Monday, January 7, 2008

Baracking The Vote for Obama in South Carolina

DailyKos, TPMCafe & Triangle Share, 1-7-08

(Join volunteers from Triangle for Obama on Saturday, Jan. 26 in an election day caravan to South Carolina to get out the vote for Barack Obama. Take action to make change on this historic day! Volunteers will meet at Brier Creek Shopping Center, 8651 Brier Creek Pkwy, Raleigh. For more info, contact Carolyn Cameron @ (919) 321-2665 /, or visit the Triangle for Obama Meetup Group. Obama's South Carolina webpage is

UPDATE 1/27/08: To help put Obama over the top, over 50 Triangle volunteers headed to South Carolina on Jan. 26 to get out the vote. (Triangle volunteers stump in S.C., News & Observer, 1/26/08). They were part of an Obama army of 9,000 primary day volunteers, flushing out voters from 150 different staging sites across South Carolina. The GOTV efforts paid off when Obama won in a landslide with 55% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 27% and 18% for John Edwards.

UPDATE 1/14/08: Approximately 35 Triangle volunteers joined together on Sat., Jan 12, meeting before dawn to caravan to South Carolina to canvass for the Obama campaign (Local Obama backers head to S.C., News & Observer, 1/11/08). That's fired up!

By M.L. Dexter and Erik Ose

Temo Figueroa, national outreach director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, had one question for the crowd of nearly 4,000 who turned out at a NCCU rally for Obama in early November. “How far is South Carolina?” he asked, while warming up the audience before the candidate took the stage. “Not far enough,” hollered back one supporter. But the gameplan was clear.

The Obama campaign was already thinking ahead, and touching down in Durham was as much about rounding up volunteers for South Carolina’s Jan. 26 primary as winning votes in North Carolina. Supporters who added themselves to the Obama campaign’s text message network at the rally were soon contacted and asked to make the journey south of the border. Which is how we ended up in Columbia, S.C. one weekend in December, canvassing and phonebanking likely Obama voters.

For us, driving from Chapel Hill, the answer to Teno’s question was about four hours. This was our second trip in two weeks, having also gone down to Columbia to witness Obama’s star rally with Oprah Winfrey.

We listened to Oprah testify to the audience that “Dr. King dreamed the dream, but we don't have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality.” And watched as Obama brought the cheering, multi-racial crowd of 29,000 to its feet in a South Carolina football stadium, the first state of the old Confederacy to secede from the Union, with his stirring reminder that “The fire hoses came out, the dogs came out, but they kept on standing up. Because a few stood up, a few thousand stood up, and then a few million stood up, standing up with courage and conviction. They changed the world.” It was a historic moment.

We’ve volunteered and worked for political campaigns in the past, but this is the first time in several years we’ve both felt “fired up” about a candidate.

There were a lot of other volunteers on hand from neighboring states. A busload had driven up from Atlanta, and spent the day canvassing neighborhoods. Folks from Birmingham had come, too. And we met long-term volunteers, including a law student from UCLA who was spending his two-week Christmas break in Columbia, and a recent grad from Florida who had arrived a month earlier and was sharing an apartment with several other volunteers.

That weekend, the office was humming as volunteers struggled to process all 29,000 information cards that audience members had filled out as a condition of entry to the Oprah rally a week before.

Rally goers who had signed up as future Obama volunteers were being called and invited to organizational meetings across the state that coming week. Volunteers and staff members checked and updated each new name using the campaign’s existing database of registered voters and Obama supporters.

With every election cycle campaign technology improves, but we both felt Obama’s South Carolina operation was more organized than past campaigns we’ve worked on. And much more able to effectively harness volunteer energy, which is key for any successful campaign.

The fact that Team Obama asked for contact information from the 66,500 audience members who turned out for Oprah’s three-state endorsement tour was a smart move. In 2004, Bruce Springsteen held a concert rally for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in Madison, Wisconsin right before the November election, drawing a crowd of approximately 80,000. But no one knows for sure how many, because no tickets or personal information were collected.

“We estimated a good portion of them were new to the campaign and were hearing John Kerry for the first time,” said Stephanie Cutter, Kerry communications director. “The difference is we didn't sign those 80,000 people up to work for us in the Wisconsin general election. An endorsement is more than an endorsement when you're creating a field plan around it.”

Judging from the calls we made to volunteers who had signed on at the rally, their enthusiasm levels had cranked way up, and they were ready to work. More than a few exclaimed, “Fired up!” when they learned we were calling from Obama’s campaign. “I’ll be at the meeting, and I’m bringing my grandkids,” one woman told Erik. She was 80 years old.

“I’m coming straight from my job, but I’ll do it, and I can’t wait,” said a recent college grad. No problem getting there, every single person knew exactly how to get to the churches and other community locations where the organizational meetings were to be held.

In the afternoon, the campaign sent us out to canvass in a mostly black, core Democratic neighborhood near downtown Columbia. We visited houses with steep, crumbling, concrete steps and doors falling off their hinges. Just on one side on a short street, two of the hand-picked addresses of voters who had consistently voted for Democrats were now abandoned – one because of arson, the other just falling down.

We each took one side of the street. At first, our knocks on doors were mostly unanswered. Before we moved on to the next house on our lists, those silent doors received small brochures about why to consider voting for Obama.

Sometimes, people responded to our knocking. Suspicious faces appeared behind torn screen doors. Their first glances at us, white people carrying clipboards, must have meant nothing good to them, because their faces registered mistrust and wariness. We quickly learned to say right away, “We’re volunteers with the Barack Obama campaign.” This simple sentence allowed a conversation to begin, and literally led to doors opening. And always, the suspicion was replaced with real interest.

Walking between houses, M.L. was met by a young man coming towards her. She asked if he was registered to vote. He said he couldn’t vote because he was a convicted felon, but could get his rights restored if he paid some money, and should be able to vote in the next election. He said he would vote for Obama. Then he asked, “Do you think he’ll do anything about this?” as he pointed to the decrepit and empty houses on his street. M.L. said, “I think he’ll try,” and handed him a brochure.

With the black vote estimated to make up at least half of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina, it’s crucial for Obama to win by a large margin among black voters. For most of last year, he and Hillary Clinton ran roughly even. Post-Oprah, polls showed Obama pulling away. He led one CBS poll in mid-December by 52% of black voters to Clinton’s 27%, with John Edwards at 2%.

Several times, the folks we talked with said they were considering Obama, but “wanted to see how things shook out.” They hadn’t made up their minds, were leaning his way, just still didn’t know if Barack could go the distance.

This dovetails with how interviews with black voters in South Carolina have repeatedly shown they were uncertain white voters would support Obama. S.C. state senator Robert Ford is one of Hillary’s prominent African-American backers in the state. He made headlines last February by claiming that with an Obama nomination, “every Democratic candidate running on that ticket would lose because he's black and he's at the top of the ticket.”

Yet Obama’s Iowa win, and the increased turnout for the state’s Democratic caucuses (239,000 showed up, versus 125,000 in 2004) seems to show his potential for expanding the Democratic vote in November. The energy is clearly with the Democrats in 2008, hungry for change after the two-term debacle of George W. Only 108,000 dispirited Republicans voted in Iowa, less than half the numbers that turned out on the Democratic side.

With the presidential primary schedule compressed like never before, there’s little time for rivals Clinton or Edwards to play catchup. Obama’s convincing victory in Iowa gives him momentum leading up to New Hampshire’s primary, where the polls previously showed him neck and neck with Clinton. And if he wins both, the two whitest early states (91% non-Hispanic whites in Iowa, 94% in New Hampshire), the last obstacle to a tidal wave of support for Obama among black voters in South Carolina will have been swept away.

Obama reminds crowds at every stop how his energy got a boost in our neighboring state, when a Greenwood, S.C. city councilwoman named Edith Childs introduced him to the chant he now uses to get audiences “fired up and ready to go!

If the time proves right for an Obama presidency, a win in South Carolina on Jan. 26 will have done even more to pave the way.


Anonymous said...

Hi Erik, you may remember I was a Durham volunteer in 2004. I support Edwards in the primaries this year. I am curious as to why you support Obama rather than Edwards after reading your post about Edwards at last year. Good luck and have fun.

Erik said...

Hi Eddie,

Sure, I remember you from 2004, and it’s good to hear from you. I was a big Edwards fan then, mostly because I thought he could beat Bush, and of course, it was the first time a credible national presidential campaign has been based in the Triangle, let alone North Carolina.

So I volunteered for him early that year. The day after Edwards won the South Carolina primary, I was answering phones at his campaign’s reception desk, furiously scribbling down tens of thousands of dollars in hand-written credit card donations because the campaign website had crashed that morning from an overload of traffic.

Lots of folks supporting Edwards loved that story in Salon, but at the time I wrote it, I wasn’t really backing any candidate. I figured any of the three frontrunners could beat the Republicans, and I was upset Edwards was getting a raw deal over, what seemed to me at the time, a haircut-non issue. But as the year progressed, I watched him stumble through more and more mistakes on the campaign trail, most of them of his own making, and began to have doubts about his ability to go the distance. Battling two historic candidates like Hillary and Obama, it would be tough for someone who was on the losing ticket the last time around to win a second chance at the nomination even if he did everything right.

Certainly, the progressive platform Edwards is running on this year is a lot closer to my own philosophy than Hillary’s. But I’ve observed his career since he first ran for office in ’98, saw the cautious, moderate stances and votes he took on issue after issue during his Senate term, and the new, improved, John Edwards version ’08 just doesn’t ring true to me. Especially since it burst into full flower only after Joe Trippi signed onto his campaign, guru to both Jerry Brown and Howard Dean’s failed anti-establishment runs.

But those are only (some of) the reasons I decided not to support Edwards. What swung me to Obama were a combination of things. Like a growing realization that his support was much broader than the media or his opponents estimated, which explained why he had been able to re-create the sort of people-powered, on-line fundraising juggernaut that the Dean campaign first channeled in ’04. And seeing poll after poll result that he might do better against Republicans than his rivals (despite the Edwards’ campaign’s constant attempts to promote cherrypicked poll data that touted Edwards as the more “electable” Democrat).

Plus being fed a steady dose of information about Obama's back story and political career from my wife, who was behind him almost from the time he announced.

I especially liked that Obama was following the Gantt-Helms Senate race in 1990, while still in law school at Harvard, and organizing a big voter registration drive in Chicago during the 1992 race, because I was doing the exact same things during that period, except I wasn’t in law school, and the voters I was registering were in North Carolina.

Unfortunately, despite already being a rich, successful lawyer with lots of resources at his disposal, and seven years older than Obama, John Edwards wasn’t involved at all in politics back then. His explanation is that he was busy building his law practice. But he didn’t even vote in either of those two elections.

How could someone who was even marginally interested in politics not have not voted in the 1990 Gantt-Helms Senate race? That makes no sense to me. There’s a new documentary about Jesse Helms (Senator “NO”) that’s airing next Tuesday, January 15 on WUNC-TV, check it out if you want to get a sense of how important and compelling that election was (or a reminder, if you were in N.C. at that time).

Edwards also failed to vote in the ’94 race when David Price lost his congressional seat to former Raleigh police chief Fred Heineman, and the Newt Gingrich Republicans took control of Congress. I realize this stuff is all ancient history, but you know what? I care a lot about politics, I think voting and paying attention to politics is really important, I work hard for the candidates I support, and I want to know they care about these things, too, and that they’ve demonstrated commitment over a long period of time.

Finally, seeing Obama speak in person when he came to Durham in early November and in Columbia, S.C. when we drove down for the Oprah-Obama rally in December sealed the deal. Bottom line, he’s a phenomenal candidate, his appeal is undeniable, he’s got the ability to expand the Democratic electorate in a general election by attracting a lot of independent voters, and he’s bringing a wave of young people into the political process that will give the Democratic party a huge boost for the future.

So that’s the short answer. :)

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