Northern Virginia: BMWs and Cell Phones

Patrick Caldwell

Decorations at an Obama field office in Alexandria, Virginia

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA—The daycare of a church named Shiloh Baptist isn't where you'd expect to locate the epicenter of President Obama's hopes for being re-elected. Inside, boxes of Toy Story fruit snacks, miniature scissors, and the occasional errant, bewildered toddler indicate the building's primary purpose, but the string of Obama-Biden yard signs marks this as the spot. While half of the building maintains its original use, the other has been taken over as an Obama field office. About 60 volunteers cram every nook and cranny of the second floor. They line the hallway walls, sitting on folding chairs or cross-legged on the floor, speaking softly into their cell phones, gently reminding voters to head to the polls. A chorus of voices echo the message: "This is so-and-so from the Obama campaign, calling you from Alexandria to see if you have voted today."

By the time I arrive in the afternoon they've already rolled through the lists once and started the process of calling potential voters who didn’t answer the first time. An organizer instructs one volunteer to skip leaving a voicemail; the hours left until the polls close at 7 P.M. are dwindling and they want to be talking to a live person on the other end. The volunteers read from Democratic-blue sheets of paper with a simple script, encouraging people to vote for Tim Kaine and Barack Obama and offering information on polling locations.

There's no question that Obama will win Alexandria. Four years ago he carried this suburb, directly across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., by more than 40 percent. But the level of turnout could tip the balance statewide. Alexandria is a central hub in Obama's new Virginia, home to a coalition of young, college-educated voters who are more diverse than their brethren in the southern half of the state.

Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, a Democrat who is running for his fourth term this year, thinks Obama will easily replicate the support he received here in '08. "Record turnouts so far, not only in early voting but with folks voting today. It's at least equal to four years ago," Euille says. "It's hard to say, but my personal estimation having visited about 75 percent of precincts since the polls opened at 6 A.M. this morning, is that it will probably be up slightly. Obviously someone that's been at this for as long as I have, this is my seventh election, I have a good barometer of what people are thinking and how they are voting. But certainly the mere fact is that when you have people coming out in large numbers it bodes well for the Democrats."

In the entryway, I chat with Adam Ebbin, a state senator in his late 40s, as volunteers stream in and out. He joined the senate last year, so he won't need to personally sweat an election night for another three years. Still, Ebbin has been busy phone-banking and door-knocking, though on Tuesday he’s primarily rallying the troops, speaking to volunteers and shaking hands at polling places. "No one can take it easy today," he says, "it's too important." As Ebbin explains, this is solid Obama territory, partially thanks to the proximity to the actual federal government. The federal bureaucracy is one of the largest employers in the region, and you can't as easily demonize those people when they're your neighbors. "I think the people who work for the federal government know that they are respected [by Obama]," he said. "The fact that the president knows that the government can be a force for good and help those who need a safety net validates the important work of federal workers." He has to cut our conversation short; Ebbin’s been so busy encouraging others to vote that he hasn’t yet gone to the polls himself, and he wants to beat the post-work rush.

Part of the Obama strategy for ensuring high turnout is offering transportation to the polls for any voter who requests one. I catch a ride with Mark McLeod, a chipper 61-year-old retiree in a purple Navy Marathon t-shirt, as he drives around Alexandria in his blue BMW shepherding Obama fans in need. He'd only been scheduled for the eight to noon shift, but plans to keep going all day. "I don't want to be waking up crying in the morning," he jokes. Like many in the area, he used to work for a government contractor, Boeing. "We live in the occupied part of Virginia," McLeod quips, expressing his hope that the northern half turns out in greater numbers than the more conservative southern portion of the state. McLeod himself isn’t too worried about the results for tonight—a true Nate Silver devotee, he’s trusting the New York Times polling guru's predictions. McLeod's greater concern is winning the struggle with his wife on which station to watch the returns; she's pushing PBS, he wants MSNBC, but like true compromising liberals, they'll probably split the difference and flip between the two.

Obama staffers hand McLeod yellow post-it notes with the name, phone number, address, and polling location for people who needed rides. Earlier in the morning McLeod had picked up a 22-year-old whose car was in the shop. In the afternoon, while I sit in the backseat, he drives a couple of miles away from the Alexandria headquarters to pick up Kathy, a woman on crutches who had broken her foot in multiple places last month. The ride is short, only a few blocks away from her house, but for Kathy it’s a godsend. "Thank you so much for the ride,” she says. "For people like me this is a big deal."

While Kathy goes to vote inside Agudas Achim, a conservative synagogue, I chat with the volunteers, almost all Democrats handing out literature. Cars slowly trickle in throughout the mid-afternoon; it had been busy, I’m told, during the pre-work morning rush. One volunteer says that 1,664 people had voted by 3 P.M. for that precinct (including 427 absentees), putting it on pace to match the '08 turnout. Two lawyers volunteering with the Obama campaign stand by a sign offering assistance for anyone whose ballot is challenged, but their services are unrequired for the moment.

Virginia passed a new, relatively mild, voter ID law for this election. While the Obama campaign has supplied voters with ample information over the past several months on the sorts of identification they can bring, it looks like it hasn't been a problem in Alexandria. "I have talked to folks prior to entering the polling precinct booth and talking to them afterwards and it's just as calm, cordial and casual as one would expect," Mayor Euille says. He hasn't received complaints about groups like True the Vote intimidating voters thus far. "I don't think the new rules have had any impact at all."

Virginia should be one of the first swing states to report tonight. Polls close at 7, and the state is known for efficient vote counting. If Alexandria matches its turnout of 70,000 from 2008, Obama's fans should be in for an early night of celebrating.

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