On tour with the Democrats: 4/11/08

Just over a fortnight ago, the world watched Barack Obama sweep to power in the US presidential election. PRWeek news editor David Singleton was in Miami in the run-up to polling day with a delegation organised by Insight Public Affairs. This is his diary

We did it!: Obama waves to supporters
We did it!: Obama waves to supporters

When Barack Obama won the race to become the next US President earlier this month, he set a new benchmark for political campaigning.

The Obama team’s sophisticated use of the web helped it to raise staggering levels of cash. But the Obama campaign did more than just shatter all previous fundraising records; it also mobilised an ‘Obama army’ of local campaigners across all 50 states. The campaign’s masterstroke was requiring supporters to supply their contact details before they signed up for events, donated cash or bought merchandise.

This information was used to devastating effect as potential voters were contacted by email, phone and post in the hope of soliciting more contributions and persuading them to help out on the ground.

The strategy worked on both counts. In September, Obama collected US$150m in three days, with almost three-quarters of the haul arriving via the web. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people helped with the GOTV (Get Out The Vote) operation – either on the phone or at one of the 7,000 field offices set up nationwide.

As the campaign entered the final few days, PRWeek joined a 20-strong delegation of Labour MPs, Labour Party staffers and lobbyists, watching at close quarters from the Democrats’ Florida HQ.

Sunday 2 November

7am Today is the last day for early voting. At Obama HQ, campaign chiefs are focusing their efforts on persuading potential Democrats to get to the polls. ‘We’ve got a lot of voters to turn out,’ says David Plouffe, Obama’s national campaign manager. ‘And there’s still a decent number of undecided voters out there.’

The GOTV operation is going relatively well in Florida. Plouffe explains: ‘One of the things we’re seeing that we’re so pleased with in Florida is a lot of the people voting early are not regular voters. They’re people who have newly been registered or who did not vote in 2004.’

With a substantial 27 electoral college votes, the marginal state of Florida is seen as a must-win for the Democrats.

8am This year, Obama has opened field offices in conservative regions of the Panhandle and north Florida, which Democratic candidates usually ignore. But our delegation heads to the office in the immigrant neighbourhood of Little Haiti, where significant numbers of registered Democrats have still not cast their votes, according to the campaign records.

9am All volunteers hitting the streets are provided with a list of voters who, it is thought, have still not been to the polls. ‘Remind them that it’s the last day to do early voting,’ volunteers are told. ‘Give them the right time information about where they can vote and make sure they have the right times.’

Against each name on the list are two boxes – Voted and Needs Ride – which volunteers are aiming to tick. Failing that, one of the following boxes should be checked: NH (not home), RF (refused), BA (bad address), MV (moved), and IA (inaccessible).

5pm When the local polling station closes at 5pm, hundreds of people are still waiting to cast ballots in a queue that snakes all the way around the polling station. Their votes will still be counted so, providing they all stay in line, this is a good sign.


Monday 3 November

9am With the sun already beating down, the delegation heads to the field office at South Beach.

Surrounded by skyscrapers and glamour, voters here may be more affluent than in other parts of Miami, but they are also more liberal – so votes for Obama are ripe for the picking. With no polling stations open today, most volunteers are armed with checklists and dispatched to the leafy streets to target voters who have so far managed to evade the campaign’s reach.

1pm At lunchtime, field organiser Eric Alper says some 150 volunteers have already signed in at the South Beach office – and many of these have never been involved in an election campaign before.

Some of the volunteers are required to do ‘visibility stuff’. ‘We’re gonna go down to Fifth Street bridge,’ David Patlock, president of Miami Beach Democrats, tells an enthusiastic crowd of supporters armed with banners and placards. ‘Chant whatever you want but nothing about the other candidate. Don’t go negative – we’re all about positive. I’m gonna call the press and tell them you’re out there.’

7pm Later, back at the Florida HQ, campaign chiefs are preparing for one final push. Jim Dean, brother of Democratic Party chair Howard Dean, tells staffers and campaign helpers: ‘This is the chance to fix our political leadership, which has been broken for the past eight years.’

Meanwhile Brett Berlin, chair of the Miami Democrats, provides an upbeat briefing on the latest voting figures: ‘As of now, the total number of people who voted early [in Miami state] is 346,000. You know how many of those are Republicans? 78,000. The tide is turning. People are angry. Angry enough to stand in line for hours. But we still have to process another 600,000 votes tomorrow. We merge our lists and we realise where our biggest targets are.

Tomorrow we got work to do.’

Tuesday 4 November

8am The day of reckoning. First port of call for the delegation is an African-American area called Overtown, where we will join the GOTV effort on the ground.

9am The field office supplies us with the standard lists of voters who are yet to cast their ballot and we head out in pairs aiming to persuade them that every vote counts and – if necessary – drive voters to the polls.

Later, one member of our delegation, Labour Party senior press officer Phil Dilks, blogs: ‘I’ve knocked a lot of doors over the years, but never seen poverty like I saw this morning… Quite shocking.’

12pm There may be poverty, but there is also enormous enthusiasm for Obama in this deprived part of Miami. ‘African-Americans in Overtown are all voting for Obama,’ says Insight Public Affairs associate director James Tyrrell. ‘Kids as young as four were familiar with the Change mantra. Everyone was going out to vote – many for the first time ever. They even knew when their neighbours would be back, and assured us they would get them to vote.’

3pm Back at the field office, a frantic ‘phone banking’ effort is taking place as volunteers are provided with yet more lists of elusive voters.

‘Make sure you ask them first if they’re Obama supporters,’ the volunteers are told. ‘If they are, great – make sure they are voting. But if they are supporting McCain, then just say thank you and hang up.’

7pm As the polls close our delegation drops by the Sky News party before making our way to the official Florida Democrats election party, where campaign chiefs rub shoulders with celeb supporters such as Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon. Early signs for Florida are inauspicious: Obama has 55 per cent of the vote, but this is based on turnout in the southern precincts where the Democrats would expect to do well.

8pm The mood quickly changes as it soon becomes clear Obama is on course for an historic national victory.

‘The atmosphere was electric and highly emotional, with activists screaming with delight as updates from each state were reported,’ recalls Dilks later.

Another delegation member, Labour MP Kerry McCarthy, says: ‘As soon as he won Pennsylvania and we started getting stats on how he’d got the white working class vote, the women’s vote, the Hispanic vote, it was game over for McCain.’

9.30pm When the main TV stations call Ohio for Obama, the room erupts in a fit of collective joy and weeping from people who have spent most of their political lives campaigning for this moment.

11pm By the time Florida is called for Obama, the victory is truly in the bag.

11.55pm An emotionally charged night reaches its climax with Obama’s victory speech just before midnight. ‘The best moment was when he came on stage in Grant Park,’ says McCarthy afterwards. ‘We were all standing on chairs watching it on a giant screen. A phenomenal speech.’

*Figures from The National Election Exit Poll, based on interviews with 17,856 voters on election day after they had left the polling booth, on behalf of AP and the major US TV networks

52.5% percentage of the popular vote for Obama

68% percentage of first-time voters supporting Obama*

95% percentage of black voters backing Obama*

10m supporters on Obama campaign database

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