Campaign aims to spread Illinois senator’s message in every community--Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is using cyberspace, the U.S. Mail and the equivalent of political Tupperware parties to build a more extensive grass-roots campaign than S.C. Democrats ever have seen before, observers say.
“We’re wanting to build grass-roots organizations in every community in the state,” David Plouffe, national campaign manager for the U.S. senator from Illinois, said in a recent interview. “It’s a chance to go out there and gather people, and talk to them about Barack and his life and his message, and how he’s the best candidate to change the country.”
The campaign is using a mixture of old-school grass-roots advocacy — phone banks, door-to-door canvassing and direct mail — and 21st century politicking. But it’s the house meetings that get the most attention and, perhaps, have the greatest impact.
Obama’s operation bills the house meetings as “Your House to the White House.” The concept is simple. A voter signs up with the campaign to host a meeting at his or her home. Several friends are invited and an Obama staffer shows up, gives a presentation on the campaign and takes questions.
Those who come are encouraged to host their own house meeting or to volunteer for the campaign to spread the Obama message. They tell three friends, and they tell three friends, and they tell three friends, and ...
“The Obama campaign is doing a more extensive grass-roots effort than has ever been done in South Carolina before,” said Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Khare Fowler, who is not supporting any candidate in the Jan. 29 primary. “I just have never seen a statewide campaign here do as much as I perceive that they are doing.”
Plouffe said it’s all about “the metrics” — the math that campaigns do to determine the number of votes available and the number needed to win.
“Obviously, at the end of the day, a state like South Carolina, you’re trying to get to ‘X’ number of voters, and everything you do needs to drive toward there,” he said.
You get there, he said, not just with automated phone calls and door knocking.
“You surface that support by contacting voters,” Plouffe said. “We’re trying to really create a high-quality experience for people through these faith forums, these house parties where they can exchange ideas and learn about Obama.”
The campaign has held two faith forums — where supporters gather to learn about how Obama’s faith led him to his early career as a community activist in Chicago’s South Side — and more are planned. Participants are paired up to discuss “how their faith encourages them to be active ‘outside the four walls of the church,’” according to campaign materials.
While campaign officials won’t say how many house meetings they’ve had, spokesman Kevin Griffis said more than 6,000 people have signed up to volunteer for the campaign.
The campaign also has four offices in the state, more than any other Democrat. It also has eight paid field staffers, including seven regional field directors, more than any other Democratic campaign, according to Democracy in Action, a national nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign news and information.
MORE FIELD OPS
Obama is not the only Democrat working the grass roots.
But Obama, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are the only three Democrats with the financial backing to hire the staff necessary to manage a true statewide grass-roots effort.
Edwards, the S.C. native who won the state’s 2004 Democratic primary, is ahead of where he was at this point in 2003, said John Moylan, the Columbia attorney who again is managing Edwards’ S.C. campaign.
“What is most likely different about ours (compared to other campaigns) is we run a field operation not just for South Carolinians, but one that is run by South Carolinians,” Moylan said. “Our focus is on having people in the local areas who have done this before. We empower them to do what they need to do.”
Moylan denied he is implying other campaigns are importing out-of-staters to run grass-roots operations here. But, he added, “Some campaigns think the answer is you bring in a lot of kids from around the country, put orange hats on them.”
Of the top three Democrats — Clinton, Obama and Edwards — Clinton has been here the least, meaning she is counting on her huge national name identification, surrogate campaigners and field staff to build an S.C. operation.
“It’s a movement that has been growing by leaps and bounds,” Clinton’s S.C. spokesman, Zac Wright, said. “It’s an encompassing program. It includes grass-roots work, the outreach stuff, having volunteers and staff at (community) events.”
Wright said Clinton will use traditional tactics combined with Internet technology to draw voters.
Clinton, and most other campaigns, have S.C.-centric blogs and use their Web sites to register supporters and volunteers and, of course, to raise money.
But Obama’s campaign infrastructure gives him an edge in organization.
“They are doing a really good job for this early, doing grass-roots, volunteer organizing, and they are not just telling people, ‘Go do some stuff for us,’” S.C. Democratic chairwoman Fowler said. “They are training the people before they send them out to do programs and projects. I’ve been very impressed.”
Plouffe added South Carolina has traditionally been “more of a political state than an organizational state.” That means, he said, Democratic presidential politics traditionally has been driven by endorsements, candidate appearances and television and radio advertising.
Given Obama’s success at fundraising — he and Clinton have raised about $60 million, more than any other candidate from either party — he will be able to afford to do both: Work the grass roots and pay for advertising.
AN ‘INTERESTING’ EXPERIENCE
Iris Gladden attended an Obama house meeting in Timmonsville recently. The 70-year-old said it was “interesting, because I learned some things about him that I didn’t know.”
But she said she left the house the same way she entered it: unsure of who she would support in the Jan. 29 primary. She was torn between Obama and Clinton. She still is, she said.
“I don’t make hasty decisions,” Gladden said. “I see problems with both of the leading Democratic candidates.”
Gladden said she wants to back a candidate who can win the general election and isn’t sure the country is ready for a black man or a woman for president.
Therein lies the rub for Obama’s campaign. They can go to all this trouble of drawing people in, but unless those people show up Jan. 29 and push the button next to Obama’s name, it doesn’t matter much.
Plouffe said the campaign will have a “rigorous” get-out-the-vote effort come primary day. It also will import staff and volunteers from other states to help here, he said.