Henry Li was a hesitant Obama supporter when he opened his front door last weekend in Northern Virginia. By the time he closed it, he had committed to vote for the president.
In the intervening three minutes, he spoke with Josh Friedman, a 33-year-old Obama campaign volunteer from Columbia. Friedman reminded Li how close the presidential race had become and cleared up Li's confusion about whether he was registered to vote.
Forget debates and stump speeches. This is how presidential elections are won. And in the final weeks of the grueling campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Marylanders are playing a big role in the effort to turn out the vote in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania — both of which will be far more decisive than the Free State in deciding who will live in the White House next year.
"In my opinion, any active Republican not currently working on a local campaign should be heading to Virginia or Pennsylvania," said Chris Cavey, a longtime GOP leader in Maryland who is vice chair of Romney's state campaign. "When it's within the margin of error, you can't say which door or set of doors … or which phone call it was that made the difference."
Both campaigns are exporting hundreds of Maryland volunteers to neighboring states each weekend. They travel on buses or carpool into critical precincts. They knock on doors, hand out campaign literature and staff telephone banks. Sometimes they are waved off by voters weary of the attention that living in a political battleground brings. Occasionally, initial encounters between strangers spark conversations that continue for weeks.
With 16 days to go before the Nov. 6 election, such scenes are playing out across the country. In Alabama — where voters last chose a Democratic candidate for president in 1976 — the state Republican Party is organizing bus trips to Ohio and Florida, a spokeswoman said. Democrats and Republicans from deep-blue California, meanwhile, are pouring into Nevada, which is also a tossup.
For Friedman, an engineer who has volunteered for campaigns since he was in high school, traveling out of state for the presidential race felt natural — and seemed like the only way he could make a difference. Maryland voters haven't backed a Republican presidential candidate in 24 years. No one expects the trend to change this year.
Democrats canvass in Va.
Obama was up by more than 20 percentage points in a poll conducted for the Baltimore Sun last month. By contrast, the president is ahead by less than 1 point in Virginia, according to an average of recent public polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. Four years ago, Obama lost the area Friedman was canvassing by about 50 votes a precinct.
"In Maryland, there wasn't much of a race, so I didn't feel like I could do much," Friedman said as he walked past the large homes and manicured yards of this affluent Washington suburb. "This gives a real chance for all of us to get involved in presidential politics."
Friedman's morning started at an Obama office in Virginia where he was assigned a neighborhood. He then moved to a staging area where he picked up campaign literature, pinned an Obama button on his chest and was briefed by local residents. That interaction prevents volunteers from making out-of-towner mistakes, like mispronouncing the community's name as "McLean" rather than "McClayne."
There were no such problems as Friedman chatted with Li, and the fact that he is from Maryland never came up. Li was unclear about his registration status — the kind of uncertainty that might cause some people to skip voting altogether. Friedman reminded him that he had voted in the last election and hadn't moved since then. He was most likely good to go.
"If we're registered, then definitely," Li, who is 41, said as Friedman then prodded him a second time about whether he would vote for Obama. "I think he needs some more time to pursue his policies," Li said.
As volunteers approach assigned homes they are armed with data such as the voters' names, ages and voting participation histories. They are told to remind voters that they may be eligible to cast an absentee ballot that day. In an indication of the behavioral science creeping into campaigns, some are instructed to help people visualize voting — such as by asking what time they will vote. Conjuring up a mental image of the act, the theory goes, will make it more likely to occur.
GOP targets Pa.
In Pennsylvania Saturday, about 25 Maryland Republicans joined the local GOP in going door-to-door in the Delaware County town of Havertown. Some of the Marylanders came aboard a charter a bus, others by car.
For much of the year Pennsylvania appeared to be solidly in the Obama column, but that may be changing. Public polls show the president has a roughly 6 percentage point lead in the state, but Republicans in Pennsylvania were cheered Saturday by a new Susquehanna Poll showing Romney pulling ahead in a state Obama won by 10 points in 2008.
The Maryland contingent Saturday was led by Harford County Executive David Craig, Romney's county campaign chair and a prospective candidate for governor. His mission: to help turn a light-blue state into a light-red state. His instructions to the troops: Leave the Ravens gear at home. It is, after all, Philadelphia Eagles country.
Among those getting on the bus at a Harford park-and-ride were Aaron Tomarchio of Bel Air and his 14-year-old political prodigy nephew, Brandon Vaughn.
Tomarchio said he's been involved in every presidential race since 1988 and is no stranger to traveling out-of-state to campaign for Republicans — including a 2004 foray into West Virginia on behalf of President George W. Bush.
"It's the Electoral College now that's in play, and Maryland is sandwiched between two states that can probably make a difference," he said.
Brandon, a ninth-grader at West Nottingham Academy, is a veteran GOP campaigner already, having volunteered on behalf of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Rep. Andy Harris and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain. The bus trip to Havertown was his first taste of cross-border campaigning, but he knew exactly why he was going.
"We know Maryland's not going to go Republican because it's just a solid blue state," he said. But with Pennsylvania and Virginia, he figures, Romney can get to the needed 270 electoral votes.
"Not many 14-year-olds like this kind of stuff, but it's something that's addictive," he said.
Once in Havertown, the Marylanders split up and headed to neighborhoods assigned by the local Republican Victory Committee.
Craig and his son Randy, a Havre de Grace town commissioner, teamed up to go door-to-door in a middle-class neighborhood that has been trending Democratic in recent years. Armed with a list of voters local Republicans had identified as undecided, they knocked on doors polling voters on their intentions.
As veteran campaigners, the Craigs were not surprised to find Not at Home leading by landslide proportions. But they were pleased to find Romney well ahead among voters who had made up their minds.
David Eberlin, a local resident, pulled up in his minivan to chat with the visiting Marylanders. He told them the neighborhood had been awash with Obama signs in 2008 but that now few could be seen.
At the more than 30 homes they visited before breaking for lunch, the Craigs didn't meet any voters who seemed inclined to listen to a sales pitch. Nor did the Craigs apply any pressure. Mostly they concentrated on observing a rule David Craig said he has been teaching for years: "You never walk on their grass."
Making a difference
Though volunteers often get some coaching before they hit the field, there is still mystery involved in knocking on a stranger's door. They never know just what they're going to get. For Jeff Biggs, a 47-year-old technology consultant from Columbia who's working for Obama, that took some getting used to. Now, he says, he appreciates the exchanges, even when he comes across a Romney supporter.
"It can be a little bit intimidating at first — for me, even just phone banking was initially outside of my comfort area," said Biggs, who had not previously volunteered on a campaign but has been canvassing for the president every weekend since the spring. "I think what we need in our country is to have people who have different ideas at least to be comfortable talking to each other."
Earlier this year Biggs encountered a Virginia voter who had lost faith in Obama since 2008. The two had a long discussion in which Biggs explained why Obama's controversial health care law was important to him personally. That conversation spilled into a friendly email exchange that lasted for several weeks.
Biggs thinks he probably brought the voter back in the fold for Obama. Even if he didn't, the interaction was likely more effective than any 30-second television ad.
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