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On the Road: Charlottesville, Virginia

“If it were up to me, there would be no robocalls,” offered Chris Schoenewald, Chairman of the Albemarle County Republican Committee. “All the data says robocalls drive up turnout. Personally, I’m skeptical, but if the data says it….”

The Chick -

During a lengthy discussion of the Republican field program in the McCain Victory Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, Schoenewald detailed the year-round work that goes into maintaining and improving contact quality, targeted persuasion, database maintenance and voter registration that, in his view, makes Albemarle County the best Republican operation in the state.

From what we could see, Schoenewald has just cause to be proud. Besides McCain’s national HQ in Arlington, the office and its 20-25 people was as busy as any office on the Republican side we’ve seen across the nation, with a full table of envelope-stuffers and another room of young high school phonebankers.

“We’ve had a huge turnout from high school Young Republicans,” said Schoenewald. On Tuesday night, the night we were there, it was Albemarle High School’s turn. Wednesday is Albemarle West’s night. The Law Republicans have been fairly constant, Schoenewald noted, but both groups were “kicking the pants out of the college kids.” Asked why the UVA Republicans had so tepidly responded, Schoenewald chuckled, “It’s UVA!” To have fun as they dialed, several of the female high schoolers tried different accents (the Brooklyn ones needed work).

We discussed voter registration, and the varied approach each party’s campaign takes. “Democrats use a shotgun approach to voter registration. Republicans use a rifle.” If Democrats are setting up a voter registration table on the Downtown Mall, for example, “they’re registering a lot of Republicans.” By contrast, Schoenewald said, “we’re going after very targeted people.”

On the timing of registration drives, Republicans in Albemarle County work the summer months. “May, June, July, early August,” said Schoenewald, “September is too long.” September and beyond is set aside for persuasion and GOTV.

What impressed us most was the emphasis placed on very high quality of contact, at least in Albemarle County. Schoenewald, Republican Committee Chair since March and Vice-Chair for two years before that, knows what he’s talking about. He credits Virginia Delegate Rob Bell with an incredibly disciplined and thorough approach to voter database maintenance.

“We’ve had a database in Albemarle County for ten years or so. In all honesty, we probably have the most accurate list in the state, better than even Voter Vault.” Though he acknowledged Albemarle is the exception in Virginia rather than the rule on this comparison to Voter Vault, ten years of notes collected from door-to-door conversations with neighbors have given Republicans an incredible depth of knowledge about who their voters are, and even what’s going on in their lives.

Modeled by Bell and adopted by the grassroots county volunteers, notes banked into the voter database and printed onto canvass walk sheets are extremely sophisticated. “Do they have a bumper sticker? Are they expanding their house? What signs are in the window? Are they repainting? Are their kids going to college?” When a Republican canvasser returns later to that same voter’s door, he or she can ask, “‘How’s Sally doing at Virginia Tech?’ Having that kind of database is a huge edge.”

Schoenewald emphasized the value of literature drops at every single visit. “If you don’t hand that person lit,” he said, “you’re only doing 10% of what you could have done.” Comparing the local effort with the national campaign overlay during presidential years, Schoenewald contrasted the difference in control. “We always prefer doing it ourselves.” The local lists are better and more detailed, and when there is more local control in the persuasion it’s more effective voter contact.

This explains, in part, why Schoenewald would rather do away with the robocalls. They’re just not high quality contacts. “Five to seven contacts to get a message through is the assumption. If we’re only doing robocalls then the full seven is probably required.” On the other hand, if contacts were simply a combo of personal door-to-door visits and direct mail, “only three touches” might be needed. Quality, quality, quality.

Asked whether they’d gotten any complaints about robocalls, Schoenewald acknowledged they’d gotten “some sporadic” complaints. Those who complained were turned off by the message rather than the annoyance of being called. “We do paid live calls out of Richmond,” and other counties have live phonebanks like the one we witnessed in Albemarle. Schoenewald preferred live calls. In any event, he noted, “most county committees can’t afford robocalls.”

He pointed out that robocalls had come into fashion in the 90s, when technology like Voter Vault represented the new cutting edge for field programs. “We’re really seeing a resurgence of high touch (personal) contact,” Schoenewald noted. “We need to in Virginia or we’ll lose ground.”

To that end, he pointed out that locally the presence of the University of Virginia tilts the field against Republicans somewhat. “A lot of people… think Albemarle County will be irrevocably blue. I don’t agree it’s a lost cause.” Indeed, Schoenewald said, Republicans lost by only 899 votes out of almost 44,000 cast last time, and they were optimistic about their registration targeting efforts. “We had 820 registrations just in the Cale precinct. This is a battleground county.”

Pointing out the incredible attention paid by Rob Bell to developing a sophisticated, deep database of voter information, Schoenewald said, “Delegate Bell wrote the precinct captain manual that is now used all over Virginia. We have a great team here that knows how to fight.”

The McCain campaign is calling all the shots during the GOTV phase, which isn’t 72 hours, but “more like a week and a half.” In Virginia, at least, both sides are underway for GOTV. “Victory (McCain’s campaign) calls all the shots. They said here’s the script, here’s the call universe,” said Schoenewald. 2009 is an off federal year with only statewide gubernatorial and House of Delegates/State Senate seats up for grabs, and “we’ll determine our own script and GOTV universe” for those races.

In Albemarle, Schoenewald reported the similar story we’ve heard all across the country — Sarah Palin’s galvanizing the base. “Before Sarah Palin was announced, it was dead” in the volunteer office. Following the pick, “it was like someone flipped on a switch. We’ve had days where we’ve had more volunteers than work for them to do.”

Typically, the office accomplishes 600-800 dials a day, but had reached 1000-1200 call/day territory as the final two weeks began. Referring to the final-days focus, “it’s almost a hybrid” between working the GOTV universe of favorable Republican voters and the informal three-question ID polling.

Throughout our conversation, Schoenewald emphasized how much fun politicking in Virginia truly was. “A lot of political campaign concepts get tested in Virginia. It’s like a little playground. (We) experiment if this works and that works…. We are active every year, so it makes it more coherent.” As Governor Kaine also told us the day before, there is a cycle every single year and no real stop in this suddenly ultracompetitive state. Schoenewald concurred. “You can do politics year round, every year. It is so much fun.”

As for the Obama campaign here, well, you know the story by now if you’ve been reading our long series. Between the Coordinated Campaign offices and Campaign for Change offices and canvassing-only and phonebank-only offices, we saw no fewer than five office locations, all thrumming with energy and volunteers. All the offices had workers busy very late into the evenings, long past midnight.

Since we had too much to report today, we’ll tell you about our sit-down with Mitch Stewart, Obama for America’s Virginia State Director tomorrow. We’re in the extreme southwestern part of the state, in Big Stone Gap. Mile 9,122.