Obama's Ohio Grassroots Advantage

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Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Supporters of Barack Obama cheer for the candidate during a campaign stop at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio February 24, 2008.

Every successful politician needs a home base, a place to go where the crowds are always friendly and the pizza is always free. For Hillary Clinton, that place of comfort in Ohio is Kamm's Corners, a neighborhood on Cleveland's west side dominated by white firefighters, cops and factory workers. One of Clinton's strongest supporters here, Pat Dorr, has driven a Buick with an "I love Hillary" bumper sticker since the mid-1990s.

Dorr became active in the Clinton campaign last week, after a national campaign staffer asked her to make phone calls. "When I first came in, there was nobody here," says Dorr, 78, who has helped so many campaigns over the years that she's lost count. "This whole week, this office was basically empty."

Home base for Barack Obama lies on the opposite side of town, in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood, home to mostly working-class African-American families. One of Obama's first volunteers here was Antoinette McCall, a substitute high school teacher who has never worked a campaign before in her life. McCall became active 11 months ago, donating what little money she could to Obama's campaign. She used Obama's website to recruit volunteers and run a phone bank from her living room. She convinced friends who own beauty salons to organize their customers, and created a database of hundreds of Obama supporters.

"It's like we had this whole movement built up before the campaign staff even got here," says McCall, 36. In a few months, McCall, a political novice, has built an organization rivaling that of some state senators who form the backbone of Clinton's establishment support. "By the time they finally opened the office," she says, "this place was packed."

As the Democratic candidates for President prepare for their debate at Cleveland State University Tuesday night, grassroots Obama supporters like McCall are the key to his having a chance on March 4 of continuing his stunning streak of 11 straight primary or caucus victories — and all but locking up the Democratic nomination. While the blue-collar Buckeye State has been viewed as part of Clinton's firewall strategy for stopping Obama's momentum, the truth is that even though she is still leading in polls, her campaign is playing catch-up when it comes to the all-important job of grassroots organizing. "I'm 52, I've been around for a while, and [Obama's] is the most spontaneous, energetic political operation that I've ever seen," said Keith Wilkowski, a lawyer and former Democratic Party chair in Toledo.

That level of energy was apparent at a Monday rally of several thousand people in Cincinnati. Obama opened his remarks by telling the crowd that early voting is already under way in Ohio and urged them to go vote immediately after the rally ended. He even told them the location where they could go cast their ballots. It was candidate-as-precinct-captain, and it showed both the intensity of the fight for votes going on daily as well as the benefits of having a candidate who used to be a community organizer and has run a voter registration drive.

Obama's successful recruitment of outsiders was born of necessity — Clinton enjoys endorsements from Ohio's popular governor and many Democratic officeholders. If she retains her (albeit shrinking) lead in the polls, it will mean that a traditional, top-down campaign rooted in the party establishment still can win in the clutch. But if Obama scores an upset, it could prove that a new breed of grassroots campaign — viral, internet-based, built from the ground up by neophytes like Antoinette McCall — is finally ready for prime time.

"Clinton doesn't have as many volunteers as Obama right now," says Steve Fought, a longtime grassroots organizer for the Ohio Democratic Party who works as an aide to Congresswoman Marcy Kaptor of Toledo. "But she has deep party support, and I suppose they'll get their machine cranked up."

But it could be getting a bit late for that. All winter, the heart of Hillary Clinton's campaign in central Ohio was Jamie Dixey's apartment in the affluent Columbus suburb of New Albany. She started by inviting nine friends over to listen in on a national conference call with Clinton. She organized two monthly meetings, both of which attracted about 10 people. "It was very hard to get people interested because it was so early," Dixey says. In the world of traditional Democratic Party campaigns, this was enough to qualify Dixey as a star volunteer. She won an invitation to Governor Ted Strickland's rally on Jan. 19 formally kicking off Clinton's grassroots campaign in Ohio.

Dixey's counterpart on the Obama campaign, Valli Frausto, signed up to volunteer for Obama on Feb. 11, 2007, the day after he announced his candidacy. Immediately she found the social networking section of Obama's website, my.barackobama.com, which campaign insiders affectionately call "MyBO." Frausto posted a personal profile, just as she would on MySpace, and met other supporters online. Within six months, her group of three women had grown to over 200 members. Together they used the website's event planning tools to organize Obama for President picnics, neighborhood cleanups, phone banks and a 5K fund-raiser run.

After Super Tuesday, as national staff for both campaigns descended on Ohio, Obama's state leaders began flexing the power of MyBO and the grassroots network it spawned. Across the state, Obama's 300 web-based groups started canvassing neighborhoods three days to a week before Clinton's campaign, supporters on both sides say.

At the end of a regular e-mail to Democratic Party activists, the Clinton campaign attached a plea last week begging volunteers to bring food to staff members working at the campaign headquarters. When Frausto read the message, she chuckled. Obama's campaign already had a volunteer whose only job is to coordinate the dozens of people who pledged to cook lunch and dinner for Obama's 60 staff members in Columbus every day through March 4.

Clinton supporters say they're not worried about Obama's early grassroots advantage in Ohio. Building Obama's network from the ground up took months. One advantage of a top-down approach is that, with just a few phone calls, the Democratic Party machine can mobilize thousands of volunteers in just a few days.

"I only started calling my people last week," said State Senator Dale Miller, a Democratic stalwart on Cleveland's west side. "In retrospect, if I had started a week or two earlier, we would be better off now."

Miller's organization remains formidable, however. He spent the last few months calling hundreds of supporters, asking them to volunteer for Clinton and tracking those who seemed responsive. He visited every neighborhood Democratic club in his district at least once, filling his clipboard with new volunteers. "The people I know may not be huge in number, but they are the people who are the most active in their neighborhoods," says Miller.

But at least on Cleveland's east side, Obama's surging grassroots success has stolen Clinton's establishment base right out from under her. Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell came out early for Clinton, winning a trip to the national convention to vote for her.

Then Conwell's constituents sat him down for a little chat. "I met with my residents and tried to get them to go with Hillary," Conwell says. "Not one of them would move. All of my volunteers, all my block club presidents, every last one of them was going for Barack."

Conwell was forced to relinquish his seat at the convention. He spent last Saturday canvassing his ward for Obama.

"Now that I've been with both campaigns, I see that Obama's has a lot more volunteers, and they're all grassroots people from the neighborhood," Conwell says. "I didn't think this movement would grow. I was wrong. It's strong."

with reporting by Mark Halperin/Cincinnati