In 2000, Al Gore's presidential campaign employed a tight top-down structure. Four years later, John Kerry's organization was more "loosey-goosey."
Now working to get Sen. Barack Obama elected, local resident Bob Nemanich sounds rapturous describing how this campaign has taken the best of both strategies and left the bad behind.
"This one not only has blended the two, but has made it a science," Nemanich says.
Having worked in multiple Democratic campaigns, Nemanich says Obama's ground game has set a new standard. It's empowering legions of volunteers to get-out-the-vote in their neighborhoods, but relies on technology and careful strategy to target and convince "persuadable" voters.
By way of analogy, Nemanich starts talking about the Revolutionary War. English rule, he says, was overthrown by militia made up of ordinary citizens as much as by soldiers in uniform.
"We are the militia," Nemanich says.
Obama's ground game has been the subject of national and international attention. The Economist, an esteemed newsweekly published in Britain, reports Obama's ground operation is "bigger, faster and smarter" than that of Republican Sen. John McCain.
The Economist credits Obama's get-out-the vote operation for putting in play states like North Carolina, which has not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. Polls put Obama's lead at 6-plus percent this week in Colorado, and the ground game could determine whether the state's nine electoral votes go to a Democrat for the first time since 1992.
Few suggest that heavily Republican El Paso County will side with Obama, but voter turnout in and around Colorado Springs could be crucial in determining the statewide winner. The county has 374,000 registered voters, second only to Denver County, with 165,000 Republicans and 85,000 Democrats.
Mike Maday, an Obama supporter who was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, is working with Nemanich and others to organize one of about three dozen neighborhood teams here. Their area sprawls over 20 precincts in western Colorado Springs, with about 18,000 registered voters.
Their team alone has nearly 200 volunteers ready to knock on doors or to make phone calls from an office or someone's living room. A database tracks who has voted and who has not, and also documents contacts with potentially "persuadable" voters.
Maday doesn't hesitate when he's asked whether the hype about Obama's ground game is warranted.
"It's the best anyone's done," he says. "Period."
Inside the central office at 218 S. Limit St., volunteers make phone calls while paid staff members Obama now has 17 in El Paso County stroll around like assistant coaches on a winning football team. A group of Colorado College students are huddled, making plans to go on a "Barack break," using a few days between classes to knock on doors.
The Obama campaign also has offices in Security, Manitou Springs and eastern Colorado Springs, with a fifth just opened near Woodmen Road and North Academy Boulevard. Though the spaces vary in size, each seems to have a spontaneous quality, decorated with handmade murals as well as campaign posters.
The other side
The McCain campaign's main office, at 4525 Northpark Drive, occupies the second floor of a nondescript office building. Arriving volunteers must pass Obama signs and pro-worker messages posted on windows of a first-floor office occupied by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Despite the signs, would-be McCain volunteers sometimes walk into the union office.
"I see them go back and forth," says Joe Martinez, a meat-cutter and farmer who helps out at the UFCW office. "They don't know their right from their left."
On the second floor, people are crammed into a network of rooms, helping McCain as well as local GOP candidates. Many make phone calls or cart around yard signs. A sheet on the wall lists a couple names of voters who need rides to the polls on election day.
Of course, modern get-out-the-vote operations rely more on computer systems and mail-ballot requests than election-day transportation. Nathan Fisk, executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party, says the local GOP excels by these and other measures. Though Democrats have made progress using technology to track potential voters, Fisk says the Republicans still have an edge.
"Our data management is a lot more efficient, and it works better," he says. "They are one or two cycles behind."
McCain's campaign has access to about 50 phone lines in the Northpark office and 20 more out of the county's main GOP office at 710 S. Tejon St. Fisk says volunteers also make calls from homes and offices across the county.
By election day, he says, "we will have literally thousands of people on the ground."
Nearing the payoff
Perceptions about who is winning the ground game seem to vary by geography. Late Friday afternoon, Mary Roviello, 85, walks into the Obama office on Union Boulevard just north of Boulder Street. A resident of northeastern Colorado Springs, she complains that she has had to fend off two calls from McCain volunteers.
"I don't think the Democrats are getting there," she says.
Margaret Mykland, a full-time Obama volunteer who came from her home in California, listens to Roviello's story, breaking in with an invitation for her to join the Democratic effort and make phone calls.
Roviello declines with a laugh, but her experience points to a hurdle for Democrats in El Paso County. Obama signs, while plentiful on some streets, are absent in neighborhoods where Republicans can heavily outnumber Democrats. Volunteers in some parts of the city are hard to come by.
Of course, another reason Roviello may not be getting calls from the Obama campaign is that volunteers are targeting occasional Democratic voters, unaffiliated voters and Republicans who haven't been won over by McCain.
Nemanich believes the efforts will pay off on election day, suggesting Obama could attract 43 percent in El Paso County, if not more.
On election day, Nemanich and other volunteers will make calls and turn out voters before heading to polling places to help anyone stuck in line. It could be a long day for many. If the lines are still long when polls officially close at 7 p.m., volunteers will bring out hot drinks and folding chairs to keep would-be voters from calling it a night.
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