Inside the Obama headquarters just outside Washington, dated phones, celebratory bells and crumpled call sheets litter the room’s fold-up tables. The bells ring with each volunteer recruited. A giant, hand-drawn thermometer colours the wall, showing how many have come on board that week. Presidential placards hang along one side of the room. Scribbled replies to “Why I’m In” fill the white poster pages covering another. Yard signs lie stacked against a third.
Offices like these are sprawled across the US. They are backbone of the grassroots machine the Obama campaign have again invested in to beat a better-funded opponent. At the offices in northern Virginia, anybody willing is welcomed. Neighbours talking to neighbours, you are told, is more effective than any amount of corporate advertising. By directly talking to voters you can reach them unfiltered by the media. An increasingly targeted approach makes for a more effective one.
The reality is more complex. Door knockers cannot easily whip up a few sentences to change minds and curry support. And there is an intrusion to interrupting someone’s weekend that can inhibit even the most self-assured campaigners.
At the end of one afternoon knocking on doors I stopped an active, shirtless, thirty-something man on his way into his house. He had voted for Obama in 2008 but now he was unsure. Congress is too closeted, he said. Everyone helps each other out but not the people. He wanted them all gone. At such times the campaign’s talking points are of little use. This man had heard Obama’s appeals before. To him a statistic about how many jobs have been created in the past 27 months was meaningless.
A brief doorstep conversation could not persuade him, or the other uncommitted voters I met that Saturday. All-to-quick door knocking is unsuited to it. And with relatively few undecided voters in this most polarised of elections, field offices across the country have been directed to concentrate not on persuasion, but on turnout.
I understand the focus. But one man I called, typical of so many, showed how dispiriting it can be. This man – forty-something, married – had been contacted half a dozen times already. ‘Listen,’ he told me. ‘We are all Obama supporters, but if you call us again, we are not going to vote.’ I didn’t blame him – why should he spend his evening yet again reiterating his support and justifying not wanting to volunteer?
Ensuring supporters are ready and able to vote is crucial work – many need to register for the first time, update their ID or send off an absentee ballot. But most people have all they need. In two weeks I made 700 calls, having never once purposefully called an undecided voter and registering only a handful. I left feeling I nearly irritated as many people as I helped.
The data, we are told, shows such tactics are effective. If you get a voter to fill out a ‘I commit to vote’ card and send it back to them in the run-up to election day, it makes them 5-10% more likely to vote. If you confirm volunteers for an upcoming shift, they are more likely to turn up. If you leave your supporters without the help some need to register and vote, poll leads mean nothing. But at the end of an evening spent calling 150 people, speaking to a dozen and recruiting just a few, such stats can be hard to remember.
Small moments can, however, make a day of turf-cutting, pack-making and data entry feel part of something bigger. There is a power to seeing strangers of all types come together to re-elect a nation’s first black President, when so few calls are likely to be answered and helpless supporters aided. It is particularly powerful when they come from all over the world. The importance of what you are all striving for is clearer when an Argentinian, Korean, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Puerto Rican and Englishman are all making calls from the same desk.
And the joy of fighting through shoddy signal to recruit someone can give a thankless task life. The resolution of the long disenchanted, like the eighty-something black woman, campaigning for the first time in her life, who devoted hours to highlighting voter registration sheets when the bustle of a phone banking office unnerved her, can make an hour’s unanswered calls less morale-crushing.
But her story does not change the realities of grassroots campaigning. And it is not clear that the Obama campaign’s dependence on goodwill, idealism, and intensely-focussed local organizing is going to pull off an electoral miracle a second time around.