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Obama campaign gears up to pull in new voters

As the president ratchets up his partisan rhetoric, his team is quietly working across the country to re-create the grass-roots ground game that attracted millions in 2008.

September 30, 2011|By Paul West, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama greets supporters after his speech during a fundraiser for his reelection campaign this week at House of Blues in West Hollywood. ????
President Obama greets supporters after his speech during a fundraiser… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)

Reporting from Orlando, Fla. — President Obama's latest attacks on Republicans are another sign that his reelection effort will be more sharply partisan in tone than the idealistic-sounding campaign that brought him to power. What isn't changing, though, is a reliance on grass-roots organizing as the bedrock of his national strategy.

While GOP rivals focus on a handful of early states, Obama is already gearing up in every battleground in the country. At recent training sessions in more than 20 states, 1,200 new field organizers were told that Obama's second term would be won in the streets.

Reading a script from the president's Chicago headquarters, a campaign official informed recruits at a central Florida union hall that Obama's reelection depended on "expanding the electorate. If we don't, we lose."

As Obama ratchets up his rhetoric — during a California swing this week he criticized Republican Rick Perry and the harsh crowd reactions at GOP debates — his campaign is quietly re-creating the ground game that attracted millions of new voters in 2008. Officials won't say how many offices have opened across the country, but there are eight in Iowa and at least four in Florida, the biggest electoral battleground.

In the last election, Obama enlisted about 600 paid workers, and tens of thousands of volunteers, in a block-by-block turnout operation that helped ensure victory for the Democrats in Florida for the first time since 1996.

Re-creating that success could prove difficult, though, and not just because joblessness and a limp recovery have slammed Obama politically. Across the country, Republicans have retaliated at the state level, rolling back laws designed to make voting easier and imposing requirements, such as photo identification, that critics say disproportionately affects Obama constituencies: college students, the poor and minorities.

Florida's Republican Legislature has cut the 15-day early-voting period in half and ended it entirely on Sundays before elections. Arguing in support of the measure, a top GOP lawmaker said voting "should not be easy."

Jeremy Bird, Obama's national field director, said Democrats wouldn't be stopped by these "blatantly partisan" efforts in key states, including Ohio, where the Republican Legislature also shortened early voting. But in Florida, the new law is already disrupting Democratic plans for registration drives at colleges.

Meanwhile, the president's campaign is fighting the same disillusionment that has crimped Obama's fundraising and turned off independents and some Democrats who supported him before. The absence of a primary fight, like the one against Hillary Rodham Clinton that energized Obama backers last time, is another hurdle.

Obama has acknowledged the difficulty of duplicating that first-time magic. After several "tough" years, "the 'Hope' poster kind of starts fading," he said at a Manhattan fundraiser last week.

Most '08 campaign workers have moved on. Some are disappointed that Obama hasn't met their expectations and his own promise to change Washington's ways. Others feel betrayed by his failure to transform his campaign organization into a movement for local change.

In the 2012 remix of Obama's message, though, grass-roots change remains a hook, at least in internal pep talks.

"It's not just the election. It's the community that's important to you," veteran organizer Josh Romero told a diverse group gathered in the teachers union headquarters in Orange County, Fla.

As the new organizers, known as "fall fellows," shared bits of their life stories with new colleagues, it became clear that 2008's "fierce urgency of now" has been supplanted by a different mind-set and a more complicated political environment. The last campaign was an unlikely crusade to elect the first African American president; today, more than a few of the campaign recruits badly needed jobs. They are starting as volunteers, hoping for paid work if they perform well. Officials say a significant number will get hired.

"I'm worried about whether Medicare is going to be there in four years. Is Social Security going to be there?" a 61-year-old Obama organizer who has been "looking for jobs that don't exist" told the group. A campaign official declined to let a reporter speak with the woman.

Landon Anderson, 28, who works part time for UPS in Tampa, said that winning back disaffected Democrats and independents wouldn't be easy. "There's a sense of fear," he said in an interview. "People are losing hope and saying [Obama] is not doing his job."

Fedorah Philippeaux, 20, a University of Central Florida student, thinks the campaign is "getting off to an amazing start" and Obama "is doing as much as he possibly could." But the '08 veteran said she's "finding it's harder to get students involved right now."

At the training session, a PowerPoint lesson in the campaign's culture includes a list of 17 rules (No. 3: No drama. No. 4: No leaking to the media) and lore about Obama's life ("The Story That Started It All"). A clip from Obama's 2004 speech to the Democratic convention is screened.

"Just as Barack Obama was a community organizer, our organization relies on that community organizer mentality — neighbor-to-neighbor, door-to-door — to spread the president's message," state coordinator Ashley Walker, a veteran of the '08 campaign, told her new team.

On election day, strategists say, a well-run voter turnout operation can be worth up to 3 percentage points — Obama's precise margin of victory in Florida. The danger for the president, who trailed Mitt Romney by 7 points in a recent statewide poll, is that next fall's gap will be too wide for even the most muscular ground game to overcome.

paul.west@latimes.com

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