama hopes to gain the endorsement of Nevada's powerful culinary workers' union, which may announce its pick on Wednesday.
"From early on, we always said it was a sequential process, and we built early and large operations in Nevada and South Carolina knowing that they'd be given a lot of attention," Hildebrand said. "We have to perform very well there in order to get momentum going into February 5."
The biggest challenge for all candidates will be deciding where to invest time and money, since there will be so little time between South Carolina and the many states voting on Feb. 5. Hildebrand said the campaign is still deciding how to divide Obama's travels.
If Obama manages to win Tuesday, that will make the decision much easier for him, said Jack Bass, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. Since Obama's Iowa victory, there has been such a visible movement toward him, particularly among the state's black voters, that he will not need to spend as much time in South Carolina as he might have otherwise, Bass said.
Still, Clinton has powerful assets lined up in California and elsewhere, including elected officials from the mayor of Los Angeles down to numerous assemblymen and city council members. She will also have the firepower of several major unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has been paying for radio ads and mailings attacking Obama in New Hampshire.
In contrast, many of Obama's volunteers have been working so far under the radar that the campaign did not reach out until they had already been at it for months.
In California's Santa Cruz County, Brad Sherak, a technology executive, formed an Obama group a week after the candidate announced that he was running; the first meeting drew 75 people. For months, a core group of 10 volunteers toiled away, making phone calls, marching in parades and setting up tables at community functions.
Over the summer, Obama's California staff got in touch with the group, gave it access to its voter database to help target phone calls and sent it a list of local residents who had contributed to Obama. The group's list of potential volunteers now runs to 1,600 names.
Sherak, a political independent, said he is most encouraged by the support from his moderate colleagues in Silicon Valley. He speculates that Obama may be helped by the popularity of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who preaches a similar post-partisan approach. "If he can win New Hampshire, California is totally in play for him," Sherak said. "It's a much broader base than people think."
Alan Jones formed an online Meetup group for Obama in Fort Collins, Colo., last spring. He said the campaign's Colorado staff reached out to him five months ago and recently opened an office in Fort Collins outfitted with volunteers and computers from Iowa.
"Democrats are usually like herding cats, getting us to go in the same direction and present a unified message. The Obama campaign is different," he said. "Usually, you show up to be involved and they lose your information when you showed up the following week. Obama doesn't lose anyone's number."