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Presidential Campaign: the Final Stretch

October 29, 2008

Virginia Beach, VA – Teya Kelley is twenty-five, and a volunteer for Barack Obama in Virginia Beach. Ms. Kelley came here from Washington D.C., where she works as an organizer for local union Unite Here – whose red t-shirt she wears proudly. “This is the undecided district of the undecided state,” she declares with some conviction. Since September, Ms. Kelley has been deployed, along with another 15 members, to this southeastern tip of Virginia to walk low-income and prevalently African-American neighborhoods and register new voters for the November 4th elections. On weekends, Ms. Kelley volunteers with the Obama camp.

Perfecting Saints Worship Center

Perfecting Saints Worship Center

Known as the Hampton Roads, and nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, this region of Virginia just above North Carolina is one of the most fiercely contested turfs in this year’s battle for the White House. It is here that the cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Suffolk cluster together in one of the most populated metropolitan areas in the state, home to the largest naval base in the world. Virginia Beach, the heart of the local military complex, went for President George W. Bush in 2004 approximately sixty-to-forty percent. Neighboring Norfolk, where much of the workers servicing the Navy live, fared in precisely the opposite way, with over sixty-one percent of voters choosing Senator John Kerry. Suffolk was somewhere in between, with President Bush winning fifty-two to forty-seven percent.

“I came to Virginia because this is a swing state,” explains Lystra Campbell from Maryland. Also a Unite Here worker, Ms. Campbell has been registering voters in southern Virginia since September and, like Ms. Kelley, volunteers for Barack Obama on weekends.

Ms. Lystra Campbell

Ms. Lystra Campbell

The reality is that Virginia has not been a swing state in decades — the last time it went for a democratic presidential candidate was 1968. Since then, the state has trended consistently republican, especially thanks to the conservative worldview of the military establishment along the coast and the small town values along the western edge. However, Ms. Campbell is correct, this year is a completely different story.

First of all, the demographics of the state have been changing to the advantage of the democrats; in the last few years, while the more rural and conservative regions of Virginia experienced a trend toward depopulation, the more liberal suburbs of Washington DC grew exponentially. Also, thanks to the excitement created by Barack Obama, the 2008 election should witness a higher than average turn-out by African Americans, who have a history of low participation because of the belief that the state would necessarily go for the GOP. Simultaneously, republicans disappointed by the job of President Bush might be more reluctant to go to the polls. As a result, Virginia is in play. Not coincidentally John McCain, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden have all made separate stops to various parts of the state just in the last ten days.

News coming from the Commonwealth is very encouraging for the democrats. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests that Senator Obama is leading by eight percentage points over Senator McCain. According to almost all observers, this must be explained, at least partially, with the unprecedented ground operations assembled by the Obama campaign even in places, such as Virginia, where democratic candidates have not dared competing for a very long time. Over the course of the last several months, the Obama camp has opened over 50 field offices staffed with around 250 employees managing the work of thousands of volunteers. Virginia has the most field organizers to population than any state except for Florida. Staffer Christina Arrison, who is one of two field organizers for Virginia Beach, and volunteer Teya Kelley are examples of the dedication of the Obama foot soldiers: “I get about five hours of sleep per night,” says Ms. Arrison, “but I expect it to go down to zero from now on.”

Ms. Arrison Preps her Volunteers

Ms. Arrison Preps her Volunteers

Under overcast skies and in a cold misty wind, Mss. Arrison, Campbell and Kelley, together with Ethel James, a volunteer from New York City, are on their knees putting together yard signs. Ms. Arrison and her volunteers are waiting under the front porch of a small church pinned on the outskirts of a residential neighborhood. The Virginia Beach operations are normally ran out of a field office a few miles away. However, Ms. Arrison elected this non-denominational Christian worship center as the base for the weekend canvassing sessions. The church is one of a few scattered non-descript buildings along a major thoroughfare at the northern end of the city. Pastor Joe Flores, who is running for City Council, heads the congregation.

At around 11am, much later than expected, a church official appears, only to tell the campaign workers that a board meeting held the previous week established that running canvassing for Obama from the church ground violates its tax-free status. Politely, the woman asks the campaign to move their cars and flyers to the adjacent parking lot.

After a quick pep talk, Ms. Arrison dispatches Ms. Kelley to walk a neighborhood enclosed between Northampton Boulevard and

Volunteers for Obama Prepare to Canvass Decisive Virginia Beach

Volunteers for Obama Prepare to Canvass Decisive Virginia Beach

Baker Road. This is a solidly middle-class district, lined up with large dwellings and multiple cars per garage, and it is racially mixed. It is also one of the more contested in the county and yard signs for McCain/Palin compete with those for Obama/Biden at every street corner. Although until recently the campaign was talking to undecided voters – “If undecided voters speak with a volunteer in person, they will be ten times more likely to vote for your candidate,” Ms. Arrison explained outside of Pastor Flores’ church – this last week is mostly dedicated to getting out the vote, knocking on the doors of supporters to remind them to go to the polls.

As a result, the majority of the people who open their doors to Ms. Kelley are African-American democrats, many of who did not vote in 2004. Ms. Kelley’s job is precisely to make sure they turn out for Barack Obama this year. Despite an overwhelmingly positive response, Ms. Kelley worries that Obama supporters might be taking victory for granted: “People hear the polls saying that we are ahead and so I feel that we lack a sense of urgency, that we forget that the outcome of this election is still unclear.” Despite intermittent drizzle and chill air, Ms. Kelley walks for several hours and knocks on about sixty doors. She recruits a few new volunteers for the remaining days of the campaign, plants signs on the front lawns of supporters and encourages a woman with a broken leg and another who will be leaving for boot camp before election day to go cast their ballots at an early voting location. After her long day on the streets, Teya Kelley finishes her Saturday by joining Christina Arrison at her field office to make phone calls.

Ms. Kelley and Ms. Arrison Ready for the Final Stretch

Ms. Kelley and Ms. Arrison Ready for the Final Stretch

The last stretch of this prolonged election seasons will come down to just this: long days on the streets of America turning out one’s own supporters. Especially in a place like southern Virginia where the numbers of democrats and republicans are practically even and where the outcome of elections is normally determined by turnout, campaigns are giving it all to increase participation levels by their faithful. On election night, for example, Obama’s foot soldiers will give up sleep to walk the neighborhoods of Virginia and place door-hangers in high commuters areas between midnight and three and again between three and six in the morning, so that even early risers will find a reminder that the time has come to cast the ballot.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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