Grass-Roots Drive, Political Machinery Were Key to Obama

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama's 3 to 1 trouncing of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the District was a combination of political machinery and grass-roots momentum.

Pre-certified election results released yesterday show that Obama won more than 75 percent of the Democratic vote and that 123,735 residents cast ballots. According to the data, the Illinois senator swept all 142 precincts, the same way Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) did in his 2006 primary win.

Fenty, known for his relentless door knocking, served as chairman of Obama's D.C. campaign, and his operatives teamed up with college students and a large grass-roots organization called DC for Obama to help get voters to the polls. Their strong on-the-ground outreach of 1,000 volunteers Tuesday, coupled with the enthusiasm for Obama's national campaign, was too much for Clinton to overcome, said John Falcicchio, a senior political adviser to Fenty and the behind-the-scenes organizer for the D.C. effort.

"There was this general excitement. . . . What we were able to do is harness that," he said. "The other campaign did not have that capacity."

Sinclair Skinner, a former Fenty field campaign coordinator who helped organize Tuesday's ground campaign, said Clinton was also missing the intangible -- a spirit of history in the making that was touching voters.

"Somebody told me that that was the first time they thought their vote mattered," he said.

Clinton's campaign, which has its own historic dynamic, stumbled early on in the District, said Thomas M. Smith, a Clinton supporter and chairman of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee. "Frankly, what I really think is that the Clinton strategy was really wrong," he said.

The New York senator's team assembled a who's who of supporters -- five seated D.C. Council members, at least five former council members and a host of the city's Democratic elite -- to endorse her or work on her steering committee, Smith said.

"It was focused on elected officials instead of grass-roots," Smith said. "They just started a network two weeks ago. By then, it was too late."

"At the grass-roots level, the Obama people outmatched Clinton," he said.

The city's high turnout appeared to have taken the Board of Elections and Ethics by surprise, and local Democratic Party officials expressed concern about a widespread shortage of paper ballots. Some polling places ran out of ballots several times, and others were forced to have voters use the single electronic voting machine on-site. Yesterday, requests for further comment from the board about the issue went unanswered.

Ward 3, which is about 84 percent white, has the city's largest white population, according to the U.S. Census. The ward is led by council member Mary M. Cheh (D), who endorsed Clinton. The ward was previously led for 12 years by Kathy Patterson, establishing it as a symbol of political and social activism of women.

Exit polls that could have shown whether more white women voted for Clinton than for Obama, as in most other primaries, were not conducted in the District. The ward gave Clinton her biggest numbers of the city's eight wards, 37 percent. Obama claimed 62 percent in Ward 3.

Sen. John McCain had an equally impressive showing, with 68 percent of the vote, although Republicans make up a small pool of District voters. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee managed to best McCain in Ward 7 by one vote, 58 to 57 -- a blip that Paul D. Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, credited with a Huckabee supporter who worked to get out the vote there. He compared that to McCain's 1,411 to 217 win in Ward 3, where the city has a much larger concentration of Republicans.

Obama's presence was felt in every corner of the city.

About 500 people, including 150 students from Howard University, fanned out into every ward to encourage Obama supporters to vote after a meeting in the parking lot of Home Depot in Northeast on Tuesday afternoon. An additional 500 volunteers stood outside polling places, waved to voters at Metro stops and served as drivers, Falcicchio said.

Much of the organizing was done through e-mails, with DC for Obama assembling an e-mail list of 4,000 supporters, Falcicchio said.

He said volunteers were working with a list of nearly 90,000 likely Obama supporters to target for their votes. The pre-certified election results show 88,232 votes cast for Obama.

Skinner said college students were key, giving special credit to Howard University. Students from George Washington University, Georgetown University and other area colleges were also involved.

Lawrence Goodwin, a 22-year-old senior from Jackson, Miss., said he and a group of students, including his five roommates, had a base of student activists who had traveled to New Orleans to help with the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and to Jena, La., to protest the prosecution of six black teenagers in the beating of white classmate.

What's next for the roommates and their network? "Ohio," Goodwin said, referring to the March 4 primary. "We're trying to raise money to get there."

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