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The ground war

Away from the glamour and glitz of the party conventions, a fierce battle for votes is already being

Anyone with eyes to see recognizes that Barack Obama is the first African-American nominated for president by a major party, and anyone with ears to hear recognizes that he is a brilliant orator.

But what makes Obama’s candidacy something truly new in American politics is neither of these things, but how he has married his personal charisma to a campaign strategy that gives grassroots organizing a central role.

Virginia, my home state, represents an excellent test case. At the moment Virginia is one of 10 states listed by pollster.com as a “toss up.” Virginia has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, but shifting demographics, an incompetent state Republican party, and an unusually strong batch of youngish Democratic politicians have moved the state sharply in a “purple” direction in recent years.

The remarkable upset of Republican George Allen by upstart Jim Webb in a 2006 U.S. Senate race marked the re-entry of Virginia as a state “in play” at the national level. That development, combined with Obama’s lopsided victory over Hillary Clinton in the February primary and the strong involvement in the campaign of Governor Tim Kaine have raised hopes that an Obama victory is achievable.

Consequently, the Obama campaign is pouring resources into the state. In Richmond, the campaign has established a headquarters near the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, one of over 35 such offices around the state. That office, staffed by a team of full-time organizers, serves as the hub for phone banking and coordination of a massive volunteer canvassing effort (over 600 volunteers in the Richmond area are registered with the campaign website).

Organizers also have recruited local supporters to become “precinct captains,” who pledge to raise money for the campaign in their own neighborhood. Engaged supporters also get occasional perks, such as tickets to an invitation-only “town hall” Obama and Kaine conducted last week in suburban Richmond.

All this, combined with the campaign’s massive presence online (including its embrace of blogs and social networking sites), means that this is probably the easiest presidential campaign in history for supporters to get involved with, at least if you have a computer.

I have been a participant-observer in two neighborhood canvasses this summer. The first canvass, on a sweltering Friday evening in June, consisted of a dozen or so volunteers meeting in the parking lot of a public swimming pool, where an organizer provided us a map telling us which blocks to cover, campaign literature, voter registration forms, and information on how to restore your voting rights if you’re are a convicted felon.

My wife and I were assigned to an African-American, primarily middle class neighborhood of homeowners, and were treated to receptions by the doors we knocked on ranging from polite to enthusiastic (one homeowner went so far as provide us several bottles of water as well as a heartfelt “God bless”). Though most we encountered assured us they planned to vote for Obama, we did succeed in registering one voter (recently moved to the neighborhood). Disturbingly, we also encountered half a dozen young African-American men who told us they did not think they could vote due to their police records.

I headed out again on a canvas Monday night, this time in my own neighborhood (a racially integrated, middle-income neighborhood located near a public park) with a 50-something activist and neighborhood resident Chris Martin. Chris told me he that he usually does not get excited about Presidential candidates, but that after years of going to antiwar rallies and vigils he had concluded that getting re-engaged in electoral politics was essential to changing anything.

We traversed the neighborhood, speaking to several Obama supporters (both white and African-American), two undecided voters, two Republicans (one rather good-natured about our visit, the other less so), and one wary apartment complex resident who gave us 10 seconds of her time before closing the door in our faces.

Chris had not just a street map but a detailed computer printout of addresses, names, and demographic information for each of the houses we were to contact. Whereas in June, the focus was voter registration, here the focus was identifying particular people, noting who had moved and who had moved out, and identifying who is voting for whom. The two voters who told us they were undecided can certainly expect repeat visits from the campaign in weeks to come.

This is labor-intensive work, and one has to be quite motivated (as well as thick-skinned) to keep at it. Romantic moments of genuine democratic engagement involving a reasoned exchange of views among citizens are not easily come by. The hope is, however, that these countless hours will raise turnout in November to historically high levels.

This hope is especially high in the city of Richmond (population roughly 190,000), over half of which is African-American, which has voted roughly 75 percent Democratic in recent statewide races and which Obama carried with nearly 80 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. Notably, 35,000 people voted in the Democratic primary here this year, compared to just 15,000 in 2004.

Whether that heightened interest will translate into a substantial increase in turnout this November compared to 2004, when John Kerry racked up a margin of over 30,000 votes in the city, remains to be seen. Obama’s hopes in Virginia—and the hopes of his admirers around the world - may well rest on the answer.

Thad Williamson is a political scientist and an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.