In a cramped campaign office a couple of blocks from a sprawling General Motors assembly plant, Linda Koch rings the bell used to signal that a new volunteer has signed up for the fight to reelectPresident Barack Obama.
“Woohoo!” the triumphant Koch chirps. “She’s bringing her sister too!”
With the economy finally climbing out of a deep downturn and Republicans duking it out in a long and divisive battle for the party’s nomination, Obama’s chances of winning a second term in November are looking up.
But unless things change dramatically in the coming months, the race to the White House will likely still be a tight one hinging on a handful of swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.
“We think it’s going to be close and we’re organizing in a way that will make sure we’re ready,” said Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
While the state of the economy will be a major factor in swaying voters, volunteers like Koch could make or break the race.
“Turnout will be very key,” said Michael McDonald, an electoral expert at George Mason University.
George W. Bush would not have beaten Al Gore in 2000 if Democrats had managed to get a few thousand more supporters to the polls in Florida — a tiny fraction of the six million ballots cast in the key battleground state.
Perhaps no Democrat has learned that lesson better than Obama, who began his political career as a community organizer and in 2008 built a digitally-savvy mobilization campaign that drew an unprecedented number of new voters to the polls.
“The big question of the campaign is whether or not — given the state of the economy, evaluations of Obama’s performance and so on — he can recreate that intensity in the electorate that he did in 2008,” said Michael Traugott, a political communications expert at the University of Michigan.
In 2008, Obama was aided by the historic nature of his candidacy as he sought to become the first African American president.
But his “hope and change” mantra of old now rings somewhat hollow as an incumbent who has failed to stem the tide of America’s increasingly polarized politics.
The Obama for American reelection campaign officially launched in April 2011, but his highly-tuned organizational machine has never been idle.
The army of volunteers that helped Obama win states that hadn’t picked a Democrat for president in decades was repeatedly deployed in the past three years for congressional, gubernatorial and even local elections.
They knocked on doors and made phone calls to register new voters, sign up volunteers and remind supporters to vote. And they helped push the Democratic message on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
While that didn’t prevent what Obama called a “shellacking” in the 2010 mid-term elections, it helped the campaign test scripts and strategies and update a deep database that allows them to connect with supporters in direct and highly personal ways.
Getting people registered doesn’t just expand support, it also gives the campaign an opportunity to make “real contact” that will make sure people actually turn out to vote, said Jeremy Bird, Obama’s national field director.
“TV’s not going to turn them out — that’s going to be all air noise to them,” he told AFP.
“The question is, is somebody going to come to them multiple times and say here’s where you go vote, here’s when you go vote, here’s how important it is and if need be drive them to the polls, give them an absentee ballot, whatever we need to do to get them to vote.”
The Republican primaries have helped galvanize support. In the month leading up to the January 31 Florida primary, the Obama campaign registered nearly as many new voters in the Sunshine State as it had in all of 2011.
Linda Koch is one of 15,000 “neighborhood team leaders” working on Obama’s ground crew.
She says the most persuasive message she has is the story of why she got involved in politics for the first time a few months ago at the age of 56.
Koch was laid off from her job at a Detroit-area hospital shortly before she was diagnosed with throat cancer. Then Chrysler warned that it would go out of business without government help, putting her husband’s livelihood — and their health insurance — at risk.
“I didn’t want to die of lack of insurance,” she said. “It’s just not the way we should do things here in America — it’s not right.”
Politics came home to Koch when Obama was elected and pushed through the bailout of Chrysler and GM and landmark health care reform.
Her husband’s job — and the US automotive industry — was saved. And people like Koch couldn’t be denied insurance coverage anymore because of a “pre-existing condition.”
She started volunteering after she was inspired to put her name on a sign-up sheet at an Obama speech on Labor Day. The campaign office called her the very next day.