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The Ground Game

Realizing Obama's vision in North Carolina.
by Published on
Durham, NC

It was a voyage of discovery. The initial challenge in 2008 was to unlock the political meaning of America’s presidential terminology-to find what the pundits kept calling “the base” of the Democratic Party. In my neck of the woods, that meant the city of Durham in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. Lurking here was supposed to be the “Obama ground game.”

It is now possible to fashion a broad sense of how that ground game, which began to build in the dead of last winter, came to be a direct extension of the personal politics of the president-elect. But in the run-up to February’s Super Tuesday primaries, no one guessed that North Carolina could, in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, become the twenty-eighth state to find its way into the Obama column.

The seeds of “Durham for Obama” were planted by Obama’s impressive breakthrough in the Iowa caucuses. Victory in a state whose population was 5 percent black put the Southern periphery into play-Missouri, Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina. In the aftermath, Durham for Obama was a web site that counted 76 participants-including three women who decided to see if they could generate an organization. They lined up a large room in the downtown public library and promoted a meeting the week after Super Tuesday. They hoped for a turnout of 30 and got 130, about half and half black and white.

One of the women, a Duke University creative-writing professor named Faulkner Fox, had two years under her belt as an organizer for the National Abortion Rights Action League. “Okay,” she told her two co-conspirators, “we’re in a rare moment in history. I know there are things we can do now. We simply cannot not do it. Obama has done the job of getting these people here. Let’s go.” She called for volunteers to form committees: Fund-raise. Canvass. Babysit for canvassers’ children. Phone banking. Tech squad: Some to create a Website for a members’ database, others to do data entry. People stepped up. Six committees: three black chairs, three white ones. It worked out that way. And everybody with one purpose: not persuading voters, but registering the unregistered-and then getting them all to the polls.

Three Obama staffers arrived late in March, finding a relatively well-organized group already in place. John Gilbert, the regional director, was 24. Like the majority of paid Obama staff in battleground states, he possessed energy, patience and-crucially-a minimal need to flaunt his self-importance. Gilbert had been raised according to the mantra, “Respect, empower, include.” In the world of the ground game taught by Obama’s staff, this translated as, “Do not ever give orders to volunteers. Explain when asked, teach when people seem clearly puzzled, but never, ever, do anything that demeans volunteers. They possess the one irreplaceable quality that makes things possible in democratic politics: They want their candidate to prevail, and the energy they bring to the campaign proves it. Do not tamper with this energy.”

Gilbert left Durham’s volunteer structure intact. Within that group, a rumor soon became so common that it acquired the status of revealed truth: The large building across Main Street was to be Hillary Clinton headquarters. Ultimately, it became clear that the rumor was empty. Clinton had no ground game in Durham. What she did have was a fair assortment of state employees responsive to Gov. Mike Easley, an amiable Democrat and firm Clinton supporter.

How this conceivably fruitful “coalition of the elected” was obliterated by the Obama ground game was vividly illustrated by the TROSA initiative, which I witnessed in full Technicolor. The acronym stands for Triangle Residential Option for Substance Abusers. TROSA is a widely admired ornament of Durham’s intermittent capacity for serious civic engagement, backed by nonprofits, religious groups and sectors of corporate muscle within Research Triangle Park. TROSA works, big-time. A fair assortment of brawny guys from Durham have landed in North Carolina prisons for drug trafficking, and when they get out, a goodly number can be found darting purposefully around town in vans labeled TROSA Moving. A lot of victims of outsourcing, particularly from the Piedmont’s decimated furniture industry, have drifted from unemployment to substance abuse to prison and, eventually, to gainful employment with TROSA’s various enterprises. The group’s headquarters, just on the edge of an old tobacco-factory district, dominates a square block ringed on all sides by ancient, two-story boarding houses where upwards of 250 recovering substance abusers live.

In the spring of 2008, a TROSA administrator (a former parole officer and, presumably, Clinton supporter) gathered the formerly confined to explain North Carolina’s early voting laws for the upcoming Democratic primary. At the start of the evening, the auditorium in the TROSA building had been alive with palpable anticipation. But the energy drained out of the room during the parole officer’s filibuster. Faulkner Fox followed, speaking quietly, beginning by saying she was more than impressed by what “you men and women are trying to do with your lives. I am honored. I think you can be encouraged by the fact that a lot of people in America are trying to get clean.

“Not long ago,” she continued, “in the South most people of one color spent a lot of their waking hours trying to prevent people of another color from registering to vote.” You could feel the energy start to come back. “People were told they were too ignorant to vote, that they could not pass a simple test on the Constitution. It was wrong to try. In Mississippi, a black college professor passed, but was not allowed to register to vote because, they said, there was a second step. He had to pass the test in Chinese.” Knee-slapping sounds now. Yeah. “Nothing more to tell,” said Fox. “Except things have changed now. Turn around.” The audience turned to see several young women in blue jeans, holding aloft clipboards full of registration forms. “In North Carolina, if you have finished your parole, your civil rights have automatically been restored. You can get registered right now. Primary election day is May 6. Who wins the North Carolina primary may well determine who is going to be favored to become the next president of the United States. America is trying to get clean, too. You can help.” She did not once mention the name Obama.

Slightly more than 100 people in the room had completed parole. Virtually every single one registered that evening. In the ensuing early-voting period, a large majority of them got together and marched to a nearby polling place.

The ex-prisoners’ vote was not statistically significant. But their mobilization was emotionally galvanizing for the increasing ranks of Durham canvassers. And as the primary approached, with Clinton having carried Ohio, split Texas and triumphed in Pennsylvania, Durham for Obama acquired central relevance in the campaign because Hillary was not going away quietly. On May 6, in by far the largest Democratic primary in the city’s history, Obama carried Durham by 56,000 to 22,000, making it the percentage leader in the state that clinched his nomination.

For the general election, Chicago told us they needed more: a 60,000-vote majority from Durham, where the total population is slightly more than 200,000. Momentum built after the party conventions in August. In every mall in the city, on every college campus, citizens had to wade through phalanxes of canvassers. But after a while, registrations slowed down. In late September, the rate declined to one registration per canvasser per hour. Two weeks shy of North Carolina’s one-stop early voting, the ground game was sputtering because it had run out of things to do.

This was the moment for specialists. One of them was Cornell Jones. Born 64 years ago to an eastern North Carolina sharecropper, Jones had been sent to New Jersey to live with an uncle at an early age and eventually found his way onto the New York City Police Department, where he served for 20 years before retiring to sundry real-estate enterprises in Durham. For Cornell, eating a meal involved first registering the staffs of fast-food places. Getting gas involved the same drill. With enough time and logistical support, Cornell would have registered every black service worker in North Carolina, and not a small portion of the white citizenry to boot. He had different riffs for different folks, but, he explained, “When they have trouble finding the words to talk to you, you can confidently resign from offering assistance.”

By early October, with the pace of registration in sharp decline, a plan materialized. While registration was through the roof in the large cities, a number of outlying rural counties were severely under-registered. I accompanied a band of Cornell Jones’ recruits one Saturday morning to Granville County, on the Virginia border, while another group trekked 80 miles to the town of Goldsboro. Combined, that Saturday netted 800 new voters for the Obama database.

On election day, 745 get-out-the-vote volunteers worked from our five-precinct “launch pad” in Durham. Anxiety built. Darryl Edgley, a computer genius from England, had some late printouts and said we looked to be peaking at 55,000. All through the evening, the other battlegrounds came through: Pennsylvania, Ohio; then Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia. It took seemingly forever, but the good news finally arrived: North Carolina had been won by 13,500 votes.

In 2004, John Kerry had carried Durham 77,000-37,000. When the ’08 results had all trickled in, Obama had won 26,000 more votes than Kerry in the city; McCain had 5,000 fewer than Bush. We did not get our 60,000 margin. We got 71,000.

Lawrence Goodwyn, professor emeritus at Duke University, reported for the Observer from 1958 to 1960, earned his Ph.D. from UT-Austin and went on to become the preeminent historian of populism, with books including Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America.