Obama Banks on the Ground Game

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

Obama campaign volunteer Peggy Tyus helps to register voters at a weekly farmers market in Virginia in August

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Underestimating a surge of new voters was, in some ways, Hillary Clinton's downfall in the primaries. In Iowa, the Clinton campaign expected 150,000 people to caucus, but they came in third place when more than 230,000 people ultimately participated. The Obama campaign "has enthusiasm, they have a lot of people, they have money to finance in a serious way ground operations, and they have the resources in terms of good lists at their disposal," says Harold Ickes, a Democratic strategist and former top adviser to Hillary Clinton. "If the McCain people think that that's not serious, they're in for a big surprise. They should not pooh-pooh the ground game that Obama is mounting; it's a formidable one. I don't think in my experience in Democratic politics there's ever been anything like it." Ickes' company, Catalyst, compiled one of the voter lists that the Obama campaign is using — which includes not only all 180 million registered voters but an additional 80 million unregistered eligible adults.

The two sides' different approaches toward the ground war were evident during a recent late summer weekend in Virginia. On a balmy Saturday morning over Starbucks coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, about two dozen Republican canvassers met to go door-knocking. The Grand Old Party tradition has become a familiar ritual for this Old Dominion group, some of whom have been volunteering since before the Starbucks took up residence in the upscale Fairfax, Va., strip mall, not 10 miles from Washington. They spent the morning retracing familiar paths, calling on homes they most likely have visited before and, as always, completing SAT-style fill-in-the-bubble spreadsheets that are fed to the GOP's massive voter files.

"I sure have knocked on these doors, countless times," former state senator Jay O'Brien says of the approximately once-a-month gathering. "I've been out here since 1991." (O'Brien knows the importance of new voters firsthand: he lost his state senate seat last year, when a surge of new voters came out of nowhere in his Fairfax district. "Frankly, I got as many votes as I used to get, but there was a bigger turnout by new voters who wanted to make a statement about other things, and they were more energized by a Democrat," O'Brien says.)

About 30 miles south in Woodbridge, Va., Angel Thomas was canvassing for Obama. Thomas, 26, who has never before volunteered for a campaign, spent the past month downloading lists of her neighbors from mybarackobama.com. In her free time, she knocks on as many doors as she can. She asks her neighbors whom they support, tries to educate and convince those who are on the fence and logs all the information into Obama's website before downloading another list. While the GOP is still meeting in groups once a month, Thomas and her 8 million allies are canvassing 24/7.

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