at the election night party at Jillian’s.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
really like to talk to you,” she responds.
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.
is how we see Barack Obama,” she declares, pointing forcefully
at the rows of fake tombstones that dot her lawn.
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.
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.
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
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,”
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.
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
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.”
sign was stolen?” asks Jacobs.
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
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
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!”
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.
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
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
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?”
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
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
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.
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.”