Obama Camp Relying Heavily on Ground Effort

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

In 2004, Democrats watched as any chance of defeating President Bush slipped away in a wave of Republican turnout that exceeded even the goal-beating numbers that their own side had produced.

Four years later, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign intends to avoid a repeat by building an organization modeled in part on what Karl Rove used to engineer Bush's victory: a heavy reliance on local volunteers to pitch to their own neighbors, micro-targeting techniques to identify persuadable independents and Republicans using consumer data, and a focus on exurban and rural areas.

But in scale and ambition, the Obama organization goes beyond even what Rove built. The campaign has used its record-breaking fundraising to open more than 700 offices in more than a dozen battleground states, pay several thousand organizers and manage tens of thousands more volunteers.

In many states, the Democratic candidate is hewing more closely to the Rove organizational model than is rival Sen. John McCain, whose emphasis on ground operations has been less intensive and clinical than that of his Republican predecessor.

"They've invested in a civic infrastructure on a scale that has never happened," said Marshall Ganz, a labor organizer who worked with César Chávez's farmworker movement and has led training sessions for Obama staff members and volunteers. "It's been an investment in the development of thousands of young people equipped with the skills and leadership ability to mobilize people and in the development of leadership at the local level. It's profound."

But sheer size and scope guarantee little, especially for an operation that is untested on this scale, and the next three weeks will determine whether Obama's approach will become a model for future campaigns or yet another example of how not to do it.

The campaign faces no shortage of challenges. It must meet its ambitious goals for voter contacts -- with repeat visits to undecided and first-time voters -- while being careful not to turn people off by being overly persistent. Though it relies on homegrown backers, it must still incorporate thousands of out-of-state volunteers. And above all, its foot soldiers must make the case for a candidate who remains an unknown to many would-be supporters.

Jane Goodman, a city council member in South Euclid, Ohio, who is leading the Obama effort in her ward, said she has never seen such a grass-roots push in her Cleveland suburb of Jewish voters, Russian immigrants and African Americans. But she has also never seen such a need for it.

"We haven't had much Democratic outreach here before because it was assumed the Democrats are going to win," she said. "This year, we can't make that assumption."

For all the talk of the Obama campaign's use of the Internet and other technology, the success of its organization over the final weeks will depend in large part on individual efforts on the ground. Unlike past campaigns, those have been structured around "neighborhood team leaders." The leaders control eight to 12 precincts around their own neighborhoods, buttressed by four "coordinators" who help oversee team members, usually numbering in the dozens.

The neighborhood leaders typically have been coaxed into action by paid field organizers, attended at least one training session, and spent the past few months registering voters and recruiting volunteers for this month's turnout push. All know exactly how many votes their territory must produce.

It is a big responsibility to place on volunteers who, in many cases, have not worked on other campaigns. But it is a model that was built through trial and error in the primaries and suits the unique challenges that face the Obama campaign, said Steve Rosenthal, former political director for the AFL-CIO.

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