Democrats Look To Respark Obama's Grass-Roots Fire

In two weeks, President Obama will appear at the first of five big rallies in an effort to help Democrats recapture some of the excitement they had in 2008, so their voters will turn out on Nov. 2. Organizing for America — the grass-roots movement that helped Obama win the White House — is also cranking back into gear.

Democrats always knew it would be hard to duplicate the amazing feat they pulled off two years ago, when they brought in millions of first-time voters and created a mighty network of volunteers. But with the recovery lagging, Congress unpopular and the president himself off the ballot, it's turning out to be even harder than they thought.

Still, Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic Party, told a group of activists last week that he wants them to do it again.

"I know most of you went door to door or made phone calls or e-mails or arm-twisted buddies at church and at the workplace. So don't let anyone tell you that the 2010 election isn't as historic, important or as meaningful as 2008," Kaine said.

Kaine is planning to offer $50 million worth of assistance to Democratic candidates this year — sending hundreds of paid organizers into the field and equipping grass-roots volunteers with the latest technology.

An App For That

Greg Myers is a data analyst for an insurance company by day — and, on nights and weekends ever since 2008, a die-hard Obama canvasser. Recently, he canvassed door to door in a working-class neighborhood in Norristown, Pa.

"I am using the incredible new Organizing for America iPhone app for canvassing. It's called GoCanvass," Myers says. "If you're used to clipboards, this is so much easier to use."

The technology may be easier to use, but now voters are a little harder to persuade.

"It used to be that enthusiasm was there when you walked up to the door," Myers says.

With independent voters deserting the president's party in droves, Organizing For America volunteers like Myers are left with no choice but to try to boost turnout among Democrats.

Myers is part of a huge experiment: He and all the other OFA volunteers got their instructions in a video message e-mailed by Obama's grass-roots guru David Plouffe.

"By Nov. 2, we have a very audacious goal. We're trying to reach, through OFA, 15 million voters in this country," Plouffe says.

Fifteen million is just about the number of first-time voters in 2008. The lion's share of them voted for Obama.

"What this is all about is the composition of the electorate," says political strategist Tad Devine. He's handling the campaigns of some of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this year.

"The electorate in 2008 was younger, there were more minorities, so we need to make sure that the electorate that shows up in 2010 gets as many of those people into it as possible," Devine says.

But historically, young people and minorities have not turned out in large numbers in midterm elections. Devine thinks the Democrats' field organization could change that.

"The big difference here is that we've got people in 2006 and 2008 who actually voted for Democrats, who we know. We know who they are, we know where they live, we have their e-mail address, we have their cell phone number," Devine says.

Limits Of A Good Field Operation

But they still have to persuade them to vote. And here's where former Rep. Tom Reynolds is skeptical. Reynolds was the chairman of the Republicans' campaign committee in the House and knows the power and the limits of a good field operation.

"They, I believe, are making the mistake that they can use their lists and some of what they have in high-tech and say, 'We're going to transfer that from the Obama operation to a midterm Democrat operation,' but I think they're gonna find it hard to achieve. And why do I say that? Based on their track record," Reynolds says.

Reynolds points to the statewide races since 2008 — in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts — where the Democrats tried and failed to turn out the so-called Obama expansion voters.

"I'm an [old-fashioned] pol from New York that does everything I can figure out — that's poll signs, that's calls, that's more calls, that's door to door, that's bullhorns if it's applicable, that's computer message — anything that I can do to help stimulate voters, so I respect that," Reynolds says. "But you still gotta have an engaged base, and what I'm hearing is the Democrats can't get their base engaged and, I promise you, the Republicans are engaged."

So the big question that will be answered on Nov. 2 is: Can a good ground game — and the Democrats had a great one in 2008 — turn out just enough of the newly minted Democratic voters to withstand the wave of enthusiasm on the other side?

'Where Are These Jobs At?'

Back in Norristown, it's easy to see what Democrats are up against. Two years ago, Tammy Jones voted — enthusiastically — for Obama.

Now, she's more ambivalent about voting in November — and about the president. "You know, the time is going by and it's, 'Mmmm, OKaaay,' " Jones says. "He needs to know that if he wants to continue in office, then he needs to make things happen. We're hearing about these jobs, but people are still saying 'Where? Where are these jobs at?' "

In 2008, Jones' block of row houses would have been plastered with Obama signs. Today there's not a bit of evidence that there's an election going on.

Except for Greg Myers of Organizing for America. And he's finding it difficult to find anyone home at the houses he's trying to canvass.

"So I need an iPhone app that will make them be home," Myers says.

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