A Peek Inside Obama's Formidable Ground Campaign
PunditsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 24-7 prattling from the convention halls will not decide the election. But you wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know that from turning on the television.
You would, however, know it from attending Camp Obama, a weekend crash course in electioneering whose New York state kickoff date coincided with the DNC and with the start of the general election campaign. The rising importance and urgency of formal volunteer training like this may be symptomatic of a shift in the responsibility for delivering information about the issues at stake. Once, it was up to our media. Now, it is left to campaign volunteers.
In a small auditorium on the second floor of a midtown labor office, New York staffers set out breakfast and folding chairs. This is the first of many training weekends for supporters in reliably Democratic places to learn the skills they need to spend the fall in the field for Obama. At the stroke of nine, roughly 130 campers charge into the SEIU union hall as if propelled by guilt at arriving so late in the game. While many are graying baby boomers, there is also the requisite smattering of college kids. The first question-and-answer session comes at around noon, and it unleashes a barrage of anxieties: "How can we do this all with only 10 weeks left?" "Can you go over it all again?"
Assuring attendees that these efforts are already under way in each state, the staffers don't fail to emphasize the indispensability of the people in the room. "I'm looking at a group of folks who are attempting to change the course of history," booms Luther Smith, president of Bill Lynch Associates, a political consultancy shop. This is standard fare in bolstering volunteers' understanding of the gravity of their mission. But it is also more than that.
The more the media spends its energy on covering streamers and speeches, the more important volunteers in the field become. "The guys who talk to the politicians are fine, but you are the people who are going to decide the election," Kevin Wardally, vice president for political and government affairs at Bill Lynch, reminds the crowd. "I don't think that the media don't have a role to play," he later tells me. "The atmospheric stuff -- the networks -- can be either helpful or discouraging, but personal connections are the single best activity you can do to move people. (Network coverage) is important to the picture, but it isn't the picture."
While you might not expect the subject of media coverage to come up at a campaign training session, the press and the conventions have been a contentious topic among bloggers for the past few weeks. In an Aug.14 post titled "Covering Conventions Is a Waste," CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis slammed the prospect of 15,000 reporters milling about Denver: "Why are these news organizations sending so many staffers there? Ego ... bylines the public couldn't care less about ... it's not for the public good that (the conventions are) covered." And on the second day of the DNC, New York Times media reporter David Carr cheekily bade goodbye to his viewers from Denver with this: "Tune in tomorrow ... we might even find some real news. Don't count on it though."
If no real news is coming from the DNC, what role does the convention play in the Obama campaign? William Gordon, a junior at Baruch College who took the semester off to move to a battleground state for Obama, echoes Camp Obama counselor Wardally when he says the DNC coverage is little more than atmospherics. "If the convention is successful in creating a positive campaign narrative, it'll be up to the grassroots to, as it was explained to us at Camp Obama, to 'put ones in the bank,'" he said.
The "atmospherics" given off by network coverage of Denver and the Twin Cities are just icing on the cake when compared to the debates held between supporters and voters in battleground states. "Conventions used to matter much more -- you used to actually have debates about party policy," said Elizabeth Sanders, a professor of government at Cornell University.
With so many reporters and news organizations trained on, in Glenn Greenwald's words, "the trite soap opera pablum and royal court intrigue which dominates our media's campaign coverage," little time is left for speaking with actual voters -- even though actual voters are, one would think, what continues to matter in national politics. During the week of the DNC, media columnist Eric Alterman wrote: "This is a nationwide broadcast. All of these people are presumably watching, or at least the networks hope their reach is that wide. But these voters are being talked about, not to. Strange." When called onto Howard Kurtz's "Reliable Sources" a few days after publishing his blog post, Jarvis said: "If you want to find out what's happening in the election, talk to voters."
And attendees of Camp Obama can't stop practicing how to talk to voters. When asked by my new friends in the "yellow group" (as opposed to blue, red or green) which issue I felt most comfortable talking to undecided Americans about, I say the war in Iraq. This is met with a deluge of suggestions for striking a balance between calling for an end to the war and supporting the troops. "I know these people, I know how to talk to them," one woman tells me. Role-playing is one of the camp's cornerstones. We took turns playing supporter and undecided voter, chewing over the differences between McCain's and Obama's policies.
Camp Obama's purpose is to foster a band of trained supporters who will work underneath the news media this fall, getting out the issues and communicating with voters on a regular basis. After each session of Camp Obama, attendees will have learned the nitty-gritty of voter registration drives, canvassing neighborhoods and setting up phone banks. Upon "graduating," volunteers must (according to the Web site) join their brethren in the field as deputy organizers. As of late August, there are too many volunteers for the campaign to quantify. With Labor Day weekend newly dubbed the "50-state weekend of action," this will no doubt swell.
This fall, one group of people will be speaking with the voters who will make the news by deciding who our next president will be. Another group will be jabbering about fabricated dramas. In the places where the real stories are, count on running into more volunteers than journalists.