For generations, politicians with cash have campaigned one way in statewide races in California: Carpet bomb voters with TV ads and fill their mailboxes with direct mail.
But the Barack Obama campaign is trying something different, something that that even its top organizers jokingly say is "insane" to try in a state that's 163,695 square miles broad: They're approaching voters as a community organizer might. Neighborhood by neighborhood, precinct by precinct, block by block.
Although Obama is trailing Sen. Hillary Clinton by 12 points in the Field Poll released Tuesday, 20 percent of California's voters remain undecided. Steve Weir, president of a statewide organization of California county registrars, predicted half of the vote-by-mail ballots will arrive in the last nine days of the campaign, meaning we're approaching the hottest days of the campaign here.
Plus, more than half of California's 441 delegates will be awarded proportionately Feb. 5 on the basis of who wins the popular vote in each of the state's 53 congressional districts. So the Obama campaign is betting that it pays to campaign locally.
Sure, the well-funded Obama campaign is airing TV commercials in California and using the latest online tools to help its army of volunteers harvest potential voters. But the core of the campaign is based on a model developed by Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz, a former national organizing director of the United Farm Workers, who has spent years advising nonprofits and unions.
The strategy is a nod to Obama, a former community organizer in Chicago before he ran for office. Since July, the campaign been training a pyramid of organizers in many of the 22 states that vote Feb. 5, including California. Now, it has 5,080 precinct captains - the foot soldiers of a campaign - canvassing the state's predominantly Democratic neighborhoods by foot and phone. On Saturday, volunteers will try to make 100,000 calls to voters from 50 locations across the state.
To connect with organizers in the state's hinterlands, volunteers are given online access to the campaign's voter file. Allowing volunteers such access to a campaign's operation is an acknowledgement of the Web 2.0 world, where "open source" access is key, said Buffy Wicks, the Obama campaign's 30-year-old California field director.
Yes, Wicks said, a rival campaign could see the list, but "they can't copy what we're doing at this point."
"When we say we're doing a field operation here, people say, 'Oh, that's lovely. So how are you going to do that?' " Wicks said. "And, yes, it's totally insane. But how can we not when we've been overwhelmed by the amount of people who want to get involved in this campaign."
That's not to say that the Obama campaign is wiring all of California's 25,000 precincts. Judging by the campaign's precinct map, it blanketed San Francisco with organizers. But, as Wicks says, "Needles? Not so much."
Other statewide campaigns, like Sen. Alan Cranston's successful 1986 Senate run, have tried similar tactics, said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. But it is challenging, given the amount of volunteers needed. "But if it is a close campaign, it can help a little," he said.
Statewide campaign organizers like Bryan Blum, political director of the California Labor Federation, said such an operation "is difficult unless you have a pre-existing structure. It's hard for a political campaign, like Obama's, to come in and just set that up on an ad hoc basis.
"But one thing I'll say for them," Blum said. "They have a lot of enthusiasm."
On a recent Saturday in Oakland, the Obama for President campaign office near the 12th Street BART stop was stuffed with more than 250 volunteers there to train to be a precinct training captain. There were even more at a similar two-hour training in San Francisco, so many that the tutorial had to be split into two sessions. The Oakland trainees reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of Oakland, with just as many over-40 volunteers as under.
They're shown a basic script, but what we want you to do, Wicks tells her trainees, "is tell people your story. Tell them why you want Barack Obama to be president."
That's what Annemarie Stephens learned to do. Like nearly three-quarters of the new Obama volunteers, she had no interest in politics before she showed up in the office in July. But she identified with Obama because "I grew up in a third-world country, too," said Stephens, a native of Trinidad and Tobago.
"Most presidents have to read about what life is like in other countries. He lived it. He didn't have anything handed to him in his life."
Wanting a way to reach young voters like her 19-year-old son, she started Hip Hop 4 Obama, and has been visiting Oakland high schools and area colleges to register young voters and talk up the campaign. On Tuesday afternoon, she attended a community center she helped organize in East Oakland, registering young voters while her son performed there.