In Southeast Ohio, Obama campaign gets personal

Dave Gustafson
Public Insight Network
President Barack Obama shakes hands at a campaign stop in Columbus Aug. 21. The Obama campaign's most recent sweep through Southeast Ohio coincided with its efforts to recruit local volunteers to canvass within their own communities and neighborhoods. (Photo by Jim Watson | AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama shakes hands at a campaign stop in Columbus Aug. 21. The Obama campaign’s most recent sweep through Southeast Ohio coincided with its efforts to recruit local volunteers to canvass within their own communities and neighborhoods. (Photo by Jim Watson | AFP/Getty Images)

ATHENS, Ohio — There’s plenty of parking available this summer on Court Street, the brick-paved main drag of bars, restaurants and bookstores that runs through Uptown Athens – an unheard-of surfeit when Ohio University’s 21,000-plus students flock back to town each fall.

Two stories above the sleepy avenue, volunteers in the local Obama for America campaign office methodically work the phones surrounded by streamers and twisted balloon sculptures, amid Twitter handles and hashtags for @OFA_Athens, #BluerThanYou and #wecantwait.

That last phrase — ‘We can’t wait,’ a phrase regularly used by the president — sums up why, 13 days before Ohio’s fall semester begins, the Obama campaign opened another office near Athens’ malls and Wal-Mart, where the parking is always ample.

Obama carried Athens County in 2008 — Democrats usually do — and doing well here could prove crucial to his re-election hopes by offsetting losses he will likely face again in more sparsely populated, small-town counties.

But, as noted by Patchwork Nation, there is some doubt about whether Obama can muster as much enthusiasm among college students this year as he did in 2008.

So it makes sense that Obama’s ground game in Athens, a county of nearly 64,000 in Southeast Ohio, stretches from connecting with college kids on campus to catching up with moms at meat counters.

“Some of the best conversations you’re going to have are going to take place in Kroger,” said Susan Isaac, a joint neighborhood team leader for the campaign in Athens. She’s talking about the supermarket near the new campaign office. “It’s not a blatant arm-twisting. It’s friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor. That’s the way rural communities work.”

Isaac, who is retired from owning and running a consulting firm that worked to develop health services for low-income and uninsured people, is up to her ears in local festivals that need to be staffed with volunteers before Election Day: Parade of the Hills in Nelsonville, Founders Day in Coolville and the Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Albany, which celebrates the tree fruit with a creamy texture and a tropical taste.

While she said she didn’t have specific figures on the number of volunteers who work the Athens campaign offices, Isaac said new ones join all the time. Having a table at the local farmers market might land 10 to 12 more volunteers in a matter of hours. The focus of the campaign, she said, is “How personal can you make this election?”

Athens County presents a unique set of challenges for voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts: It includes densely populated housing full of students and people connected to the university as well as small, rural enclaves sprinkled throughout hollows and back roads.

Isaac said she thinks there are likely more undecided voters the farther you get outside the city of Athens. “Mainly, they don’t know who to believe,” she said. “It makes it tough to be a voter … if all you’re getting is what you see on television.”

Undecided voters typically attract gobs of attention in every election. But this time around, there simply might not be that many truly undecided voters to target. The New York Times reported last week that polling experts estimate only 3 percent to 5 percent of voters nationwide are up for grabs this election.

While the Obama campaign plans to do some door-to-door canvassing in the rural areas of Southeast Ohio, “People are not that happy here about having strangers pull up in their yard – and the dogs aren’t that happy,” Isaac said.

Instead, Isaac is focused on finding volunteers in those smaller communities who can, in turn, reach out to neighbors on the president’s behalf. In this tight-knit region, it helps the campaign better connect with voters if people from the community – rather than volunteers from elsewhere – do the outreach, she said.

Volunteers are most successful “if they have a personal story that resonates in some way: knowledge of the community, of family similarities,” she said. “With total strangers, folks will be polite … But the most effective [campaigner] is someone you know – and the next most effective is someone who lives in the area. You have that common connection.”

Annie Warmke, who lives in the town of Philo, Ohio – two counties north of Athens – said she mostly identifies with the Green Party. She said she volunteered with the Obama campaign in Zanesville in 2008, and will eventually do so again this fall – even though she said the president broke a number of his 2008 promises.

On Election Day 2008, nobody was brave enough to go door-to-door in her rural area to ensure voters had cast ballots in person or turned in their absentee ballots, she said. So she did.

Warmke, who runs a sustainable farm and teaching center, says she was chased by dogs, and even found herself doing chores.

“I did dishes while someone filled out (a ballot),” she said. “I changed a baby.”

She convinced one man whose wife was sick to stop by his polling place on the way to or from the doctor’s office. “I said, ‘Shake my hand and tell me you’re going to go vote,’” she said.

If that one-voter-at-a-time approach seems inefficient, consider this: Obama carried Warmke’s precinct by five votes (though he lost the county as a whole), a remarkable feat, she said, given that Muskingum County has backed the Republican candidate in the last five presidential elections. In fact, Muskingum County hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, when it chose Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater.

The theme of neighbor-to-neighbor outreach is happening this year on a national level for the Obama campaign as well. In recent weeks, the campaign released an iPhone app that provides users with the first names, addresses and ages of some registered Democrats who live near them — in the hope that they will canvass on the president’s behalf, but it has also raised some concerns from privacy advocates.

Obama volunteer Hannah Baker, 18, who lives in The Plains, just outside Athens, said recruiting more volunteers creates a “web effect” of more people having neighbor-to-neighbor discussions. Volunteers tout Obama’s record with the auto industry and health care, she said. For college students, they talk about efforts to lower the cost of education.

Indeed, Budget Hero – the Public Insight Network’s “serious” online game that allows ordinary citizens to see the budgetary effects of their priorities and values – offers some reassurance that campaigning about tuition costs could really resonate with young potential voters.

A 2011 analysis of players’ decisions in Budget Hero showed that “make college more affordable” was one policy option that showed up among the top 10 choices for players between the ages of 10 and 24 (who accounted for 1,245 of 7,313 players studied), but didn’t make the top-10 list among older age groups.

In addition to tailoring campaign messages to individual voters in the area, Obama for America volunteers are also looking to do the same for like-minded groups around Athens. The campaign is considering creating a speakers bureau, of sorts, that would dispatch supporters to civic organizations, senior citizens groups and restaurants to share information about the president’s record on the issues that might matter most to local residents.

Romney, too, is stepping up efforts in Southeast Ohio. The region’s economic struggles were the top concern with voters we spoke to here earlier this month. The presumptive GOP nominee made three stops last week in the region, where he wooed coal miners and took swipes at Obama over energy policy.

According to the campaigns’ websites, however, Obama has more of a ground game so far in southeast and southern Ohio. In addition to the two offices in Athens, the Obama campaign lists offices in Portsmouth, Chillicothe and Zanesville. Romney’s campaign, meanwhile, only lists one nearby office so far – in Lancaster, which is closer to Columbus. A Republican “victory center” opened this month in Uptown Athens as well. (Patchwork Nation has examined the candidates’ campaign appearances and office locations in Ohio.)

Both Obama and Romney face a similar challenge campaigning in rural areas like Southeast Ohio. As NPR pointed out in June, they’re both “city slickers.”

Back in the Obama office in uptown Athens, volunteers were quizzing fellow Ohioans on whether they’ll support the president and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in the November election.

A cardboard stand-up of a smiling Obama stands in the corner. Some joker in the office taped a copy of the president’s Hawaii birth certificate onto his hands. A few tables away sits a playing card portraying Mitt Romney as a different kind of joker.

One volunteer here set a goal of 300 calls today, and was on pace by mid-afternoon to meet it, but many of the people she reached didn’t feel like sharing whether they planned to vote or support the president.

“The refusal rate is out of this world today,” she lamented.


Dave Gustafson Reporter
Public Insight Network
Dave Gustafson is a Public Insight Network reporter -- and the first-ever reporter hired to do journalism out of gamification. He embedded with Patchwork Nation, a project of the Jefferson Institute, to report around the Budget Hero game in June. Born in an Industrial Metropolis, he grew up in Service Worker Center and Campus and Careers community types. He now lives in a Monied Burb near Washington, D.C. Most recently, Dave was acting managing editor for digital news at the PBS NewsHour.