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What's fueling Obama's full-court press: Hope turns to fear

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Adrian Cobb is a 25-year-old black man who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but didn't volunteer for the campaign. This year, watching as Obama got pummeled in the first presidential debate, Cobb felt fear instead of hope. He realized he needed to do more than vote.

"Four years ago, I knew I would make a historic vote," he says. "Now I feel like I need to go out and tell people they have to vote, because they don't want to put the wrong person in office."

With Mitt Romney and Obama locked in a dead heat for the presidency, foot soldiers such as Cobb, knocking on doors and extracting promises to vote, can change the outcome in swing states such as North Carolina, and by extension, perhaps the outcome of the election.

But given the lack of enthusiasm compared to Obama's 2008 campaign, it's counterintuitive to think that on-the-ground organizing efforts could be stronger now than four years ago. Fear, however, is a strong motivator.

"2008 was like poetry in motion. This year it is fear," says Ron Sanyal, an Obama organizer. "Fear of only the rich getting richer and everyone else being left alone. Fear and frustration. We have no choice. We vote or we face Romney. The choice is clear."

At an Asian-American organizing event Saturday in Cary, Sanyal and other Obama volunteers claimed that the Indian community is more strongly entrenched for Obama than in 2008, which they hope will lead to higher turnout.

"Whoever can drive the people to voting booths wins," he says. "Ground game is the ultimate right now. Without that, nobody can win."

Organizers in the African-American community also believe their ground game is bigger than before. Lynette Love is an Obama organizer in Raleigh. She knocks on doors, makes phone calls and is a "congregation captain," which means she's responsible for ensuring people at her church vote.

"As it has gotten closer to Election Day, the seriousness of it has taken hold, the determination," she says. "Everybody is talking about voting and how they are going to vote."

The depth of Obama's efforts in North Carolina can be attributed to other factors, too. For instance, much of the organizing infrastructure—including 54 field offices and more than 400 neighborhood teams, which are located in areas without an office—was created in 2008.

From these offices and neighborhoods, volunteers are launching a massive effort to get people who might not otherwise vote to the polls. Canvassers leave armed with lists of 20 to 40-plus households. Just 10 canvassers from one field office can mean 400 voters reached in person.

Exactly what data is being compiled in Obama's Chicago headquarters to create the lists is unclear, but the strategy is sophisticated and complex. The lists contain voters who are likely to lean for Obama but have a higher chance of not turning out to the polls. Data such as income, age, race and voting history are almost certainly part of the equation, among hundreds of other possible variables.

The people the Obama campaign is are targeting "are what I would call sporadic voters, people who are not as engaged politically," says Prabha Ramakrishnan as she works the front desk in Cary's Organizing for America office.

"Say I'm a sporadic voter," she posits. "Say I support the president but then I don't do anything about it. I need that extra impetus from somebody outside to tell me why it's important to vote and to wake me up and say, 'Hey, you need to go and do it.'"

But the approach is more than a gentle nudge. Obama's team insists on creating a specific voting plan with the targeted persons, a strategy that increases the likelihood a person will actually vote.

"People tell me all the time, 'I'm going to vote for Obama,'" says Tom Cameron, a Garner organizer. "I say, 'When are you going to vote? Where are you going to vote?' We get a commitment."

Cameron says Obama volunteers working the phones can then use this information to follow up. "'You told us you would vote early. You identified where you're going to vote, what time you're going to vote and if you're going to bring anybody.' If they didn't vote, they get called again until they actually vote. It really is a good system."

Other Obama volunteers have reported getting "thank you" emails from the campaign after early voting, which suggests how quickly the voting data is being processed.

If the Obama campaign really can turn out people who don't regularly make it to the polls—often those with less education or income—it may have discovered a campaign strategy to rival the big money of Super PACs and television advertising, which also have the power to swing elections.

Obama won North Carolina by roughly 14,000 votes in 2008. And big-name Democrats, who have been making the rounds to motivate Obama volunteers, are fond of mentioning that the number is equivalent to just five votes per precinct.

Between Monday and Friday in the fourth week of October, the Obama campaign claims its volunteers knocked on 40,000 doors.

Early voting numbers back up campaign officials' claims that Obama's ground game is stronger than ever. At the time Indy Week went to press on Tuesday, early voting totals exceeded those from the same period in 2008 by 20 points.

The percentage of minority voters heading to the polls early also increased. The percentage of black voters is hovering around the same as 2008, but this year all other racial groups compose roughly 5 percent of early voters, up from just 1 percent in 2008, according to State Board of Elections data.

While Republicans haven't created a ground game as strong as the president's, some conservative groups are resorting to less ethical ways of influencing the vote.

A recent memo from the executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections Gary Bartlett tells of voter misinformation and suppression efforts that are more widespread than in any other election.

"I have not seen a presidential year like this as for misinformation ... and possible fraud," says Bartlett. "Everybody's taken a mean pill. We need some civility."

He detailed one example of signs that tell Democrats to vote on Wednesday and Republicans to vote on Tuesday, because of high volumes of people at the polls. Voting across the country always occurs on Tuesday for both parties.

But even in the absence of voter suppression efforts, Obama's highly evolved organizing effort might not be enough to tip the scales.

Obama staffers, immersed in the colossal proportions of the ground game, know as much. When asked to make a prediction, one said, "It really comes down to the last day. Your guess is as good as mine."

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