CLIPS: Democrats shift campaign focus to small towns (09/14/08)

Of The Patriot-News

Where, in a state such as Pennsylvania, could the Barack Obama
campaign place 65 offices?

How about Mansfield, a town 45 miles north of Scranton that in 2007 had a population of 3,223?

Or Montrose, about 50 miles north of Williamsport and home to 1,547 people?

Both small towns now have a full-time paid organizer, sent by the Obama campaign, to give direction to the volunteers on the ground. This week the campaign launched 35 offices, including ones in Lebanon and Carlisle. There are already offices in Harrisburg, York and Lancaster.

“It’s unprecedented in Pennsylvania, especially in the central part of the state, because we Democrats have tended to focus on Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the northeast, where we have reliable voter blocks,” said Andrea Mead, Obama spokeswoman. “That’s absolutely not the case this time. We’ve made a point to go into communities that Democrats have not bothered with before.”

By comparison, Republican nominee John McCain has 17 state offices, including ones in Harrisburg, York and Lancaster. The rest are in the more traditional, high-population areas.

Both campaigns are considering Pennsylvania one of the nation’s most important battleground states, and the money spent here bears that out.

Spending differences

While Obama is spending money on offices, McCain can focus on other areas, most likely television advertisements, said Chris Borick, a political analyst at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Democrats are “hell-bent on not being outperformed in the ground game this year,” Borick said. That’s because Democrats have historically lagged behind Republicans at getting out the vote, he said.

Usually the campaigns would have 10 or so offices in Pennsylvania’s big and midsized cities, Borick said. But Obama appears to be applying his 50-state strategy to the individual states, trying to have a full presence in the state.

“The Democrats want to really try to outperform Republicans, or at least equally perform,” he said. “And that means having a structure in place that can yield voters from every corner of the state.”

Among the new sites is the Lebanon office, which has a full-time campaign coordinator and a level of organization that has county Democrats raving.

Leading the operation is Andrew Claster, who moved to Lebanon from Washington, D.C., for the job. He previously worked for a political polling and consulting firm.

Claster organized record-setting voter registration drives in the county; volunteers registered 250 voters during Labor Day weekend, and a one-day record of 110 people have been registered since then.

“We’re doing something pretty remarkable in Pennsylvania and Lebanon, and that’s thanks to the work you’re doing,” he told volunteers gathered at the office’s official opening Tuesday.

The campaign for John Kerry and John Edwards wasn’t nearly as organized as this campaign, said Jackie Grumbacher, who ran the county’s Democratic effort in 2004.

“We were making things up as we went along, because we didn’t have the strong infrastructure this campaign has.”

Lebanon County has long been a Republican stronghold. After Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was introduced as McCain’s running mate, local Republicans have had their own spike in enthusiasm, said Faith Bender, chairwoman of the Republican committee in Lebanon County.

The county doesn’t have its own McCain campaign office, but Republicans are doing the same kind of grass-roots work out of their party’s office, Bender said.

Offices are great, but it’s a matter of what work comes out of them, said Mike Barley, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

“I’m not sure what kind of inroads they’re going to make in Lebanon or any of these other red counties,” Barley said. “When it comes down to it, these voters align themselves a lot more with what John McCain and Sarah Palin believe, and there’s not much that’s going to change that.”

Craig Schirmer, the state director for Obama , said there are 569 neighborhood teams working for Obama .

The state’s volunteers have expanded the voter registration edge by 100,000 voters since the April 22 primary, he said.