Sunday, Aug. 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama is building an organizational juggernaut here. With fewer than 90 days before the election, the upstarts are building on the impressive grass-roots operation they built for Nevada’s early presidential caucus, and it is paying dividends.
“His on-the-ground organization looks real good. McCain’s is very quiet up here. If I’m a Republican strategist, it would scare me,” said Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno, political scientist and a registered Republican.
Obama’s organizational strength doesn’t assure victory, the campaign of Sen. John McCain notes forcefully. Obama will have to overcome his fairly conventional liberal voting record in a state with an electorate that detests gun control and higher taxes. Moreover, as Herzik noted, the big question is whether the Obama campaign can get the new voters it has registered to vote.
The evidence of Obama’s organizational prowess here:
Democrats have a registration edge of 60,000 voters, many of them signed up by the Obama campaign. Hundreds of supporters are showing up at surrogate events, attending house parties and walking precincts. Since last month the campaign has trained 600 precinct leaders statewide, joining the more than 1,000 who were trained for the caucus. Thousands of others are making phone calls and knocking on doors.
Organizers are tapping new networks, particularly in minority communities. The campaign recently hosted a three-day organizing camp for Hispanics.
By the end of August, the campaign expects to have 20 field offices and 75 paid staff members statewide, a third of whom would be from the caucus operation. Those workers will be overseen by six regional field directors, with Chicago headquarters keeping a close eye on all of it.
Obama’s state director, Terence Tolbert, worked here in 2004. “It won’t be as small a victory as people say,” Tolbert said, flashing a grin. “But only if we do the work.”
Rick Gorka, a spokesman for McCain, scoffed at the Obama effort here.
“Obama is out of step with Nevadans,” he said.
“He’s forced to spend an incredible amount of resources here because he needs to prove, or try to prove to Nevadans, that his record is moderate, when in fact it’s not.
“He’s the got the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate,” Gorka added, referring to a disputed survey conducted by the National Journal.
Gorka wouldn’t say how many paid staffers McCain has in Nevada, only that the campaign is adequately staffed and will have offices in key places when the time comes.
As Sun partner Politico reported last week, the McCain campaign shook up its national field staff recently and is revving up its organizational structure.
But Republican operatives here are concerned. Steve Wark, a longtime field operative, said state Democrats have built a machine. “Republicans don’t have anything like that.”
There’s a McCain advantage, however: Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael McDonald, an expert on voter turnout, said Republicans tend to be more reliable voters, so traditionally the party has had to rely less on organizational politics because its voters show up without prodding. But that changed in 2004, he noted. The Bush-Cheney campaign created the most sophisticated ground operation in history, and beat Sen. John Kerry in key places such as Nevada.
“If you’re McCain, I don’t think you can completely sit back and rely on a media campaign,” McDonald said.
McDonald said looking at his review of McCain’s resource allocation, it’s not clear the campaign believes Nevada will be pivotal: “They’re looking at Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan — electoral-rich states — and think if they can win two of those, they can win the election.”
Meanwhile, Obama wants to cobble together Bush states that will make a loss in a big Midwestern state less meaningful. Clearly, the campaign thinks Nevada is one of them.