About three weeks before the 2006 Tester-Burns election, MSU-Billings put out a poll that showed Jon Tester up by 13 points. This was an especially iffy poll, one in the John Zogby category. We knew internally that the race was much, much tighter, and we also knew that our small but steady lead over the summer months would evaporate the final weekend. The race would be a tossup left to the ground game.
But when the poll came out, I began finding volunteers that much harder to convince to trade their free time for knocking and calling help in a race they erroneously felt was safe due to bad polling. Some explicitly told me, aw, Tester's gonna win, we're just figuring out where to have our Election Night watch party. As an organizer, my head nearly exploded even as I calmly smiled through it and kept at the persuasion. Jon Tester won by less than 1%, and the race wasn't called until the next day. Out of roughly 400,000 votes cast, we won by 3,562.
What we're seeing on the ground with volunteering, especially with public polls showing double digit leads in Pennsylvania, is that the "flake rate" for volunteers is higher. "Flake rate" is the term for how the percentage of people who sign up to do a canvassing or phonebanking shift, and then don't show up. It tends to happen when a candidate's supporters get complacent. And it can happen in a hurry.
Indeed, Barack Obama himself hopped on a nationwide all-staff conference call Friday to emphasize this point to the troops. Pledging to "come down hard" on anyone getting "too cocky," Obama specifically and pre-emptively called out any semblance of lack of focus. High-fiving, for example, is strictly verboten. Acknowledging everyone must be exhausted, he pointed out that he was pretty worn out too. "I've been doing this longer than you, and I'm older than all of you." The message: if I can finish this off, so can you. Do not doubt that this is a man firmly in control of his campaign.
In Northeast Philly, we met up with Janice Caswell, a dedicated grassroots activist who spends every weekend hopping over from New York City to more competitive Pennsylvania with busloads of canvassing volunteers. She was worried about the same complacency I'd seen when polls started looking too good in Montana.
"Suddenly," she said, "a lot more people are finding something else to do." Still, Janice's group of at least 25, clustered in a staging area of a Wawa food store parking lot on Cottman Ave, was by far bigger than any McCain canvassing group we've seen in six weeks and ten battleground states, although we were told about a big weekend one in Omaha we'd missed. Complacency is always relative.
Although we haven't yet observed any real ground game, the Pennsylvania Republican Party is reportedly working to tamp down Obama's margin of victory in Philadelphia, which it knows it must do to win the state. Kerry won by 412,000 votes, and if that margin can be held to 350,000, state Republicans argue, McCain can pull the upset.
Behind the scenes, the party says it is spending $300,000 on behalf of McCain in Philadelphia on everything from targeted newspaper buys -- including ads in Latino, Korean and Vietnamese publications -- to doling out ''street money'' to foot soldiers to talk up the candidate and get voters to the polls on Election Day.The issue of street money has been a controversial one this campaign season, with local party bosses attempting to leverage the Obama campaign into compliance -- reassuring locals in newspapers that Obama will also pay the street money (that it did not pay in the primaries) -- so that the backlash would be heightened if Obama chooses to break with tradition and use his own volunteer army. The army, Caswell says, is enough from what she's seen to get the job done, if Dems looking at optimistic public polling don't get complacent in the final days.
Over in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, we met powerfully dedicated full-time volunteer Jessie Cocks, a 40-year veteran of community organizing who'd even once organized with Cesar Chavez. The gregarious Jessie, who was as savvy about how to get people organized as anyone we've encountered on the long cross-country journey, shared the story of how her office came into existence. After finding the office space, she faced some resistance from local Democratic party board members about using funds to pay for overhead costs -- it's now a coordinated campaign office filled with several Obama paid organizers. "If you're not going to help, I'm going to do it myself anyway," she'd said. "If we're broke on November 5th and Barack Obama is elected President, we've done our job," she reported telling her local party official. "What else are we here for?"
Back on the conference call, David Plouffe followed Obama with steady words, and, because he doesn't swear often, language timed for effect. As a baseline, the campaign was in excellent shape to win all the Kerry states, Plouffe said. In many Bush 2004 states, the campaign was in very strong shape as well. The message: we just have to stay focused and do our jobs, not let up one inch and we'll win the election.
"I'll say what I said back in New Hampshire," he concluded. "Let's go win this fucking thing."
Incidentally, I've gotten a number of queries about the story told at the outset of the previous On the Road piece. We first heard the story in Ohio the night after Sarah Palin's rally in Wilmington, OH. Later, we arrived in Washington, PA, and spoke to the canvasser separately, who repeated it word for word without being aware I'd heard it the first time. Neither telling was intended for the record. In the context of John Murtha's comments about Western Pennsylvania, I decided it was newsworthy. As a condition of printing it, I kept all names off the record.