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Revelers at the election night party at Jillian’s.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Welcome to Akron

Local volunteers take part in the Obama campaign’s impressive ground game, hoping to erase memories of the voter’s nightmare that was Ohio in 2004

By David King

Before the tears of joy, before jubilant crowds gathered for impromptu celebrations in front of the White House, before McCain’s concession speech, before Grant Park, it is 3 AM in Akron, Ohio, on Oct. 25, and there is a crater in the road in front of a passenger bus filled with nearly 50 Obama supporters. These supporters have been driven about 10 hours from a parking lot in Crossgates Mall in Guilderland to Ohio to canvas for their candidate. The passengers, despite cramps, full bladders, and the regret their stomachs feel from having stopped at Fuddruckers on their only break, are consumed by a nervous energy. They chatter and giggle despite the late hour.

Most folks on the bus thought it would be the rain that would slow things down, but the rainclouds cleared from the night sky around the time the bus crossed the Pennsylvania border into Ohio. Reality is sinking in: These volunteers aren’t going to be soaking wet—instead, they are going to be dead tired.

For some of the volunteers, it’s the first time they have traveled to another state to work for Obama. For people like Gustav Santos of Delmar, this is just another in a series of trips before Election Day. Santos traveled to New Hampshire multiple times—in addition to Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico—during the primaries, and has been back to Pennsylvania and Ohio since the general-election campaign began. He estimates he has spent more than $1,000 of his own money volunteering for the Obama campaign. Santos’ sort of devotion is the kind that makes Obama’s grassroots effort so successful.

Despite the help of GPS units, detour signs and iPhone maps, the bus sits in front of this gigantic manmade crevasse that separates 14 Obama volunteers from the empty house where they will be put up in by the Akron Obama office.

Wayne, the bus driver, creeps his machine closer to the edge of the crevasse. He seems agitated, almost as if this long trip has him thinking about trying to jump the mid-road construction site.

The volunteers nervously gasp.

But Wayne puts his great machine into reverse, winding backward toward the detour signs.

Ben Jacobs, the head of the campus Democrats at the University at Albany, notes that canvassing is supposed to begin at 10:30 AM—only six hours away.

Corey Ellis, an Albany for Change organizer and Albany Common Councilman, is tasked with waking up at 7 AM to drive to the airport with Wayne to pick up a minivan. Once Ellis has the minivan, he will pick up the team captains and take them to the airport to retrieve more minivans. From there, the captains will meet their teams, who have been put up in supporter homes and hotels around the Akron area. Both Jacobs and Ellis are scheduled to stay in the empty, unfurnished, one-bathroom house with 12 other volunteers.

The posted detour warns Wayne that his bus is too tall to pass. “We gotta find another way, unless you want the bus to get shorter,” he says.

Jacobs pulls up a map, hands his iPhone to Wayne, and finally, about 10 minutes later, the bus arrives at the empty house, and 14 tired volunteers pile off into the night to try get a few hours of sleep on inflatable mattresses. Most of them didn’t bring blankets.

The reason these volunteers are here in Summit County, Ohio, is to try to help make voting less difficult. They want to offer Ohio residents information on their candidate, details about early voting, and help locating and getting to early voting precincts. Summit County is a traditionally Democratic County, and turning out the vote here is important to an Obama win in Ohio.

Voters here remember the 2004 election that was characterized by extremely long lines at the polls as well as difficulty with voting machines. On top of that, as local volunteers like to point out, residents of Akron still have the images of dumpster loads of provisional votes being thrown out by the Ohio Board of Elections—images that were strewn over local television after the 2004 election.

Democrats in Ohio have not forgotten the voter disenfranchisement mechanisms put into place by then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

Watchdog groups claim Blackwell arranged it so that precincts in largely Democratic and African-American areas were underequipped with functioning voting machines. Voters were left waiting anywhere from three to 11 hours to cast their votes, and as a result, it is estimated that tens of thousands of voters were turned away at the polls on Election Day.

This time, Obama supporters point out that the Obama campaign has a massive network of volunteers and poll watchers who are trying to marshal their supporters to get out to vote early to try to alleviate chaos on Election Day. Observers say that the McCain campaign basically “has no ground game.”

In September, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner took action to ensure that voters would not be taken off voter rolls if they did not respond to a state-mandated 60-day nonforward notice.

Brunner’s action stood in direct opposition to a 2006 voter-registration challenge championed by the Ohio GOP. The law stated that those who did not respond to the mailing were no longer living at the address and should not be allowed to vote. Critics said the law would target specifically younger voters and minorities. But that was not the only challenge Brunner faced.

In October, Brunner won a Supreme Court battle against the Ohio GOP, who demanded that Brunner provide the state’s 88 boards of election with lists of new voters whose registration information does not match up with data on government databases. Brunner said more than 200,000 voters would have likely been affected by the move, doing away with a third of the 600,000 newly registered voters in Ohio.

Despite the public struggles between Brunner and the Ohio GOP, things are drastically different at voting booths because of Brunner’s work.

In Akron, the confusion and apprehension about early voting is palpable. People cite long lines and fears of having their votes thrown away as reasons not to vote early.

Saturday morning starts slowly for the Obama volunteers. It takes longer than expected to get everyone into a minivan. The group finally arrives at the Twinsburg campaign office around 2 PM. The office, located in a historical home, has a sign on the door warning that they do not have tickets for the Jay-Z for Obama concert that will be held later in the week. The volunteers are ready to get to work, but when they walk through the door, it becomes clear their help is needed elsewhere.

The group that includes Ellis, Jacobs, Anton Konev, and Bryant Gaspard is directed to the office located a few miles away in Macedonia. The volunteers grab some of the food that is offered to them: sloppy joes, bananas, cinnamon buns, and apples. They need the sugar boost to stay awake. They are briefed about the area they are going to canvass, encouraged to push early voting, and finally, they are dropped off to knock on doors in teams of two.

At 3 PM, Jacobs and Gaspard begin canvassing.

Plopped down in a suburban development flush with perfectly kept lawns, McMansions and garish Halloween decorations, the pair quickly draw attention from an older woman. The woman looks up from tending to the elaborate Halloween graveyard that shares space on her lawn with a prominently placed McCain sign.

Jabobs is nervous as he and Gaspard cross the street, their eyes on the list of potential Obama voters. But the woman’s interest is piqued, as they are the only pedestrians on the neighborhood’s white pristine sidewalks this sunny afternoon. “Hi there,” she says. Jacobs responds, “Hi ma’am. We have this list of houses we have to visit.”

“I’d really like to talk to you,” she responds.

“We’d like to talk, ma’am, but we have this list we have to get to. We are from the Barack Obama campaign,” says Jacobs.

The woman’s face clinches up, her mouth opens wide, and she takes a step back.

“This is how we see Barack Obama,” she declares, pointing forcefully at the rows of fake tombstones that dot her lawn.

“Thank you, ma’am, have a nice day,” Jacobs says, and keeps walking.

Jacobs and Gaspard see only one Obama sign on their path through the development. Most people aren’t home, but those who are seem bothered, perhaps ready for election season to end.

“I’m Ben, and this is Bryant. We are from the Barack Obama campaign, and we were wondering if you would like to talk about the election,” Jacobs says, introducing himself to a man who warily answers his door.

“No thanks,” the man replies. “I read the newspapers, I watch CNN, I know what is going on. I think I am pretty informed. Thank you. I’m good.”

Jacobs and Gaspard turn, thank him, and walk away. Jacobs says he thinks the fact that the man was paying attention meant that he likely will be voting Obama.

The Obama campaign’s ground game is staggering. Volunteers like Jacobs and Gaspard work with detailed info sheets on every voter they are scheduled to visit. The voters are ranked numerically: the number one being a solid Obama voter, with higher numbers indicating ambivalence, undecideds or outright McCain voters.

Houses that are to be visited are marked on impressively detailed Google-map-like printouts. Sometimes listed with individual voters’ names are issues that they have said they are interested in, and directions for the volunteers, like “persuade,” “motivate,” etc.

The lists that Jacobs carries mostly has the names of younger voters. It is likely that if someone over the age of 25 answers the door, they are not the people Jacobs and Gaspard are supposed to speak to.

“I expect we will see more Obama supporters when we get closer to the main road,” Ben predicts. And he is right. With the main road in sight, the pair knock on doors that are answered by younger people who seem happy to take literature about Obama.

Finally on the main road, the houses turn from pristine McMansions to well-lived-in ranch-style homes. The lawns here have leaves on them, and there are no sidewalks.

Jacobs and Gaspard knock on the door of a red home. A man and woman who look to be in their 20s answer the door. The man, whose arms are covered in tattoos and who wears a basketball jersey, immediately asks the pair, “Can you get me another sign? They took the old one.”

“Your sign was stolen?” asks Jacobs.

“Yah, you know knuckleheads around here, the morons took my sign,” the man replies.

A man from the neighboring house strolls over complaining of the same thing: His Obama sign has recently been stolen, and he would like another one.

Jacobs and Gaspard seize on the excitement to ask the men if they are aware of Ohio’s early voting program. The reaction is mixed.

One man says he wants to vote at his regular voting place on Election Day. The other takes a sheet of early voting locations and thanks the pair.

Jacobs and Gaspard depart, promising they will tell headquarters that new signs are needed.

The pair trudge downhill, teetering on the patch of grass on the side of the road that exists between the major road and a creek. At the end of the steep hill, there is a winding road that leads to another development. Jacobs takes the houses on the right side of the road and Gaspard takes the left. Gaspard approaches a house where an African-American teen answers.

Bryant sheepishly introduces himself and asks if an adult is home. The teen replies that there are no adults. Gaspard asks if he can leave literature for any adults. The teen says he thinks his parents are voting Obama.

A young girl approaches the door and shouts, “Yay, Obama!”

“She really likes Obama,” the teen tells Gaspard. Gaspard smiles and heads toward Jacobs, who looks less happy. Jacobs says that, after introducing himself as from the Obama campaign, the man at the door replied, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

They ring the doorbells of a few more homes. White middle-aged men with baseball caps answer the doors each time. They are polite enough but respond that they are truly undecided. The pair leave, confused, wondering aloud how anyone could still be undecided. Jacobs wishes he had the time to talk about the issues with the man, to suss out what the Obama campaign could do to be more convincing.

“I’m not so sure they would be undecided if I wasn’t here,” says Gaspard, an African-American, noting the color of his skin.

The sun slowly disappears, shadows move in over the meticulously kept lawns, and Ellis arrives to pick the pair up.

Dinner takes place tonight at the Winking Lizard, a sports bar near Macedonia. Around 30 Obama volunteers sit and chat about their canvassing experience while the rest of the bar sits transfixed by the Ohio State-Penn State football game.

One group tells the story of how they visited the house of an undecided voter who, after finding out the canvassers had traveled from New York, said he was now more likely to vote for Obama because of their commitment.

The Obama campaign’s ground game is insidious. From daily text-message updates to campaign supporters in the days leading up to Election Day to organized phone banking in states around the country, and volunteers who go door-to-door in battleground states even in counties with overwhelming Republican support—this is how Obama cuts off big wins from McCain. Even in heavily Republican territory, Obama keeps the margins close.

There are 82 Obama headquarters in Ohio—twice as many as McCain headquarters. It has been reported that the turnout of McCain volunteers has slowed down as Election Day approaches. It is not uncommon to see a McCain office once fully staffed with 30 phone bankers functioning on only a skeleton crew of five or six volunteers in the weeks leading up to the election. Meanwhile, Obama volunteers seem to pour in from out-of-state.

Obama’s long primary fight allowed the campaign to lay the building blocks for local offices around battleground states like Ohio, as well as in new battlegrounds like Indiana and North Carolina. The former community organizer has had time to organize this national community, and the McCain campaign got to work a little too late.

The McCain camp didn’t open its headquarters in Ohio until months after he had secured the nomination. Obama not only had superior structure but was playing the game longer than McCain.

“I’ve never seen anything like the Obama ground game,” Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus, told the Los Angeles Times. “It is light years ahead of what the Democrats did four years ago.”

Beck may actually be underplaying the scope of the Obama ground game as Obama’s use of the Internet and other modern technology to galvanize volunteers and donors across the country has not been seen to this scale in any modern political campaign. His ground game opened up a 50-state strategy that forced the underfunded McCain camp to compete in states that would not have otherwise been competitive.

Pundits wonder how Obama will utilize the structure he built while in office. They speculate he may be able to marshal grassroots lobbying on issues he supports on unheard of levels.

Sunday morning starts slowly. Jacobs and Gaspard, along with their companions in the empty house, deflate their mattresses and sweep the floors. Jacobs is anxious to get back to canvassing. But the 14 young men have to wait for Ellis to pick up canvassing information packets from the Akron office. Today they will canvass around the modest working-class neighborhood their unfurnished house is in.

Modest one-floor homes with dirty vinyl siding are almost a welcome replacement to the larger homes of Macedonia for Jacobs and Gaspard. The people who are home on this Sunday afternoon seem more approachable. At the homes where no one answers, Jacobs and Gaspard slip fliers onto door handles with haste and move on to the next house; the bus is scheduled to leave in only a few hours.

Ohio is called earlier than most expected on election night. The Obama volunteers gathered at Jillian’s in downtown Albany scream “We were there!” and hug, as they did when Pennsylvania is called for Obama.

Ellis answers his cell phone just after Ohio is called and says, “Yes ma, we did it. It’s over, we did it.” With Ohio gone, there is no doubt left in the room. Ellis is calm as can be.

The room goes quieter than normal as the crowd waits for the California polls to close. When the countdown ends, the room explodes like New Year’s Eve. There are tears and screams of joy. “The nightmare is over. The eight-year nightmare is over!” a woman declares. Others gasp, “Oh my God!”

Back in October, on the streets of Akron, Jacobs and Gaspard knock on a door near the intersection of Income Drive and Brewer Avenue. There are two trucks in the driveway in different states of disrepair.

An older man with a scraggly white beard bundled up in a faded football sweatshirt and matching winter cap answers the door. Jacobs gives the man the standard introduction. “We were wondering if Sen. Obama can count on your vote?”

“The fact is, ain’t no one got it yet,” the man says through broken teeth. “There are too many good and bad points about both of ’em. You young men haven’t been around as long as I have. I’ve seen a lot of things,” the man says, cutting off Jacobs’s response.

“As it stands, I ain’t gonna make up my mind ’til Election Day or until something big happens,” the man concludes.

Ben asks if perhaps talking about policy could help the man decide. He hands him a pamphlet about the middle class and Obama’s tax cuts. The man thanks the pair, seeming not annoyed but instead happy to have been engaged, happy that someone took the time to talk to him and ask for his opinion.

“ ‘Something big?’ ” Gaspard wonders as the pair heads down the street.

“I wish we had the time to really talk to people to find out what it really is they are hung up on,” Jacobs says.

The pair are frustrated, at a loss for words, and then Jacobs says, “No one else is out here knocking on his door. We gave him that flyer, and I wonder how much other input he is going to have about the election. I doubt he has cable. I doubt he is surfing the Internet. We are the ones that knocked on his door . . .” he pauses thoughtfully and says: “You just have to hope it will help.”

Gaspard acknowledges Jacobs’ point. Suddenly nothing the pair has done this weekend in Ohio seems futile. Every door they knocked on might have made a difference in some small way. Jacobs comments about the scope of Obama’s ground game.

“This is going to revolutionize campaigning for years to come,” he says. And then something clicks. The time for self-congratulation and musing is not here yet. “Come on,” says Jacobs, pointing to the sheets he carries. “Time is voters.”

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