Obama Campaign Already Hard at Work in Virginia

By Alexis Simendinger - June 13, 2011

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"Why is it important to start so early?" Obama campaign aide Brandyn Keating said as she made a pitch to about 18 prospective volunteers and a few curious onlookers June 8 at a noisy restaurant just a few miles from the nation's capital.

Keating, wearing a gray pantsuit on a boiling hot day, her blond hair pulled back in a tight chignon, answered her own question, raising her voice above the din to make a conversational case for President Obama's governing record in front of a polite audience of Latinos. "We're reaching back to those who have already been engaged, and reaching forward to those who can be engaged," she explained in Arlington, Va. "We think that's very important."

Youthful and polished, Keating is the state director for the Democratic National Committee's Organizing for America operation in Virginia. For nearly a decade, Keating has been working to build grass-roots organizations around the country to benefit progressive causes and candidates. What seemed clever and new about the Obama grass-roots campaign nationwide in 2008 may be old hat by 2012; Republicans are using social media and sophisticated voter databases, too. But Keating and Obama's top campaign managers believe that labor-intensive personal persuasion, voter to voter, could again give Obama an edge in Virginia and other swing states.

Campaign manager Jim Messina tells Obama supporters in a videotaped message that "this campaign is only going to be as strong as the grass roots. We need to build a plan that works in 2011, and then at the end of the year we'll go re-plan again and make sure we're ready and go after it hard in 2012."

Faced with a weak national economy and what will assuredly be a well-financed opponent, Obama will need more than PowerPoint cheerleading videos disseminated via YouTube from Chicago, or Tweets and Facebook entreaties to recapture the same support he enjoyed in 2008 -- and to replace what may be lost because of divides over the job he's been doing.

And Virginia is important to Obama's chances. Its evolving demographics in the last decade made the difference for an Obama victory in 2008, but could swing the other way in 2012. As the Republican National Committee pointed out in a memo first published by The Washington Post last week, Virginia is one of nine states that Obama captured in 2008 and that George W. Bush won in 2004. The others are Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and North Carolina. Republican victories in Virginia and the other eight states since 2008 prove, according to the RNC, that "every one of these states is winnable for our 2012 nominee." In Virginia in 2008, Obama defeated Arizona Sen. John McCain by 53-46 percent -- a bellwether margin that mirrored the election results nationwide. Obama was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the Old Dominion -- and its 13 electoral votes -- in more than four decades. Lyndon Johnson preceded Obama, in 1964.

The Obama campaign is determined to reprise that success in 2012. The campaign similarly is eager to meet or beat the president's 13,692-vote squeaker in North Carolina, another evolving state that shares some campaign advertising media markets with Virginia along the border. Not since Jimmy Carter in 1976 was a Democratic nominee able to carry the Tar Heel state, which helps explain the Obama campaign's attraction to Charlotte, the site of next year's Democratic National Convention. On Monday, the president travels to Raleigh for a much publicized meeting between local business leaders and his advisory Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

Republicans scoff at the president's efforts thus far to inoculate himself on the economy.

"Generally speaking, the voters are moving towards our Republican candidates and Republican ideals," David Rexrode, executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, said in an interview. He dismissed 2008 as "an off-year" for the GOP in Virginia and predicted Obama will lose there in 2012, in no small measure because of the overall economy, criticism of Obama's cap-and-trade energy agenda, and the business community's opposition in Virginia to the costs of last year's health reform law, which is to be fully implemented by 2014.

"The way things are looking since his election, almost everything is trending Republicans' way," he said.

Virginia's unemployment rate is 5.8 percent compared with 9.1 percent nationally, and Rexrode argues that Virginians will give Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell credit for job creation in the commonwealth, not the president. Since Obama was elected, Republicans won the Virginia governorship, took control of the House of Delegates in Richmond, and gained three House seats in Congress in last year's big GOP midterm victory.

Virginians still favored Obama in hypothetical matchups against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in two recent polls, however. And a Washington Post survey of Virginians in May, just as Osama bin Laden was found and killed, showed an eight-point drop in the number of people who said they would "definitely not vote for" the president in 2012. But there was almost no change after the Pakistan raid among the half of Virginians who described themselves as dissatisfied or angry with Obama's policies. There was similarly little shift among the majority of Virginians who rated the economy as "poor" before the bin Laden bump.

Asked last week to assess the president's biggest challenges in Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner, a Democratic former governor, told RCP that the president needs to mobilize the newcomers to the state, as well as younger residents, to try to replicate what he accomplished in 2008. But without knowing who the GOP nominee will be, it's premature to assess how Virginia may swing, he said.

Democrats hope to make 2012 a "choice" election rather than a referendum on Obama. The president's re-election chances in the Old Dominion and around the country will improve if the president's campaign can overcome misgivings about the incumbent by creating greater misgivings about his challenger. This will be key, predicted Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who is retiring in 2012 after one term and ceding his party's nominating contest to Tim Kaine, a former Democratic governor and DNC chairman.

"The most important question is going to be who his opponent is going to be. I think the presidential matchup will mean a lot," Webb told RCP. "If I had to say one thing, I think that's what it would be."

Webb said the state's demographics generally trend toward the Democrats. But Warner concedes that there is at least one constituency in Virginia that has moved away from Obama since 2008. "I think there's still work to do mending some ties with the business community," Warner said. "But listen, I think the president sometimes gets a bum rap for being anti-business."

The president has been a frequent visitor in the commonwealth; most recently, he visited Alexandria's Northern Virginia Community College on June 8 to talk up classroom training that leads directly to "factory floor" jobs. "I come here often enough that I think I should be getting some credits," Obama quipped as he announced a public-private partnership between employers and students.

Some of the factors the Obama campaign is eyeing: Northern Virginia is the Democrats' bulwark against more conservative voters in southern and rural Virginia; the state is young and well-educated -- its median age is about 37, generally a plus for Obama; African-Americans, Obama's stronghold, make up more than a fifth of the state's population; and the continuing surge since 2000 of Hispanic, and foreign-born Virginians opens pathways to new support in 2012. In just a decade, for example, Virginia's Hispanic population has nearly doubled.

That's why outreach this summer to engage Latinos in Northern Virginia is getting special campaign emphasis so early. "We should not be the sleeping giant, as they usually call the Hispanic population," Obama volunteer Gaston Araoz told the Latino group gathered in the Arlington restaurant last week. Araoz had in mind that just 26 percent of eligible Hispanic voters in Virginia voted in 2010, according to studies and exit polls. A midterm year is always expected to be sleepier than a presidential year, but it provided an opening to issue a challenge. "We can do better," he told his listeners.

Keating talked about the 140,000 people in Northern Virginia the campaign hopes to engage between June and August in one-on-one discussions about supporting the president, using volunteers. Everything in the Obama campaign is measured, timed and compared, and the one-on-one outreach tallies for Virginia were running slightly ahead of other states in mid-June. Through the summer, volunteers will attempt to meet those who voted for or donated to the president last time to ask them to jump back aboard for 2012.

"It's going to take some work to get them re-engaged, but I think it can happen," said Virginia Del. Bob Brink during a recent conversation in the OFA headquarters. Brink's Arlington office shares a floor with the Obama team.

As RCP spent several evenings observing volunteers dialing through lists of Northern Virginia's Obama backers from 2008, the reactions on the other end were mixed. Some people were glad to be called and eagerly set up appointments for coffee with volunteers to discuss Obama's campaign. But others hung up on the volunteers, or complained about aspects of Obama's performance in office, or asked that the campaign stop calling until next year.

In a tough economy, "volunteers" appeared in the Obama headquarters and at the Arlington restaurant hoping to apply for a paid position with the campaign. "Some people are disappointed for one reason or another," Brink said, "and that's because they expected so much."

Speaking at the Latino outreach event last week, Erik Carlson, the campaign's Virginia regional field director -- who was not that long ago a blue-collar kid from Minnesota -- reminded the crowd that 15 million people voted for the first time in 2008 -- for Barack Obama. "This time around," he said, "it's going to be a lot harder."


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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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