“In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great Western Slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped and led you to the Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land.”
– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”
Al Gore and John Kerry did not have field operations in Durango, Colorado. Barack Obama is here -- in force. It's a buoyant, bubbling crowd of enthusiastic volunteers. We ran into waves of Saturday canvassers, including family groups going out with their kids to knock on doors in the shadow of the stunning San Juan Mountains. We followed a few of these volunteers as they knocked on doors, registered voters, and signed them up to request a mail-in ballot.
Voter registration deadline in Colorado is October 6. Registered voters may request mail-in ballots up until October 28, and Democrats are definitely placing a large emphasis on mail-in voting because it continually reduces the universe of remaining voters who need to be turned out on Election Day. A reduced universe allows for more efficient and targeted use of resources. It also allows the campaigns to see which precincts (Democratic-leaning or Republican-leaning) are getting their ballots in early. That also permits an efficient, as-necessary shifting of ground game resources as Election Day closes in.
We spoke with Alex Max, a 15-year old Durango High student and Obama's Southwest Colorado Youth Outreach Coordinator. It turns out that Alex had logged onto Barack Obama's website more than any other person in La Plata County, and one day he got a call from the Obama field organizer here who asked whether he'd be willing to help coordinate high school seniors in youth turnout. There are approximately 300 students in the DHS senior class, and of those only some have birthdays before November 4. Alex has registered 30-50 students to vote, so you do the math on how effective Alex' work has been. They've been reaching out to other high school students to set up similar groups.
We left the Obama HQ at 1021 Main St. and walked over to the Republican County field office in the Prudential building at 700 Main St. It was closed. We spoke with the woman who works at the front desk for Prudential and she described lots and lots of folks shuttling in and out for bumper stickers and yard signs -- the tyrannical yard signs of organizers' nightmares -- but not staying for phone banking, as she almost always notices them leaving quickly.
It may be that Republicans see La Plata County as a lost cause -- it has been getting bluer and bluer. We may find a massive Republican effort in Colorado Springs, and we'll check Obama's operation there too. In La Plata in 2004, John Kerry beat George Bush won by 1,695 votes, a slightly less than 7% margin. But in 2000, Bush beat Gore by 2,121 votes, or more than 10% (Nader got nearly 12% of the vote, and less than 1% in 2004). Dole beat Clinton by over 1,500 votes (Perot got 8.1%), after Clinton eked out a 391-vote win over the elder Bush in 1992 (helped by 26.2% of the vote going to Perot). But the county is growing -- 15,613 votes in 1992, 17,321 in 1996, 20,490 in 2000, and 25,513 in 2004.
Over in neighboring much redder Montezuma County (home of Mesa Verde National Park) we looked in on the ground game. Bush beat Kerry by over 3,100 (6,988 to 3,867) more than doubled up Gore, 6,158 to 2,556 (Nader took 5.7%). Dole cruised over Clinton by 1,597 out of 7,831 total cast, even with Perot taking 10.6% of the vote.
There was more success with the Republican field operation in Cortez. The Republican Party office was open until about 4pm today, and several volunteers operated the office. They expressed pride in their all-volunteer status, and insisted that Obama needed paid staff because nobody would have volunteered full time for him here. A rotating group of approximately 10 volunteers manage the office 1-3 at a time throughout the week. While we were there, one man came in to find McCain pins.
The Obama group in Cortez did not exactly strike us as lacking in the volunteer effort or in grassroots energy. In terms of numbers, there was more going on at the Obama office, which is open 9 to 9 every day of the week. In the twenty minutes we spent at the office, we saw a local woman come in to register and take a form for her daughter. Another 70-something woman returned with her completed phone sheet and took another one home. Two phone bankers made dials. Another man, who volunteers twice a week, had taken upon himself the task of blind-knocking his trailer park and was getting a high contact and success rate.
We tagged along with a canvasser on each side here in town. We got into town around 4, which was too late to spend much time with the McCain canvasser (they were closing shop but made a kind extra effort for us). While we were with the Obama canvasser, he knocked on a door where the voter wasn't home -- and was apparently a Republican -- but by chance the daughter and her husband were home, were both Obama supporters, registered to vote and requested mail-in ballots. She was a teacher, and she took a handful of forms to register her students. That teacher may not have taken the initiative to register to vote, or she might have. The point is that by fanning out into the field and putting in the work, campaigns find voters who wouldn't have otherwise voted.
But it takes real work. It takes showing up. And it takes a volunteer sacrifice of time and energy. It takes wanting it. That work is heroic.
Tonight we're headed up to Grand Junction in deep-red Mesa County, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. (Well, Brett anyway.)