Obama HQ

Spreading the Obama message in a Republican stronghold

Can You Spare Some Change?

Oct. 14, 2008
Days to Election: 21

Gallup Daily Poll of Registered Voters
Obama: 51 Percent
McCain: 42 Percent
10 a.m.

The Barack Obama Campaign office in downtown Knoxville opens up to a brief flurry of activity. The air isn't exactly electric, but there are a few people milling around. Even though the election is only 21 days away, and early voting starts the next day, things are still kind of uneventful in this cluttered little office on Clinch Avenue.

Campaigning for a Democratic candidate in a Republican county in a Republican state that has been all but written off as pointless by both presidential campaigns is characterized by long periods of sitting around punctuated by short intervals of doing stuff, it seems.

This relaxed atmosphere is pretty normal at our local Obama office. Knox, after all, is the reddest of all the major urban counties in Tennessee. And, says volunteer Colette Magoon, their office has generated all of its campaign money locally, from the Knox County Democrats and individual contributors.

"We're kind of on our own here," she says.

The look of office itself is a testament to the grassroots character of the local campaign effort. It feels like a former laundromat: stained, gray, concrete-esque school-room carpeting; five or six ancient computers running out-of-date software; and kitschy, homemade campaign materials littering the two large desks.

"We only have one phone line, so we encourage the volunteers to use their cellphones when they're working here," says Magoon, the de facto daytime office manager for the campaign, the first she's ever worked on.

"Why did I decide to get involved this time? To me, the word's ‘compelling,'" she says. "There's something about him that makes me want to serve. Obama, his whole thing with making people come to the table together, to talk instead of just arguing. That's what I liked."

Since the primary season, Magoon's been here four days a week—Monday through Thursday—from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., working the phones, registering voters, and updating the voter database on the computers.

"Mainly it's just about keeping the office open," she says.

Bob Scott, the Democratic challenger to Republican Rep. Jimmy Duncan, is stopping by the office this morning to check on how his lawn signs are moving.

Not great, it seems. The small stack—a couple dozen out of the 500 he's had printed—that he left there days before is largely untouched.

A retired Pellissippi State Technical Community College professor, this is Scott's fourth run for the second district seat, one that's been held by someone named Duncan—either senior or junior—for 43 years.

"My first time was 1988. I told my wife last time that it was the last time," he says. "This time, I think I really mean it."

He says he's only raised about $800 for this campaign, not enough to file with the Federal Election Commission. Meanwhile, Duncan's raised more than $530,000 in major (over $200) campaign contributions alone. So Scott's running his campaign on the cheap, concentrating on the Internet—YouTube videos and his own site at bobscottforcongress.com—to disseminate his message.

"The site counter says I've only gotten about 1,200 hits, but I'm choosing not to believe that," he says. "The YouTube videos seem to be getting through a little better. I put one up a few days ago, and later I was campaigning in Market Square. A guy came up to me and said, ‘I liked that last video. I didn't agree with all of your positions in it, but it was well-done.' Turns out it was John Duncan III."

It's early yet in the campaign day, but Terry Dalton is already taking a nap. This seems like a perfect time. The office is dead. Every once in a while, a group of two or three will come in to buy some of the Obama stuff—buttons, yard signs, and window signs (both campaign-issue and the locally printed, more expensive Yee-Haw Industries variety)—splayed across the central table. But mostly the three volunteers—Magoon, Beth Parsons, and Mary Pinckard—are just sitting there, silently working the computers.

Then there's Dalton, a disheveled 44-year-old man. It's not quite clear what he's doing here, other than occasionally taking a break from his napping to "clean up," which basically translates to "appear to be cleaning up," randomly arranging and rearranging papers on the desks, rifling through drawers, and making sure the coffee cake is placed just right, dead-center on the table.

"That guy's come in twice looking to borrow money," says Parsons. She whispers so as not to rouse Dalton. "He borrowed $20 from Colette yesterday, and then he came back later, claiming he'd lost it, and she gave him another $20. I only came in this morning to keep an eye out. They thought I might be able to take him."

But Dalton, an unemployed man who formerly ran a car detailing business, says he's here to support the Obama team.

"I feel he can be about change, and he can make a better living for the American people," he says when asked why he's supporting Obama.

Tactical Enthusiasm

Oct. 15, 2008
First Day of Early Voting in Tennessee
Days to Election: 20

Gallup Daily Poll of Registered Voters
Obama: 50 Percent
McCain: 43 Percent

5:15 p.m.

Thank God the TV cameras are here. This is perfect.

"Obama! Obama!"

A small child—7 years old, tops—sitting on his father's shoulders starts the chant at a rally outside Obama HQ. The other Obama supporters, in a show of politically savvy solidarity, let him go it alone for a few seconds, milking the emotional resonance, before joining in themselves.

Is somebody paying this kid?

No. In Knox County, nobody's getting paid. Not even Gloria Johnson, the woman who's put it all together from the beginning. Johnson, a highly visible presence in the local campaign—more than six feet tall, she towers above all the other supporters at the rally—she works 70-plus hours per week on the campaign. And that's on top of her full-time teaching job at Central High School.

"Yeah, I'm pretty exhausted," she says. She's had this schedule since November 2007, when she initially signed on as an interested volunteer at barackobama.com. Soon after that, the campaign sent her to Greenville, S.C., where she worked at the local Obama HQ registering voters, working the phones, and canvassing the neighborhoods.

"That's where I learned how to campaign," Johnson says. Like most of the hardcore daily volunteers at the Knox Obama office, she has never worked on a political campaign before. After the Jan. 26 Democratic primary in South Carolina, Johnson returned to Knoxville, where she was tapped by the Knox Democrats and local volunteers to lead the effort here.

"We had hoped, initially, to be an official, funded campaign office," Johnson says. That didn't work out, so the Knox County office is forced to rely entirely on volunteers. They also have to pay for their own campaign materials. That means they have to charge people for them, rather than giving them away.

"The national campaign is really concentrating their resources in the battleground states," she says.

Or at least areas with a few more Democrats. Both the Nashville and Memphis offices are nationally funded.

Despite the financial adversity, Johnson and a small core of Obama faithfuls has garnered more than 800 active volunteers for the campaign.

"The amount of support we have is pretty amazing," she says.

It's still a losing battle here and in the state of Tennessee, Johnson says, but it's hard to be too discouraged when your candidate is seven to 10 points ahead of his opponent in the national polls.

"I don't want to get too excited," says Johnson. "Even if we were 40 points ahead I'd keep working. I'm concentrating in Knox County. And I think it's entirely possible­­, not likely but possible, for Knox to swing to Obama," says Johnson.

That's a characteristic statement from this all-volunteer staff. The Obama campaign has famously worked, in part, because it's used the raw enthusiasm of its campaign workers. You can see that in this office. It's surprising how much these people—who every day get on the phone to spread the word and sit in an office filled with "Yes We Can" signs—actually talk about Obama. All the time. Every conversation, whether it's about campaign flyers or the quality of the office's coffee, comes back around again.

You get the feeling that it's fueled to some degree by the conservatism of the county. There's an air of delighted paranoia among the campaigners, as if being a supporter of the leading presidential candidate is somehow subversive.

"You know how you stop people from stealing your yard sign?" asks Lisa Kazmier, as she's folding up a large pile of the signs in the corner of the office. "Vaseline. They'll start trying to grab it for a second, but then they'll just give up."

"A Bit Much"

Oct. 16, 2008
Days to Election: 19

Gallup Daily Poll of Registered Voters
Obama: 49 percent
McCain: 43 percent

5 p.m.

The message from the national campaign headquarters when Johnson got the ball rolling was cautiously, if still a bit unrealistically, optimistic. Register 20,000 new voters in Knox County, they told her, and it could go to Obama in the general election. And according to Johnson, they've come pretty close: Of the 23,000 new voters registered in the county this year, she says, 10,000 were registered by Volunteers for Obama.

That was just the first part of it, though, says Magoon.

"Until early October, everything was about registering," she says. "Now, we've shifted gears a lot."

Now it's about making sure that Democrats, Independents, and pro-Obama Republicans ("About 30 percent of the voters we've identified as Obama supporters are registered Republicans," says Johnson) get out to vote. To do that, they're making hundreds of daily phone calls from a short script (which contains the directive, "Hang up quickly!" if you think you're talking to a McCain supporter), reminding people to get to the polls, asking if they need a ride to the polls, and asking them to volunteer. They've got the county divided up into commission districts, and beginning last week, they've started hitting the most likely Obama neighborhoods—particularly East and Central districts 1 and 2, and to a slightly lesser degree near-west district 4—with phone calls and street canvassing teams.

Maybe that's why canvassing Fourth and Gill—the first street-team stop in the post-registration season—isn't as pointless as it may seem.

This is not a battleground neighborhood. It's a neighborhood of people in their 20s and 30s, university professors, and self-described "new urbanists." In other words a classic Democratic stronghold. And on a pastel-colored Victorian block of Luttrell Street, the atmosphere is not filled with debate, even though the election is only a few weeks away. Every other house seems to have at least one Obama/Biden window sign, making this pointless block in this pointless neighborhood diametrically opposed in its politics from most of the pointless blocks in the entire pointless state of Tennessee (politically speaking, that is).

In the 2004 election, Knox County went 62 percent for Bush. But Fourth and Gill's Precinct 11 went 66 percent for Kerry, according to the Knox County Election Commission.

It's one day after the third and final presidential debate, and that's what canvassers Jon Wimmer, Chris Jerger, and Susan Schottin are discussing as they wait for Johnson to arrive with the list of the Democratic voters in the neighborhood, courtesy of the VoteBuilder.com database. The national consensus seems to be that Obama won the debate, Joe the Plumber notwithstanding. And the group is looking pretty excited, if a tad jaded.

"The polls seem to get rosier every day," says Schottin, a volunteer with the campaign since the primary season. "But apparently, Gore's numbers were exactly like this before 2000."

Wimmer, who worked door-to-door registering voters, says his experience campaigning has left him optimistic, largely because of the number of Republicans he's registered.

"I know tons of old, white conservatives who are telling me they switched over," he says.

Finally, just after 5 p.m., the omnipresent Johnson swings by. She's flustered and in a bit of a hurry, parking her car facing the wrong direction on the wrong side of the street. She hands off the list, and returns to her car. Soon, though, Schottin, Wimmer, and Jerger, decide to abandon the official strategy, and just hit every house.

Jergen and Schottin have never done this before, so instead of splitting up they first follow Wimmer, the seasoned veteran of the group. The first five houses on the block are empty—it's early yet—but finally, they get one, an apartment on the 900 block of Luttrell. The occupant, Cara Pfenningwerth, opens her door, and takes a dramatic step back as she takes in the three hyperactive volunteers, who immediately start talking at her.

They take full advantage. She says she's a strong Obama supporter, that she intends to vote early, and that she might volunteer. But after the canvassers leave her alone she admits that she finds the three-on-one strategy a bit intrusive.

"Yeah, I think it was a bit much," she says.

After that, the three canvassers, satisfied that they're ready to go it alone, split up, slowly working through the neighborhood, despite some obstacles.

"Whoa, big dog. That's a big, big dog," says Wimmer, turning a little white as he steps around an imposing mutt in a neighboring yard. Then, composing himself, he rings the doorbell. "Excuse me sir, I'm a volunteer for the Barack Obama campaign. Do you have a minute to talk?"