Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Question on the Street
This thing was over before it started.
Barack Obama won Nevada three weeks ago.
Not literally of course, but in mid-October the campaign’s chief Nevada strategist, Rob Hill, and a few field operatives led a meeting of about 200 volunteer precinct captains at Elaine Wynn Elementary School. It was one of six such meetings held by Obama forces that night throughout the state.
Dedicated volunteers, by this point almost martial in their discipline and who themselves had recruited dozens of helpers, got their marching orders for the early voting program that would begin within days.
For months the campaign had been registering voters. When Hill arrived during the summer, the 100 paid organizers had a goal of signing up 70 to 100 new voters a week. But they kept blowing through those numbers.
He upped it to 200.
Veteran Northern Nevada Democrats were amazed at the registration advantage.
In the run-up to the January caucus, they were thrilled. But then, to their surprise, it continued.
“I’ve been astonished it hasn’t leveled off,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, an early Obama supporter.
By the time Democrats were finished, Nevada had more than 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
On this October night at Elaine Wynn, the time had come to find them and get them out.
“We need the relentless recommitment of volunteers,” Hill told the precinct captains. “The campaign that mobilizes will win.”
The precinct captains sat for two hours listening to instructions.
The meeting was reminiscent of one held a year before, also at Elaine Wynn, as Obama’s best volunteers helped build a caucus organization from scratch.
By now, they were pros. A year and a half in the making, the Obama organization had become a machine. The Obama campaign’s victory in Nevada rested on three pillars: A candidate who effectively spoke to new voters and to black and Hispanic and working class voters; a toxic political environment for Republicans; and organizational prowess developed over months.
The Las Vegas Sun was given access to Obama meetings over the months, while conducting background interviews with Obama staff, under the condition the paper not publish any of what it learned about the organization until after the election.
The ability of Hill and his team to build this organization was no surprise. He had run the upstart campaign of Sen. Jon Tester, helping the Democrat win in heavily Republican Montana. Then he was Obama’s field director in New Hampshire, where Obama had come from more than 30 points down and nearly won.
Obama’s regional field directors in Nevada had been tested during the long primary campaign against Sen. Hillary Clinton, shuffling from one state to the next, perfecting their skills with each successive election day during the spring, from Ohio and Texas to Pennsylvania and so on.
Hill said the campaign focused from the start on imparting leadership skills to its volunteers. “That way, it’s organizing rather than just phone banking,” he said. “It’s training people to take on as much responsibility as they’re willing to take.”
The Obama campaign became a giant pyramid, with new volunteers asked to recruit still more volunteers. Volunteers who worked five hours a week were asked to give five more.
Here’s an extreme example: Yvette Williams, 50, founded Nevadans 4 Obama in February 2007, independently of the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign. Her organization has 346 members and they made more than 51,000 phone calls, hosted 2,400 events (ranging from calling blitzes to parties) and raised $220,546.
The campaign spent time and money over the summer scrubbing voter lists, making sure they knew precisely which voters were supporters or could be persuaded. The effort, Hill said, allowed the campaign to find the “low-hanging fruit” early and concentrate on converting undecided voters in the fall.
One-on-one contact is crucial, Hill said.
“I’m always assuming a close race,” he said in an interview days before early voting began Oct. 18. “Speaking to people one on one, on their terms, at their doors, helps punch through the air wars.”
To be sure, though, on-air advertising wars did matter. Obama spent more than $850,000 from Oct. 21 to Oct. 28, compared with $350,000 spent by McCain, repeating a pattern throughout the campaign.
Obama also leveraged Nevada’s recession and issues such as health care.
Listen to Michael Collins, 19, a student at CSN and a shift manager at a Pizza Hut.
His key issue: McCain’s plan to tax employer health benefits. Obama hammered McCain on the issue relentlessly for weeks on TV, and appears to have broken through. According to CNN exit polls in Nevada, 72 percent of voters who listed health care as a key issue went for Obama.
Obama’s other media message was simple: Obama will bring change. One-third of voters in Nevada said the ability to bring change was the quality that mattered most, and Obama won 91 percent of them.
Media and advertising aside, there’s a reason Obama thanked his volunteers so profusely Tuesday night—without them he would not have won. It wasn’t just their energy. It was the persistence his campaign instilled. Pushy was not only OK, it was required.
Miesje Corbo, a mother of four—including twins—from Las Vegas who works from home for a Los Angeles-based eco clothing line, was a precinct captain for Obama during the caucus, when, reluctantly, for the first time in her life, she went door-to-door looking for support.
Back then, it was tough. Voters peered through the cracks in their doors, she said. Then came Obama’s decisive Iowa victory. “It went from, ‘I’m not sure about Obama’ to ‘Hi. How are you?’” Corbo said.
Corbo was so committed that, even after Obama’s popular-vote defeat here, she went to Ohio on her own dime to knock on doors for the state’s primary.
After a break, she rejoined the campaign in September, volunteering on weekends. Corbo started working seven days a week when early voting started. On the Sunday of the second weekend, she hit 21 doors in a Southeast Las Vegas neighborhood in two hours, shuttling from house to house along with another volunteer, Paige Candee, in her Prius.
After the first few doors it was clear she was competing with Sunday football—and, more often than not, losing. TVs blared and no one answered the door. Then there were the early-voting fliers she left earlier in the week, discarded on front porches, next to takeout menus and phone books.
Still, she reached six voters, many of whom saw her three days prior.
“How’s your weekend?” Corbo asked a woman.
“Good. Didn’t I see you earlier this week?” she asked.
“Yes, and I told you to vote early—or you were going to see me again.”
Corbo told the voter early voting would begin Tuesday at the local Target.
And, as she told another voter, “Every day you guys don’t vote you’re going to have people like me knocking on your door.”
The persistence paid off, especially with young, black, Latino and first-time voters.
As early voting began, 4,500 Obama volunteers set out from their 170 staging locations and hit the doors.
By the time they were finished on Halloween, they’d banked a 90,000-vote advantage, the campaign believed, though the actual advantage was even larger.
At McCain headquarters in Henderson, meanwhile, as early voting began, volunteers seemed far behind, still calling voters and polling them on their most important issues. The Obama tsunami was coming, and the McCain campaign was throwing sandbags on the beach.
It was over before it began.
Republicans were oddly nonchalant about the course of things, even as early voting sealed their fate.
Some Republicans knew what was coming. One local consultant said Monday the situation was “bleak,” even as campaign spokesman Rick Gorka confidently predicted a McCain victory.
McCain’s campaign never believed in the Democrats’ turnout model—Obama’s ability to expand the usual picture of who votes.
New voters? Unlikely minority voters? “They didn’t vote during the Vietnam War, why would they vote now?” said one campaign staff member, referring to the young voters who never materialized for Democratic Sen. George McGovern in his landslide loss in 1972 to Richard Nixon.
In fact, nearly 11 percent of early voters were Hispanic, though they make up 12 percent of registered voters. Nearly 40 percent of registered 18-24 years-old voted early. Overall, Hispanics made up 15 percent of the electorate, and Obama won 78 percent of them, according to exit polls, far surpassing Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 performance, according to CNN exit polling. Obama won two-thirds of voters 18-29, according to exit polls, again besting Kerry’s totals handily.
In other words, the young and Hispanics, with a push from the Culinary Union, were indeed turning out early, and for Obama in big numbers.
Then there were black voters.
Edith Lee, 79, and her two daughters, Fannie Nosike and Carol Banks, voted early for Obama. Nosike, who’s 54 and a food server at Red Rock Resort, summed up their involvement this way: “Never donated, never volunteered, never been excited. Now we’re doing all three.”
For Lee, it was a proud moment. “I lived through the civil rights struggle in Mississippi,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever live to see this day.”
But the work wasn’t finished yet.
After months of nuts-and-bolts organizing, overseen by six regional field directors across the state, everything came to a point on Monday. One final call before the big day.
At 9:30 p.m. on election eve, senior adviser Hill was hunched over in a chair in a small back office of Obama’s Nevada Headquarters, clutching a weathered baseball bat he bought two years ago to channel his frustrations as he eked out that Senate win for Tester.
Bags of granite under his eyes, he used the bat more for balance than anything else. The sign on the door read “Boiler Room Club” and it smelled like a high school locker room near the end of football season.
“It’s going to get hot in here,” said Rachel Sigman, the campaign’s field director, closing the door.
Each regional field director, backed by a chorus of organizers, checked in with a special chant, distorted and muffled badly by the speakerphone. On Monday alone, they distributed 4,351 campaign packets to volunteers, recruited more than 200 Election Day volunteers to bring the total to 5,000 and knocked on 135,572 doors.
“We’ve met and exceeded expectations,” Hill told the group. “It sets up really well in an incredible way for us tomorrow. This is what you guys have been building to. And I’m asking you for one more day of work. But I have every confidence we will get this done and be celebrating in a pretty big way.”
Sigman ran through a grueling schedule that started with a wake-up call at 5 a.m. and didn’t end when the polls closed at 7 p.m. No, as the polls closed, this campaign machine would have its organizers stop knocking on doors and move on to the polls, where they would become line monitors who insisted that Obama voters didn’t leave until they voted.
“Entertain them, encourage them, keep them warm,” Sigman said.
Sigman ended on a serious note: Do it for Terence. Terence is Terence Tolbert, the campaign’s beloved state director who died of a heart attack Sunday.
Tuesday, each of the organizers walked their voting “universes” three times, making sure every last supporter turned out.
At 3 p.m., they had clean lists showing only those supporters who hadn’t voted.
By the time it was finished, as of late last night, Obama was ahead by 15 percentage points.