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Plugged-In Volunteers Blaze New Campaign Trail

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."

Malessa's path to Obama's Sacramento Drive storefront near Mount Vernon is a case in point: Through a series of e-mails, the graduate student at George Washington University meandered electronically from an old friend from Colgate University (now living in Colorado) to that friend's high school buddy's cousin (from Chicago), who is a field organizer for Obama (in Virginia).

West spends long nights working on the campaign. She sits on her black living room couch, laptop open, with her husband, Jeff, usually in retreat in their townhouse basement in the Kingstowne area of southern Fairfax. In February, during primary season, she sent out a call for volunteers willing to travel out of state. She asked for names, the number of spaces available in cars, departure and arrival cities, travel dates and plans for overnight accommodations. She posted the request on her Facebook account and on her personal blog at My.BarackObama.com. She also posted it on seven electronic Obama bulletin boards. And she sent it to 15 Obama e-mail lists in Virginia, some of them with hundreds of subscribers.

West accomplished two things: She compiled a valuable list that she shipped directly to the campaign, which used it and hundreds like it to deploy volunteers across battleground states. She also made contact with hundreds of supporters, infusing them with the idea that their efforts made a difference.

"Chrisi. I was the guy who stood out in front of the King Street Metro passing out literature the day before the election in Virginia," a supporter posted to one of West's call-to-action blog entries. Wrote another: "And I'm the person in Alexandria walking the cat on leash wearing Obama buttons!"

Early on, Obama's online team, led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, established the goal of making the most of connectivity by setting up a computer network that would attract volunteers, make it easy for them to contribute time and money, and help them find each other.

The foundation of that network is the site My.BarackObama.com, where activists can set up home pages, post blog items and sign up for or post events such as canvassing, phone-banking and debate-watching parties. Known as "MyBO" within the campaign and among the activists who use it, the network boasts 1.5 million users and has advertised 100,000 distinct events. West has hosted 61 events advertised through MyBO, she has attended 93 and she has joined 32 of MyBO's groups.

Hughes credited MyBO at least in part for Obama's big win in the Virginia primary -- not to mention the all-volunteer effort to collect twice as many signatures as were necessary to place him on the ballot. Although the Obama campaign had opened a Virginia office only a few days before, the staff walked into the arms of a large family of volunteers who had been organizing through MyBO for nearly a year, he said.

West and the comrades she began meeting in 2007 encountered resistance from some of the older, more established Democratic activists in Alexandria and Fairfax, who had been doing things differently for years and weren't quite ready to hand over the reins.

"They would say things like, 'You really should be coordinating this with the city committee,' when we set up a table at the farmers market or scheduled an Obama meeting at one of our houses," Ruopp said. Obama's campaign structure encouraged Ruopp and West to ignore such admonishments, he added -- and they did.

Sen. John McCain's organization also has recognized the value of social networking. But virtually all polls give Obama an overwhelming lead among the young voters who do it the most. And the Republican's Internet operation, McCain Nation, came far later than MyBO. It now features the same ability to print out canvassing or phone-banking lists so volunteers can get right to work from their homes. But it wasn't until August, for example, that McCain Nation added a function to search for or host events, one of the key tools of MyBO that has been in place for 17 months.

The disadvantage is evident in a recent search for events within 10 miles of West's Fairfax County Zip code: MyBO listed 131 debate-watching parties, phone banks, canvasses and more, and McCain Nation listed five. The advantage can't be explained away by Fairfax County's lean toward Democrats, either. In Republican strongholds Harrisonburg and Roanoke, McCain Nation listed zero events; MyBO listed six.

West doesn't spend much time thinking about McCain. She's too busy typing or texting or jumping up to answer her cellphone.

"Sometimes Monday comes too quickly," she Twittered after a long weekend of volunteering. And in another post: "I'll sleep in November."

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