The Obama campaign has opened 13 field offices, with a paid staff of dozens, and has been mobilizing its volunteers--phone banking, holding house parties, registering voters--for months. Last week, more than 500 people packed the office in Falls Church, in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, for a "Women for Obama" event with the president's senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has virtually no presence in the state, thanks in part to the fact that the Virginia primary wasn't competitive after only Romney and Ron Paul managed to make the ballot. Romney campaigned in the state for the first time last week and just announced the hiring of a Virginia state director.
But the Virginia GOP has come a long way since four years ago, when a leadership fight and years of neglect had left the state party in disarray. As a candidate for governor in 2009--the commonwealth's state-level elections are held in odd years--Bob McDonnell and his team studied the Democrats' recent successes and set out to even the score.
"Oh-eight was probably the worst electoral year in Virginia Republican history. We lost two incumbent members of Congress and a Republican-held open seat, our Senate candidate lost, and obviously Obama won," said Dave Rexrode, who was McDonnell's deputy campaign manager and now serves as executive director of the state GOP. "After that, [the McDonnell campaign] did a thorough analysis of what went wrong, a top-to-bottom review. We started over and created a new model of how to do campaigns in Virginia at the grassroots level."
After McDonnell's 2009 win, in an 18-point blowout, his team took over and revamped the state party. Republicans made further inroads in 2010 (winning three congressional seats) and 2011 (taking control of the state Senate). McDonnell, an early and enthusiastic Romney endorser who remains popular, is now in the process of throwing his organization behind Romney, and the state party has opened nine Virginia field offices--a ready-made infrastructure for the nominee to step into.
"We never stopped," Rexrode said. "Everything we've done since 2009 has been building toward this year."
Added Pete Snyder, chairman of the GOP Victory combined campaign: "It's been a really tough time to be a Democrat in Virginia since the president was elected."
Democrats don't deny it. But they say the biggest difference between 2008 and the ensuing years of Republican success was simple: Fewer people voted. And that's why organization--the critical effort to find, motivate, and turn out voters one by one--will be the key.
Some 3.7 million Virginians voted in 2008, a record for the commonwealth. In 2009, the total was just over half that, at 2 million. In 2010, it was 2.1 million, and in the 2011 legislative elections, just 1.5 million. In those numbers, the Obama campaign sees a simple math problem: All it has to do is get all those people who stayed home the last three years--many of them low-propensity voters such as youths and minorities--back out to the polls.
"People got complacent. People thought, OK, we got Barack Obama elected, now everything's going to be OK," said Gayle Fleming, a 64-year-old Realtor who volunteers three days a week at the Arlington campaign office. "My baby brother voted for the first time in his 50s. People who had never been political before came out and voted and thought, 'OK, I'm done.' "
Now, she said, the campaign has to remind those people that the job is not finished.
That idea was the theme of Obama's heavily nostalgic Saturday rallies, which led off with a video recounting the dark days of the 2008 financial crisis and introducing the campaign's new slogan, "Forward." (The bleachers behind Obama in Richmond got blue "Forward" signs, while those on the floor in front of the president answered them with red placards reading, "Not back.") Another pre-speech video took the crowd back to such 2008 highlights as Sarah Palin making fun of community organizers in her Republican convention speech, and the Fox News anchor who wondered if Obama's fist-bump greeting was actually a "terrorist fist jab."
The president, for his part, tore into Republicans in Congress and portrayed Romney as out of touch. "We've come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years," Obama said. "Virginia, we've got to move forward, to the future that we imagined in 2008."
To a remarkable degree, Saturday's rally revolved around the Obama campaign's organizing efforts. For nearly an hour leading up to the president's late-afternoon speech, the program consisted almost entirely of pleas for volunteer commitment. A video about the importance of voter registration was followed by testimony from two team leaders, followed by a video about the virtues of "the neighborhood team leader model," followed by a leader and four members of her team, followed by two field staffers talking up the grassroots campaign model. After Kaine spoke, two more organizers took the stage to drive home the point.