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Democrats: Local office is 'home base' for activity

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Kayla Bunge
October 20, 2008
— Gina Smith sat hunched over a plain, white telephone in the corner of the crowded Democratic Party headquarters at 1300 Milton Ave.

She chatted briefly with a Janesville woman about the economy, health care and foreign policy as two friends would talk over a cup of coffee. When she hung up, she proudly tapped a small bell—indicating the woman's support for Sen. Barack Obama.


The ringing bell elicited cheers from the dozen or so volunteers in the room.


"I got it out of her," she said to a Janesville Gazette reporter during a recent visit to the local campaign office. "If you can get an edge in there, you can talk to them. But if you can't, you're done."


Smith, 56, of Janesville is among hundreds of volunteers across the state who are spending several hours each week making phone calls and going door-to-door in their communities, talking to voters about Obama.


"(The local campaign headquarters) is the up-close and personal connection between the campaign and the community," said Phil Walzak, communications director for the Obama campaign in Wisconsin. "It's the vehicle by which our campaign talks to voters on a one-on-one basis. It's the home base for activity."


The Obama campaign is "robust" in Wisconsin with 50 offices across the state, not only in areas that are Democratic strongholds but also in areas that are staunchly Republican, he said. And the success of the campaign in a battleground state such as Wisconsin depends on volunteers who week after week spread the word about Obama, he said.


In its final weeks before Election Day, the campaign is targeting undecided voters, those 8 percent of voters nationally who still haven't made up their mind, Walzak said.


"It's the undecided or swing voters that move the election one way or the other," he said. "We think that when they hear our message, when they learn more about Obama, they'll come our way ... He's talking in a way they respond to."


Walzak said the Democratic campaign, which has been on the ground in Wisconsin since June, has engaged in "real dialogue" with voters, giving local organizers a sense of which voters have made a decision and which voters need more convincing.


A few blocks from the headquarters, Ted Kinnaman and Samantha Sheldon walked quiet neighborhood streets.


They stopped first at a house at the corner of Mount Zion Avenue and North Ringold Street, where an older woman peered through the screen door.


They explained that they were volunteers on behalf of the Obama campaign and wondered if she'd made a decision about which candidate she supports.


"Oh, I'm the other way," the woman said. "I'm always the other way."


Kinnaman, 79, and Sheldon, 28, said such responses generally don't faze them.


"That's not too bad. I've had people slam the door on me, swear at me," Kinnaman said. "But I just keep going."


Walzak said the volunteers' one-on-one contact with voters is perhaps the most persuasive tool the campaign has in its toolbox.


"They can watch TV or read the newspaper, but the most persuasive thing a voter can hear is testimony from people they trust," he said. "And so we tap into those networks and mobilize them. That's what comes out of these (local campaign) offices."


Smith—known in the local office as the "human autodialer"—called more than 100 women in just two hours. Many women didn't answer. Some women declined to disclose which candidate they support. A handful of women abruptly ended the call.


The most rewarding one- or two-minute conversations, of course, were those in which the women indicated their support for Obama, she said.


"If I'm able to change somebody's mind, it's an incredible feeling," Smith said.


Kinnaman and Sheldon rang the doorbell at one last house on Boynton Court, where a barefoot, middle-aged woman stepped out onto her porch.


Before they could finish introducing themselves, the woman told them she's supporting Obama.


"We like to hear that," Sheldon said.


As the sun was setting and the air was turning cool, Kinnaman and Sheldon headed back to the headquarters, where a batch of volunteers was arriving to work the second shift of the night.


"That's a good way to end the night," they said.



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