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Triangle organizing key to Obama's N.C. push 

Just after 2 p.m. the day after Sen. Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president, people were streaming into the campaign's downtown Durham office at 112 W. Main St.

Inside, they met volunteer organizer Beth Silberman, who sat behind a desk and used her laptop computer to find the contact information of the field organizer closest to them. That organizer would tell them about canvassing and voter registration in their neighborhoods, and about events scheduled during the Labor Day weekend—the "Convention Weekend of Action," as the Obama campaign called it.

Silberman said the phone rang constantly throughout the afternoon. A log book on the table contained several pages of names and phone numbers of would-be volunteers. "We've had a lot of people walking in and asking what they can do," she said.

Helen Featherson, a lifelong Durham resident who lives near White Rock Baptist Church, wrote down the field organizer's name on a Post-It note. She's been getting e-mails from the campaign for weeks, but her excitement over Obama's speech the night before finally brought her in.

"I was just awestruck," she said of his speech. "I had my doubts in the beginning—can he pull this off? But he did. And wow, look at how much money he can raise from grassroots people. That reminds me, I've got to go home and make my donation online."

Featherson said most of the residents of her neighborhood are African-Americans, but she's noticed that the majority of people who register voters at the Fayetteville Street Food Lion are white.

"The two guys who knocked on my door before the primary were Caucasian, too," she said. "I just think we need to have more African-Americans involved in this process."

Pollsters agree. If Obama hopes to win in North Carolina, a state that hasn't chosen a Democrat for president since 1976, he's going to need a lot of help from people like Featherson.

"The Triangle is going to be critically important to us in this election," said Paul Cox, spokesman for Obama's North Carolina campaign. Four of the campaign's 16 state offices are in the Triangle—one each in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary. That's because the Triangle is home to many of the 600,000 people who've moved into the state since 2004. "We're counting on the demographic changes in the Triangle, the high growth, and the willingness of so many residents to support Sen. Obama to carry us over 50 percent in the election."

Durham is arguably the most crucial part of the Triangle for Obama's campaign because it's home to the two most important demographic groups: newcomers and African-Americans.

Durham's large number of African-American residents—37 percent of the county population compared to 21 percent of the state's, according to 2006 Census data—make it a target area. In the primary, 75 percent of Durham voters chose Obama, compared to 56 percent statewide. But instead of resting easy here, Obama's campaign will need to mobilize Durham's black voters to turn out in even greater numbers.

In fact, Tom Jensen, a Democratic pollster with the Raleigh firm Public Policy Polling, said Obama will need black voters to turn out at greater numbers than their representation in the population.

"In places like Durham County, the black voter turnout will need to be 10 percent higher than overall turnout—that's the only way you get to a point where statewide you have a population that's less than 22 percent black, but an electorate that's 23 percent black, which I think pollsters agree is the magic number Obama will need to win the state."

As of Sept. 2, the Durham County Board of Election listed 38 percent of its registered voters as African-American.

A report by Public Policy Polling released this weekend titled "A Changing State" (PDF) found that non-native North Carolina Democrats and unaffiliated voters support Obama by a much higher margin than natives. In general, non-native North Carolinians are more likely to vote Democratic—even though they are less likely to register as Democrats. That's because North Carolina's registered Dems have a long tradition of voting with the other party, especially in federal races, the report found.

"In a place like Durham, turnout is key for Obama," Jensen said. "In a place like Cary, persuasion is the key."

Newcomers "on a cycle to cycle basis are really willing to listen to the candidates make their case, and getting human faces out there who are enthusiastic about their candidate, who can make a persuasive argument to those voters who are persuadable, is a huge thing."

Not only is North Carolina up for grabs this year, but Jensen said these demographic shifts could make it a "permanent swing state."

For the campaign, all this translates to the hard work of going door-to-door to register the unregistered and make the pitch to those who are. That's why the field operation—the network of paid staffers and well-trained volunteers—is so crucial to the campaign's success.

Faulkner Fox is lead organizer of the grassroots group Durham for Obama. "The enthusiasm has been absolutely unbelievable," she said. After the primary was over and the official campaign closed its local office, the all-local, all-volunteer group continued to work throughout the summer out of her house. "We couldn't wait two and a half months for them to come back, because the people of Durham wouldn't wait."

Fox, who has worked on political campaigns since the 1980s, said she's never seen this kind of persistence among volunteers. As for demographics, she said that while the Durham for John Kerry campaign tended to attract a higher proportion of white volunteers, the Obama campaign is more diverse, about half black and half white, with a wide range of age groups. "The people who come to volunteer look like the City of Durham," she said.

"I think you can't make any generalizations about who's going to vote for Obama," Fox added. "Yes, the African-American vote is behind him. So are the progressive and moderate white vote."

Cox would not discuss the number of organizers the campaign employs statewide, but a recent New York Times article estimated the number to be 150—about as many as in the battleground state of Missouri.

And where Kerry's campaign had six offices across the state, Obama's campaign has 16 with more coming online soon, Cox said.

Over Labor Day weekend, the campaign hosted nearly a dozen events in the Triangle—knocking on doors in Cary, registering voters at a Morrisville shopping center, drinking together at the downtown Raleigh Times bar. In Durham, there was a "Bike for Obama" voter canvass in north Durham, voter registration near the Streets at Southpoint mall, and a four-hour door-to-door canvass in the neighborhood around North Carolina Central University.

Since Aug. 16, the campaign has registered 300 new voters on the campus of NCCU, Cox said. Weekend events at Duke and UNC netted 150 and 80 new registrations, respectively.

"What the Obama campaign is doing this time is comparatively remarkable," Jensen said. "They have this ability to tap volunteers in a way that I think few campaigns have in the history of America, and it will take milking that for all it's worth to get the kind of turnout in Durham County that Obama needs."

Back at the Durham campaign office on Friday, some Obama supporters went away frustrated because there were no buttons, bumper stickers or T-shirts available.

Silberman gave the last yard sign to another woman who said she'd already gone to the Chapel Hill campaign office that day but found the office shuttered—she had the address of the pre-primary office, not the current one on Rosemary Street.

"We were all fired up and ready to go," she said. "And nobody was there to give us material."

An organizer went upstairs to find a single sticker for her to take home. As she walked out of the office, the woman, who asked to be identified by her first name, Harriett, said she was disappointed.

"They should put in some emergency orders for these things," she said. "The convention just happened, and everyone is on this high. Now is the time to start blossoming."

Other Durham volunteers have reported some frustration with the campaign—only recently did it get its phones and Internet connection hooked up. A directory assistance call in search of "Obama campaign" will come up with no results for any Triangle area. (A search for "McCain campaign" didn't produce any numbers, either. McCain's campaign site, johnmccain.com, lists no office in Durham or Chapel Hill. There is one in Raleigh.)

But Jensen said not to worry. "I think it's a frequent source of tension between campaigns and their volunteers about the best use of resources. I don't think it's a sign that the campaign is disorganized. People do like that kind of stuff, but it doesn't really help that much. Spending the money on a record number of field organizers to get people out to the polls, that is really the better investment."

"Yard signs don't get elected," Fox said. "Volunteers get people elected. Sometimes, people think, 'I'm wearing my T-shirt. I've done my work.' No, your work is canvassing. What brings people to the polls is one-on-one conversation. It's time consuming, and sometimes it can be hard going, but it's effective."

Correction (Sept. 5, 2008): A transcription error inadvertently changed the meaning of the concluding quote from Faulkner Fox. The quote has been corrected.

  • Local Obama campaign not resting on post-convention laurels

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