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On the Road: Columbus, Ohio

On a gorgeous Saturday in Ohio’s capital city, we sat down with Obama’s Ohio Campaign for Change State Director Jeremy Bird, Deputy Communications Director Tom Reynolds, and Obama for America State Director Aaron Pickrell, who ran Governor Strickland’s successful election effort in 2006.

In 2004, John Kerry relied heavily on America Coming Together (which is not as naughty as it sounds) and other canvassing organizations to do his on-the-ground organizing work in Ohio. Kerry had his operation too, but a lot of those efforts were duplicative, given that the campaigns could not coordinate with each other and shared many of the same names. The vast majority of the canvassers were young people from out of state.

Most significantly, Bird told us, when the election was over, the culled lists that ACT had spent tens of millions of dollars refining — data that is the most valuable long-term property a state party seeks to collect — vanished.

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The Ohio Democratic Party had to rebuild much of the state infrastructure, beginning in 2006. One of the leave-behinds from 2004, however, was the Voter Protection teams that organized in 2004.

The Voter Protection teams, necessary to defend against a malign Ken Blackwell, were ad hoc groups that stayed intact for 2006 and have not evaporated. That’s important, Bird noted, because this year what it has allowed the campaign to do is take early action. Beginning early in the summer, the campaign went to each county Election Board and conducted extensive surveys. How many voting locations will be open? How many voting machines will there be at each one? Are they interpreting the laws correctly or incorrectly?

All of this action, Bird said, allows the campaign to know where it needs to push for more machines, more locations, or to ensure the Secretary of State’s directives are followed. The Voter Protection effort itself is just like organizing — organizing the election board officials into compliance with state laws.

On election day, the huge advantage all this advance prep work allows the campaign is that the political teams, field teams and voter protection teams are integrated. In Ohio, the legal protection teams don’t need to wait for field organizers to pipeline up election day complaints to the top level before a decision is then handed back down about how to proceed. Field teams are prepared to deal with problems on the spot. It happens in real time, right at the county and precinct level.

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Barack Obama has 89 field offices open in the state of Ohio right now, about a 2-1 edge on John McCain. Kerry had 50 offices open in Ohio, and only 4 field organizers in Franklin County. Obama has three dozen, and Franklin County itself comprises two regions. As elsewhere, Ohio is the beneficiary of the long primary season. “Well over half” of Obama’s general election organizers were veterans of the primary. Every Regional Field Director went through the primary or caucus. They’ve been through the wars. An organizer ages in dog years.

What the long, multistate primary did, Bird pointed out, is help the campaign tinker and come up with best practices. “The primaries and caucuses were a proving ground,” said Bird. Everything from capturing and recording data to voter registration strategies had a chance to be tested and retooled.

With 35 days of no-excuse early voting for the first time ever in Ohio rather than the traditional 13 hours, the campaign feels confident. “I feel good about all the things that are in our control,” said Pickrell. Barack Obama himself is ready to find out what he’s built. “Let’s see how this baby runs.”

We’ll have more from our sit-down with the Ohio Obama HQ in our next post from the Ohio road, here at mile 7138.

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