RICHMOND, Va.--In the days and weeks leading up to President Obama's Saturday campaign kickoff rally here, his army was hard at work.
In Arlington, a Washington suburb two hours' drive from Richmond, 10 Obama diehards ranging in age from 18 to 64 had spent their Thursday night on cheap cell phones, reading from papers labeled "POTUS/FLOTUS in Virginia Recruitment Sheet" and ringing a bell every time they got a commitment to attend. In Charlottesville, a University of Virginia student named Lauren Bryant personally made 80 phone calls in the days preceding the event, then persuaded her 37-year-old cousin Nathan Rodgers, a not particularly politically active Richmond-area liberal, to go with her. On Friday night, Valerie Salaam, a 51-year-old Richmond-area project manager who donated her money but not her time in 2008, was among a few hundred volunteers who gathered at the event site to be trained, and was assigned ticket-taker duty.
In this pivotal swing state, the Obama reelection campaign was revving up for its first test drive.
In the small Tidewater town of Surry, two Obama-supporting independents, 59-year-old Nancy Rodrigues and 71-year-old Mike Abley, had gotten an e-mail weeks before from the Senate campaign of Democrat Tim Kaine, the former governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and started making plans. In Vienna, just outside the Washington Beltway, a neighborhood team of eight women who had been meeting at each other's houses since January made plans to carpool. The campaign distributed glossy, full-color, beautifully designed tickets at its 13 offices around the state--not because tickets were actually required to get in (they weren't), but to make people feel like they ought to show up.
The result: When the president took the stage at Virginia Commonwealth University for his first official day of campaigning for reelection, the stands were filled with 8,000 adoring fans who greeted him with screams of enthusiasm.
The point for the campaign wasn't just to create a 2008-vintage tableau of Obama whipping up a big crowd, although in these days of political disaffection and economic sluggishness that's no small thing. Even more than that, it was to send a message: In Virginia, a state Republicans safely banked on in presidential elections for decades until it flipped in 2008, the Obama organization is back.
"We are going to win this thing," Obama told the Richmond crowd, "door by door, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood."
In 2008, that's exactly what happened in Virginia, a state last won by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964. The commonwealth had never seen such a blitz, from the 75 Campaign for Change field offices that dotted every corner of Virginia's vast geography to the $25 million in Obama television ads. It wasn't just a matter of the Republicans' limited financial resources--John McCain's campaign spent less than $8 million on ads in the state--it was that the GOP was fatally slow to wake up to the previously unthinkable prospect of losing the upper bound of the Confederacy.
This year, the Obama team is promising to mount a similar all-out effort, but there will be a major difference: He won't be running virtually unopposed.
"McCain spent very little money in Virginia. They assumed it was a Republican state," said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political observer and former VCU professor based in Richmond. "That's not going to happen this time. You're already seeing the super PACs airing ads here. [Republican Mitt] Romney will not be at the same disadvantage as McCain in Virginia, and he's certainly not taking it for granted."
More than any other factor in this election--the spin, the television ads, the speeches and debates--Democrats hope Obama's vaunted grassroots operation will give them the edge in the 2012 campaign. The former community organizer's massive field organization isn't just the bedrock of Obama's turnout strategy; it's a key philosophical component of his self-styled image as the leader of a people-powered social-change movement. And it works. In 2008, according to one academic study, the ground game likely flipped the outcome in several states.
At this point, the Democrats have a major head start on the Republicans in Virginia. Multiple early polls show Obama leading Romney, including a Washington Post poll last week that put the president's lead at 51 percent to Romney's 44 percent.