Plugged-In Volunteers Blaze New Campaign Trail

Chai latte-armed Obama campaign volunteer Chrisi West waits at a Metro station exit to encourage riders to register to vote.
Chai latte-armed Obama campaign volunteer Chrisi West waits at a Metro station exit to encourage riders to register to vote. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Almost as soon as Sen. Barack Obama declared that he was running for president, Chrisi West signed up to volunteer. The Fairfax County resident was dissatisfied with the status quo on income inequality, domestic violence and the Iraq war. What she heard from Obama during his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and what she read in his book "Dreams From My Father" convinced her that he -- with her help -- could turn dissatisfaction into action.

So West, 29, took her first step into politics. She went to Obama's Web site, set up an account and began an almost two-year journey through a new kind of grass-roots campaign, centered largely in her electronic world. She met like-minded supporters, began organizing and helped build a network of volunteers with a reach so vast that, in a Washington Post poll released this week, more than half of voters surveyed in Virginia said they had been contacted by the Obama campaign about supporting the Democrat in his bid for the White House.

If Obama becomes the first Democrat in 44 years to win the state, it will be in large part because of the Chrisi Wests of the world. They have sent e-mails, made phone calls and knocked on doors. They have texted and Twittered. And the Obama campaign has helped make it happen by speaking the language of cellphones, text messages and e-mail accounts -- and by giving thousands of young Americans who communicate this way the power to participate.

That participation has reached a crescendo in recent days, with Obama volunteers taking to the phones in such volume that more Virginians who are likely to vote have heard from them than not. More than 10,000 volunteers are working for Obama in Virginia, according to the campaign. They appear to be making a difference: According to the Post poll, Obama had a 75 to 22 percent advantage among likely voters who had heard from his campaign in person, on the phone or via e-mail or text message but had not been reached by Sen. John McCain's campaign.

"We have so many amazingly dedicated, just generous volunteers," West said. "It's just crazy how this whole thing grew, honestly."

Grass-roots activity in Virginia for McCain appears to be less energized. A recent two-day swing through every Northern Virginia campaign office for both candidates found crowds of volunteers for Obama on the phones, being trained to canvass and passing out signs, stickers and other material. McCain's offices were universally quiet, in some cases with just one or two field workers sitting at a counter or table and little foot traffic. This week, just days before the election, Obama's Web site advertised more than 300 events in Northern Virginia; McCain's advertised seven.

For West, it all began on St. Patrick's Day 2007, shortly after she signed up for the campaign. She attended a meeting of Obama supporters in the home of Todd Ruopp, and she helped compile lists of locations to set up Obama tables: grocery stores, farmers markets and the like. She went to some herself. She helped set up e-mail distribution lists. She was not following orders from local party officials. She was brainstorming her own ideas on how to get out the word about Obama, and she and others in the room quickly understood the power they had.

"Early on, we were it," said Ruopp, a longtime Alexandria Democrat who helped start Alexandria 4 Obama and had never met West before his meeting. "We made up our own rules. We knew enough to organize ourselves. I had these total strangers coming into my home, none of whom had any political experience. I was like, 'Wow.' That was amazing."

Since then, West, a bundle of energy who rarely ventures into public without a chai latte in one hand, has "met" -- electronically, at least -- thousands of Obama supporters through the campaign's Web site, where she has her own home page and blog and has advertised dozens of events, including registration drives, neighborhood canvasses and out-of-state trips during the primaries.

West also has registered voters at Metro stations, stuffed walk packets for canvassers and driven to New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina to go door-to-door. Through it all, her laptop has never been far away, and she has used it to draw more helpers, collect more data and share more information with the Obama campaign than volunteers of past generations ever could.

"Hey Zach!" West wrote in June to Zach Fairbanks, 27, a business administration major from San Ramone, Calif., who e-mailed West after reading that Virginia was likely to be a battleground. He found her name by searching online for Fairfax County and Obama. "You can bother me anytime you want!!! And we'd love to have your help in the Fairfax South County/Richmond Highway office when you get to town!"

"It's a lot of young people who have access to e-mail, and they're not quite as localized I think as, say, my parents' generation," said Dan Malessa, 26, an Obama volunteer who works out of the campaign office in southern Fairfax where West has spent much of her time. "It's easier for us to communicate across spaces. We move more, but we communicate more. It's simpler now, and it's quicker."

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