If President Barack Obama is able to capture Virginia next fall, it will be thanks in part to the thousands of phone calls his ground troops have been making for the past six months to try to re-energize his 2008 supporters in this battleground state.
Consider this recent scene as the Republican presidential candidates met for a debate and six volunteers and an Obama regional field director were scattered around the main floor of a Vienna, Va., home dutifully making their way down call lists of prospective volunteers.
Jay Swanson, a 23-year-old recent Princeton graduate who voted for the first time in 2008, hosted his maiden phone bank Thursday at his parents’ home just outside of the Beltway in a Washington, D.C., suburb in Virginia. The barking from his large, black Labrador provided the backdrop for the volunteers’ repeated question: “Are you in?”
Obama loyalists have held more than 1,500 similar volunteer events across Virginia since April 4, when Obama made his re-election bid official. Virginia, one of nine states that voted for Obama in 2008 and for President George W. Bush four years earlier, is again up for grabs, and the Obama campaign is pushing hard to secure the swing state’s 13 electoral votes.
The campaign just hired Ashley Baia as the state field director, plucking her from her role as an associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement. In 2008, Baia was an Obama field organizer in South Carolina and later was a regional field director in Virginia.
“Their state field director got on the ground last week, so they’re definitely not messing around,” a Democratic source in the state said. “I don’t know what their chances will end up being, but I don’t know how they could be more prepared going into this fight.”
With about 13 months to go in the race, the Obama campaign is relying on reviving the field structure that has been in place since 2007 to augment the messaging and fundraising centered in its Chicago headquarters and in Washington, D.C.
Regional campaign offices will begin popping up in the state this fall. But for now — aside from the top-dollar fundraisers that provide the financial fuel — the campaign thrives off living-room-based volunteer operations.
“This year is about building up our infrastructure and creating the strongest organization possible, and that’s exactly what we’re doing in Virginia,” Obama campaign spokesman Frank Benenati said. “We’re not starting from scratch in the commonwealth in this campaign. We have established relationships and networks.”
Virginia crashed the battleground-state party in 2008, and both political parties believe it’s there to stay. It’s also likely to feature one of the most competitive Senate races next year between former Govs. Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R).
The Democratic National Committee just launched a TV ad in support of Obama’s American Jobs Act, which is airing in seven states, including four separate media markets in Virginia. And DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz will headline an Arlington fundraiser this week for the Democratic Party of Virginia.
In 2008, the Obama campaign spotlighted Virginia early and made it a premier stomping ground for the candidate. Obama visited the state at crucial moments, including at least nine stops during the general election. He accepted Kaine’s endorsement in Richmond just days after officially announcing his campaign in February 2007. He was also in the state for his first two stops of the general election campaign, and Kaine was among the three finalists to be his vice presidential running mate. Obama made Virginia home to his last stops before the Democratic National Convention and his final rally of the 2008 campaign.
In a remarkable 7-point win in the state — which had voted Democratic just once since 1948 — Obama exceeded Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) vote total from 2004 by more than 500,000. That included about 65,000 more votes in Fairfax County, where the town of Vienna is located.
Independent voters have made Northern Virginia’s booming exurbs of Loudoun and Prince William counties bellwethers in recent elections, and Obama outperformed Kerry there by a combined 60,000 votes. Obama even won the traditionally Republican Richmond suburb of Henrico County by 12 points.
Statewide, Obama won 91 percent of African-American voters, who made up one-fifth of the vote; 63 percent of new voters, who were 13 percent of the electorate; and 39 percent of white voters, a 7-point increase over Kerry.
But few believe with the current political atmosphere and GOP gains in 2009 and 2010 that Obama will see those numbers again. Republicans swept the statewide races in 2009 and took back an 8-3 majority in the House delegation in the midterm elections. Both parties expect a much closer election.
“Can Obama still win Virginia? Yes,” veteran Virginia-based GOP strategist Chris LaCivita said. “Can he still win by a 7-point margin? Absolutely not. It’s literally 50-50, and it makes Virginia ground zero on the re-elect.”
The president took a hit in a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last month, which found Obama with a 40 percent approval rating in Virginia, including just 29 percent among independents — a vital voting bloc that often decides statewide races.
Yet the president still ran statistically even with GOP frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Democrats cite that fact as an indication the eventual GOP nominee will have issues of his own to deal with in a state that’s become a true battleground. But LaCivita said Obama’s inability to win back the independent vote by next year will prove fatal.
Obama’s current popularity in Virginia is reflective of where he stands nationally, LaCivita noted. That was also true in 2008, when Obama had identical margins of victory — 53 percent to 46 percent — in Virginia and nationwide.
“In 2008, folks were fatigued with the war, the economy started to tank … [and] we had a lackluster presidential campaign on the Republican side,” LaCivita said. “But from that point to where we are now — they say a week in politics is an eternity, well three years is infinity.”
As volunteers go through call lists in living rooms across the state, the Obama campaign is figuring out who is still on board three years later. The loyal Obama followers are calling every last Virginian who told the campaign at one point they want to do more than just vote. That even includes donors who gave just $5.
In the suburban Washington home last month, the responses to volunteer calls illustrated the difficulty of re-energizing supporters more than a year from the election. Many calls for ground support went unanswered, some were met with enthusiastic support, one turned into a debate over foreign policy and one gentleman just wanted to watch his baseball game.