Obama’s ground game in El Dorado Hills nets votes in swing states

By From page A15 | November 16, 2012

In the days following last week’s election, pundits on both sides, including the respective campaign managers, cited the Obama campaign’s ground game strategy as a huge reason the president did so well in critical battleground states.

The business end of that strategy was executed by a couple of hundred enthusiastic volunteers in an El Dorado Hills call center who relentlessly badgered voters in swing states to get out and vote.

The result was a record turnout among the president’s key demographics.

“Yea, it looks like we made a difference,” said Joni Remer, the El Dorado Hills mom who famously stood up to the hate-spewing anti-gay “truth trucks” in 2005, was a veteran of the 2008 Obama campaign and wanted to extend her reach in 2012.

Remer and her friend Christine Berry became field generals in a get-out-the vote ground game that the Atlantic’s Molly Ball described thusly in October: “Four years ago Barack Obama built the largest grassroots organization in the history of American politics. After the election, he never stopped building, and the current operation, six years in the making, makes 2008 look like ‘amateur ball.”

The Obama campaign’s treasure trove of data was fed into a web-based Dashboard tool that allowed a massive, well-organized field operation, including Foothills Moving Forward in El Dorado Hills, to put it to good use.

“The campaign provided the names and numbers, and we showed them what we could do,” said Remer.

They did a lot. On election day, calls to eastern swing states began at 6 a.m., with some volunteers working until the polls closed in Nevada at 7 p.m. All told, 67 volunteers logged time on Nov. 6, placing an estimated 10,000 calls, according to office statistician Sue Escobar.

Remer boasted that Foothills Moving Forward was one of the most effective phone bank operations in Northern California, earning her and Berry a meet-and-greet with the president in San Francisco, and a spot in front for their key FMF lieutenants at his speech that evening.

Operating from the former Marble Valley School site on Windplay Drive in the El Dorado Hills Business Park — the school moved to bigger digs in 2011 — FMF signed up 340 volunteers, with up to 40 working the phones at any one time.

The campaign provided phone lists and real-time call scripts tailored to specific call strategies. Volunteers used their own laptops and cell phones, and could work from the call center, a coffee shop or from home.

Others used the campaign’s new predictive dialing system, which “esssentially guaranteed a conversation rather than just hoping that someone picks up the phone,” said phone bank manager Sam Phelan on Tuesday night.

“It might take a normal person 20 calls to get that one conversation with a swing voter,” he added. “This campaign made investments in technology and is working smarter than ever.”

At 7:45 p.m. Tuesday night the banquet tables in the phone rooms were littered with cell phone chargers and empty coffee cups. A clutch of volunteers gathered in the common room to watch one after another battleground states they’d been calling fall Obama’s way.

Ohio was still in play when Escobar reflected on the 3,600 calls they’d made to haggard Ohio Democrats that day. Many got on the last-minute call list because the campaign had labeled them as occasional voters.

The resulting 322 conversations were all gentle reminders to get out and vote, with street-level instructions on how to get to the local polling place.

The group came together in June and July in a grass-roots effort to counter the big money being spent by conservative super PACs, said Escobar, who credited a quote from Margret Mead as her inspiration.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Besides Ohio, the callers targeted Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin in the days leading up to the election.

Shortly after 8 p.m., an excited volunteer burst into the phone room and exclaimed “21 votes left, put a fork in it.”

The TV screen showed scenes of a growing celebration at Chicago’s McCormick Place. The energy level at FMF grew accordingly.

It became increasingly clear that Mitt Romney would fail to overrun the so-called “Midwest firewall.”

When Ohio fell the energy level ratcheted even higher. Daniel Stephenson, known for having energy to burn, became a human pogo. His fists pumped so hard that his Asian Americans for Obama button threatened to vacate his Yes We Can T-shirt.

CNN called the election for Obama a few minutes later. All the hard work and anticipation created an adrenalin/endorphin cocktail that knocked the celebration into complete bedlam. The exhausted volunteers laughed, cried, hugged and screamed.

Robin Carter closed her eyes, looked to the ceiling and squealed “OH-BAH-MA,” then gave Rehmer a bone-crushing hug.

Lynn Hadjian, mouth was agape in shock, looked like she’d just taken a couple hundred volts.

Each of the key FMF volunteers worked over a hundred hours, said Rehmer, who couldn’t recall a single day off since opening the office.

One volunteer got her tire spiked. Signs were routinely stolen and verbal abuse was common in El Dorado Hills,

But none of that mattered on Tuesday night. While the world waited for Romney to write his concession speech, the smart phones came out and the social network celebration began in El Dorado Hills.

Team leader Jill Keith of Placerville sat down with a sigh and explained why she got involved in politics for the first time in her life at 55.

“I was terrified that our human rights, the stuff we worked so hard for, would be stripped away,” she said. “Not just women, but minorities, gays, lesbians, you name it. I was very concerned about what it would mean to my daughter and granddaughter.”

Like Escobar, Keith had a poem that she said inspired her to get involved, written after WW II by a pastor who initially supported the Nazis, but later renounced them, and ended up in a concentration camp.

Keith couldn’t recall it all, but knew the first and last lines: “First they came for my neighbor, and I said nothing.” It concludes “Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.”

Keith is a freelance graphic designer. She said she understands why some people won’t speak out about their political beliefs, especially in the current divided ideological climate, and also understands that she could lose clients by airing her politics.

“But at this point I can’t not stand up for what I believe in,” she said. “Barack Obama gave me hope, but I have to stand up and do my part.”

“Foothills Moving Forward will continue,” she promised. “There’s too much to do and we have great momentum … great volunteers.”

To learn more or volunteer, visit the website:

Mike Roberts

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