Wooing Old Dominion

Patrick Caldwell

“Thank you for what you are doing.” Liz Childress, a 22-year-old volunteer for the Obama campaign, heard this refrain as she knocked on doors in Church Hill, a predominately African American neighborhood east of downtown Richmond, where dilapidated vacant homes dominate many of the blocks.

Childress, in a navy pea coat with a Joe Biden pin fastened to the lapel, was canvassing as part of the Obama team’s final get-out-the-vote effort in Virginia. Gone were the days when the campaign sought to reach persuadable undecided voters. Even a week ago, Childress would have talked up Barack Obama to everyone she encountered, with arguments on why the president deserved their support. On the final weekend before Election Day, though, the campaign was pursuing a different strategy: Childress was only checking in with reliable Democrats and reminding them to go to the polls. From the Democratic signs in almost everyone’s yard to the “Occupy Richmond, VA,” spray-painted on a brick wall, Church Hill was clearly Obama territory.

That Virginia went for Obama in 2008 was a bonus, a cherry on top of his sweep of the Electoral College. It was the first time the state had voted Democratic since Lyndon Johnson. Four years later it has become one of the three most contested states in the election, joining Ohio and Florida. Polls indicate an extremely close race, with FiveThirtyEight showing Obama with a 1.2 percent Obama lead and Real Clear Politics giving him only a 0.3 percent edge.

Changing demographics are responsible for Virginia’s shift from a red state to a purple one, as college-educated liberal whites expand into Northern Virginia and the minority population—Latinos, Asians, as well as African Americans—continues to grow. Obama is banking on these new demographics to repeat his 2008 win. In particular, he’ll need to achieve 2008’s historic level of African American turnout, especially in Richmond. This might be a challenge, though. The economic struggles of the past four years have been particularly acute for African Americans.  Richmond in Central Virginia is the dividing line between Obama’s Virginia and Romney’s Commonwealth. The city itself is reliably Democratic; Obama walloped John McCain 79 percent to 20 percent there last time. But it’s not the margin that matters as much as the turnout. With an African American population of 50 percent, Richmond is key to the Obama campaign.

It would be easy to peg Childress as a typical Obama volunteer, but in 2008, the first election when she was old enough to vote, she bucked her generation’s trend and voted against Obama. “I chose someone I kick myself for every day,” she says. “I voted third-party for Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate, I regret that, but thankfully it worked out for the best. I feel like [canvassing for Obama] is making up for lost time.” Childress grew up in Goode, an affluent small town in Southwest Virginia, about 15 miles outside Lynchburg, which was the home of Jerry Falwell, the founder of the now-disbanded Moral Majority. Both Childress’s parents are conservative Republicans; she’s the first member of her family to support a Democrat.

During her second semester at Lynchburg College, a small liberal arts school near her hometown, she began to re-evaluate her political views. “My freshman roommate didn’t have health care,” she said. “I’d never experienced meeting anybody who didn’t have the ability to see a doctor when they were sick. That was a really foreign idea to me. That just seemed really unfair to me, that because of my parents’ choices I was able to be taken care of when I was sick and because of her parents’ choices she wasn’t.” By the time she graduated, Childress was a committed liberal. She signed up for the Obama campaign in June, shortly after she moved to Richmond to work as a legal aide. She has been spending three days a week ever since working as a phone-bank captain.

Nobody was home in more than half the houses Childress approached. When she got no answer, she left a door hangar and made a note on her master list. The Obama team would be returning at least twice more before Tuesday. But when doors did open, nearly every voter expressed support for Obama. Raymond, in his early fifties, took a break from painting his home, white flecks speckling his camo hat, and announced immediately that he would be voting for the president. Childress provided him with information on the location of his polling precinct, the types of identification he would need, and the number of a hotline he could call if he required a ride on Tuesday.

A few blocks down, a man in an American-flag T-shirt named Wade invited Childress into the living room to warm up from the chilly morning. As his young son played Super Mario Bros. on a Wii, he told her he planned to vote early Tuesday morning. Childress asked everyone when they were intending to vote. Studies show that people are more likely to turn out if they begin to build a mental picture of how they will cast their ballot. Wade was typical in planning to show up at his precinct shortly after it opens at 6 a.m.

Midway through the morning, a middle-aged woman in a purple coat and Crocs flagged down Childress. She wanted to make sure she had everything she needed to vote. It was a concern Childress had been hearing all morning. Virginia does not have a strict photo-ID requirement but does demand government-issued identification. “Do you have to have your voter-registration card when you go?” she asked, wondering whether her check-cashing ID would be enough. Childress didn’t know but encouraged the woman to visit the Obama campaign website or to call the hotline for the full list of acceptable IDs. The woman thanked Childress and headed on her way, planning to search out her voter-registration card to avoid potential hassle at the poll.

There was one exception to the Obama love fest: a young white man, at the only non-African American household of the day. As his kindergarten-aged daughter clung to his leg, the man said he didn’t intend to vote for Obama. Childress still encouraged him to cast a ballot on Election Day but didn’t linger. With less than 72 hours until polls opened, she couldn’t waste time trying to persuade him to change his vote.  

 

Childress’s morning canvass started at the home of a fellow Obama volunteer who lives in Church Hill. This represented a small but telling shift in strategy: the final get-out-the-vote push would be staged from the neighborhoods where voters live rather than from campaign headquarters. According to the campaign, more than 20,000 volunteers walked precincts from 456 locations.

I swung by the Obama state headquarters in downtown Richmond a little after 7 p.m. Everyone had been pulled off the streets—door-knocking ends at night for the canvassers’ safety—and more than 40 volunteers crowded around the small tables that filled the room. They were either ringing up potential voters or pinning down volunteer schedules for Sunday campaigning. At the entrance, I met a buoyant middle-aged volunteer named Angelo, who sported a rainbow Obama button and a tag that identified him as phone-bank director. A resident of San Francisco, he had traveled to Maryland to help pass Question 6, the referendum that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state. With the polls showing a solid lead for the referendum, he came to Richmond to work on the president’s campaign. “The Supreme Court pays attention to public opinion,” he said by way of explanation. In his view, an Obama victory—and the likelihood of Supreme Court justices retiring in the next four years—could decide the fate of marriage equality nationally. In the meantime, he had more immediate concerns. “I got an Ivy League education to clean toilets,” he joked of his role for the campaign that night.

One indication of how important Virginia ranks in the Obama election strategy is that since the start of the year, the president has traveled to the state 18 times. Prominent surrogates like Vice President Biden and former President Bill Clinton have made more than ten stops collectively. On Friday, Michelle Obama gave her last campaign speech in the state before a packed gym at historically black Virginia State University (VSU), 30 minutes south of Richmond. The evening had the air of a pep rally. A queue snaked out the door for at least 200 yards, the auditorium was packed, and a drum line performed from the stands as the audience waited for the first lady to arrive.

The crowd of more than 3,100 roared when Obama took the stage. She devoted the first portion of her speech to touting her husband’s character. “We have the opportunity to re-elect a man who is decent and honest. A man whose courage and integrity we have seen every day for the last four years—you know what I’m talking about.” Those qualities were what made her fall in love with Barack, she said. “You hear me fellas?” While she touched on policy issues—emphasizing student loans and women’s rights—the thrust of the speech was to bolster the image of the president as a normal guy. “What I think is so important for people in this country to understand,” she said, “I want them to know that Barack understands the American dream because he has lived it.”

Most of the college students I spoke with as the event started weren’t politically active but were vehement supporters of the president, excited to vote for the first time. Breea Powell, a junior criminal-justice major, offered an explanation I heard over and over when I inquired about the attendees’ reasons for supporting President Obama. “He went through some of the same stuff that I go through,” she said, “so I feel like he understands." Kwame Brown, who graduated from VSU last year and now works for the local Fox affiliate in Richmond, came to the opposite conclusion about Romney: The Republican nominee isn’t someone he could imagine having a conversation with. “For me, the whole voting thing comes down to who I feel like can relate to me the most,” he said, “I don’t think Romney has been in the same shoes me and my family have been in. If he can’t relate to me, I don’t think he can represent me.”

After the first lady’s event on Friday, I returned to Richmond and met with Ray Boone, editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press. The African American weekly is located in the old Imperial Tobacco building, across the street from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the city’s long-dominant daily. Framed issues of the Free Press with Obama on the front-page hang in the entrance, with one from the 2008 Democratic primary signed “To Ray—God Bless—Barack Obama.” Last week’s edition features a front-page editorial endorsing the president’s re-election.

“I don’t feel as confident as I would like to be,” he told me, “because I’m not sure there is the momentum and kind of fire in terms of voter turnout as there was in 2008. The question is whether the Democratic Party has made as strong of an effort as it should have to appreciate the importance of its most loyal constituency. There is a prevalent view in the black community that the Democratic Party takes the black vote for granted. But I still think that black people want to vote for President Obama without question. In 2008, there was a record turnout in Virginia, particularly among black voters. I think you need that same foundation or base repeated if the president is going to win.”

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