Kathryn Lamb, a 59-year-old gray-haired grandmother and retired paralegal, spent her Saturday like she has spent nearly every weekend for the past year – working to re-elect President Barack Obama.
From 9 a.m. until noon she drove around Garner, stopping at the homes of 45 likely Obama supporters who had yet to vote. Then she spent the rest of the day making sure the rest of her team knocked on another 567 doors in Garner – all part of a larger effort by the Obama campaign to knock on 90,000 doors across the state and make 75,000 calls in one day.
Almost 30 miles across the county, in the Heritage neighborhood in Wake Forest, Dan and Emily Henson were also knocking on doors Saturday morning. Dan Henson carried a clipboard listing more than two dozen names and addresses of likely supporters of Republican Mitt Romney who had not voted.
The Romney campaign said that since May it has knocked on more than 1 million doors and made 3 million calls statewide.
In politics, this is known as the ground game.
It is the most old-fashioned part of politics – identifying your supporters and making sure they get to the polls.
It was Obama’s superior ground game that enabled the Illinois senator to squeak by Republican Sen. John McCain in North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008. And if the president is going to have a chance to carry the state again next Tuesday against Romney he will have to depend heavily on the get-out-the vote effort.
While Obama has mainly campaigned in other battleground states, such as Ohio, Iowa and Virginia, and cut back on his TV advertising here, his campaign touts his ground operation in North Carolina as second to none.
“We have a huge operation on the ground,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s national campaign manager. “We continue to feel that North Carolina is a neck-and-neck race. That is a place where we feel very good about what we have on the ground.”
Both sides say their efforts are paying off in early voting.
With 1.4 million having already voted in the state, turnout among African Americans is up 23 percent – or 72,000 votes – over the same period in 2008; among young voters it’s up 24 percent. The Obama campaign sees both as positives for the president. Democrats make up 50 percent of the early vote, while Republicans make up 31 percent.
The Democrats also seem to have a distinct advantage over the Republicans in registering new voters during the early voting period when voters can register the same day they vote. Democrats have gained 30,751 new voters between Oct. 13 and Oct. 27, while Republicans have gained 12,949 new voters, according to the State Board of Elections.
The GOP notes that 59,153 more Republicans have voted early this year than at the same point during early voting in 2008, closing the gap with the Democrats by more than 10 percentage points.
“We’re above where we need to be in terms of hitting our goals,” said Michael Joffrion, Romney’s state director. “And it’s showing up in early voting in particular.”
Campaign never stopped
One reason the Obama organization has an edge over Romney’s is that it never shut down after being set up in the spring of 2008 to defeat then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. Its Morgan Street headquarters, just two blocks from the Capitol, never closed, and its director, Lindsay Siler, remained on the payroll.
It remained active between campaigns in lobbying for the president’s health care plan, and had a dry run last November, helping re-elect Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.
Lamb is example of that continuity.
After working as an Obama volunteer in 2008, she kept all her email contacts to easily build a new campaign group for this election. She began working as a neighborhood team leader a year ago.
The Garner office is one of 54 Obama offices around North Carolina. That compares with 24 offices for the Romney campaign.
As a volunteer, Lamb said she works 10 to 14 hours per day, seven days a week. She sees her husband at about two meals per week, and said she hasn’t seen her granddaughters in two weeks.
“There are telephone calls to be made, there is paperwork to get done, there is (campaign literature) packs to be done, there is cleaning out the toilet,” Lamb said. “It’s very intense.”
She said she supports Obama for a number of reasons. She is afraid what a Republican victory would mean for the U.S. Supreme Court, and in particular for women’s rights and environmental issues. And she supports the ability of people to have access to heath insurance – even more so after her 37-year-old son was laid off from work and lost his health insurance soon after he’d had triple bypass surgery.
“I had a lot of concerns last time, and I have more concerns this time around on a personal level,’’ she said. “Big things require big commitments. Its a very big deal.”
The Obama campaign says it doesn’t know how many volunteers it has working in North Carolina, but conservatively puts the figure at between 15,000 and 20,000. The Romney campaign says it has about 10,000 volunteers in the state.
The most dedicated Obama volunteers are broken into neighborhood teams of five or six individuals. Each has a team leader, a canvass leader, a phone bank leader, and a data entry person. There are some 400 neighborhood teams across the state.
Supporting the volunteer operation is a staff, made up overwhelmingly of young people. The Obama campaign is famously reticent to talk about staff, but Democrats say there are about 350 Obama field staffers – apparently fewer than the estimated 400 staffers that were here in 2008.
North Carolina is particularly well-suited for the traditional ground game because at 22 percent it has the largest African-American population of any of the battleground states. There is more of a tradition of neighborhood political organizing in the black community.
The Obama campaign has heavily worked the historically black campuses – sending in political figures such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson to N.C. Central University in Durham or singer Alicia Keys to North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.
Telisha Johnson, a 21-year old chemistry major at NCCU from Kinston, who showed up to see Jackson, said she had received at least 10 emails from the campaign reminding her to vote.
GOP reaches out, too
The Republicans have similar methods to reach their supporters.
Volunteers like Dan and Emily Henson are armed with a computer generated list of supporters with a lower propensity to vote.
Those voters will receive a visit at home or a phone call every day until they vote, Romney staffers said.
The phone calls are likely to come from the Wake County GOP office in North Raleigh. An hour after the Hensons finished canvassing Saturday, a dozen other volunteers sat in front of phones, dialing numbers that appeared on the screen. Every day, volunteers are calling thousands of voters across the state. “We’re at capacity every day,” Joffrion said.
The Hensons’ roster included many voters like Steve Zera.
“Can Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Pat McCrory and the Republican ticket expect your support in this November’s election?” Emily asked Zera when he answered the door in Wake Forest.
Like many conservatives, Zera said he didn’t start as a big Romney fan. But he warmed to the candidate after the first debate and strongly opposes the president. “I’m enthusiastic in the sense that I don’t like the way the last four years have been,” he said in an interview after the Hensons visited.
Zera said he planned to vote this week if the weather improved.
Romney aides declined to disclose specific targets, saying they didn’t want to telegraph strategy. They dissect voters down to minutia levels. Most efforts now focus on turnout, not persuasion, but if Romney strategists see a need, they can switch the phone script and realign the target pool at any point. “It’s all about flushing out and finding individual voters, regardless of where they are,” Joffrion said.