At the end of the day even the most sophisticated grassroots electoral campaign relies on people. People like Meghan Schertz, a 29-year-old Obama volunteer, who’s given up her Sunday afternoon to canvass the Washington Heights area here.
But it also depends on the people whom volunteers like Meghan meet. The names on her list are the product of data based on magazines they subscribe to, cars they drive, shops they visit and past votes they’ve cast. Each has a bar code, and Meghan has to place them on a five-point scale ranging from strongly for Obama to strongly for McCain.
It sounds like genius. But in practice it looks like little more than educated guesswork. The house with two pickup trucks bearing Harley Davidson stickers is leaning Obama. Before she can open her mouth at another house, the man glances at her Obama badge and says, "I don’t want to talk about it" and shuts the door. Next comes the woman who refuses to open the door, preferring to shout from the window, "I’m for Obama, so go on now." The man with the Nader yard sign threatens to shoot her unless she gets off his property. "So you’re an independent then?" asks the unflappable Meghan.
It’s the day before Virginia’s voter registration deadline, and Schertz, who has never been involved in an election campaign before, struggles to find a street on a poorly drawn map. The sun sets before she can finish all the names on her list. Where people are concerned, you can only plan for so many eventualities.
Look carefully at an electoral map of southwest Virginia, and you’ll spot Roanoke, a tiny blue island bobbing around in a sea of red. Four hours by car from the nearest Republican county to its west and two to the south and east, it nestles in a valley between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians. It’s a town of just under 100,000 in a swing state–a town Barack Obama must win big if he is to be the first Democrat to take Virginia in more than forty years, in an area John McCain must win big if he is to have any chance of taking the presidency.
So far, things are going Obama’s way. In this region he has outspent McCain on TV advertising–by two to one–and outmaneuvered him many times over. Obama has been to this region three times. In the past three weeks Bill Clinton, Evan Bayh and Terry McAuliffe have dropped in too. Neither Sarah Palin nor McCain nor any surrogates have yet visited. Obama’s aim is not to win the region–although he should take the town–but to limit McCain’s margin of victory substantially here so that a big win in Virginia’s northern suburbs and a good showing in Hampton Roads can take him over the top. A local politician says Obama would need 40 percent of the southwest vote if he’s going to take the state. A recent Mason-Dixon poll gave him 39 percent. Statewide, Obama is leading by around 6 percent.
There are, in fact, two Roanokes. The city is Democratic with a black population twice the national average. It is divided by Route 581 from north to south, the railroad tracks from east to west and by race and class throughout. Crudely speaking, the southeast is poor and white; the southwest, affluent and white; the northwest is black; the northeast, more of a mix. In the last presidential election it went narrowly for Kerry (52 to 46) and in the primaries supported Obama (57 to 42).
The county, on the other hand, is Republican with a black population half the national average. It climbs up to the Catawba Mountains to its northwest and has the Blue Ridge as its border to the south. In 2004 it went heavily for George Bush (65 to 35) and, later, narrowly for Hillary Clinton (55 to 45). Both city and county gave huge majorities to Mike Huckabee a full week after it was clear he could not win.
Ironically for a valley, the local economy does not endure huge peaks or troughs. But signs of the crisis are everywhere. The name on Roanoke’s only skyscraper is Wachovia–the region’s fourth-largest employer. The day I arrived, it folded. At Pop’s ice cream and soda shop more people are paying for floats with credit cards. The local insurance agency, Shenandoah Life, had its ratings downgraded because of its exposure to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The food bank has seen a 9 percent increase in those seeking assistance. Virginia is set to ax 1,400 state jobs.
The economy aside, while Democrats talk about healthcare and the war, Republicans fear taxes and socialism. McCain is not popular in these parts (though Palin is), and the enthusiasm gap between the rival campaigns is stark. The task for the Obama camp is to translate that excitement into votes. The voter registration drive was their last chance to expand the base. They did well. In the final month the city saw three times the increase in new voters as the county. Now comes the hard work: keeping the new voters energized. The Obama campaign predicts that 80 percent of Virginia’s new voters are Democrats and that three-quarters of them will show up on election day.
Turning them out may be easier said than done. For all the talk about a movement, the orders are coming from the top down and have yet to reach the ground floor. In a city that is one-quarter African-American, local black politicians worry that the Obama campaign is taking African-American support for granted. "The older crowd just don’t connect with a 20-year-old white person telling a 50-year-old black person what to do," says Virginia House delegate Onzlee Ware. "Especially how to run their own communities. And then they get discouraged and go back to their communities." Black people here are excited about Obama’s candidacy, they say, but there has been little coordination between the campaign and the community to mobilize that support. Obama has every reason to be confident, but no grounds to be complacent. "McCain can’t win the presidency without Virginia," a local Republican told me. But as an African-American pointed out, "Obama can’t win Roanoke without black folk."