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On the Road: New Albany, Indiana

A month ago at the convention in St. Paul, I spoke with Jennifer Ping, the Republican Vice-Chair of the Marion County Central Committee. I was asking her what Republicans were doing on the ground in Indiana. The story I’d heard, I told her, was that Obama had a huge ground game there but McCain and the Republicans did not. Was that true? I asked.

After all, Democrats registered the overwhelming majority of the 706,038 newly registered and info-updated Indianans Hoosiers in 2008.

Lauren at Columbus -

Jennifer told me that they were working hard, and that they still got three “touches” on their voters each year. “Touch” is a field term for voter contact, and as naughty as it sounds, it’s the way campaigns and parties maintain their voter files throughout the year. It’s very difficult for parties to maintain voter files – literally the most valuable property any state party or national party owns – without regular contact. It’s why Democrats have recently put an emphasis on a long-term 50-state program, because these things can’t be built overnight. Getting tired of losing national elections inspires that kind of strategy revision.

In New Albany, right across the Ohio River from Louisville, we saw an effort that included weeknight canvassers and phone bankers, just the customary grinding voter contact game these Obama organizers have perfected.

Another thing Jennifer told me was that the Democrats did not, contrary to their claims, have an office in Columbus, Indiana, that it was “just a desk.” Well, after we stopped in New Albany, we zipped up to the Obama Columbus office and found it both open and busy. Jonathan Swain, Barack Obama’s Communications Director, noted that it was one of 43 field offices open around the state, with the potential for a couple more to be added in the final weeks. In all 92 Indiana counties, Swain said, “Barack Obama always intended to compete and compete hard.”

Obama moved into high gear in the Hoosier State in mid-June, only a few weeks after the May 6 primary, and the ability to have a late primary allowed Obama to essentially continue operating at full bore right from the getgo. With unemployment in Indiana at its highest rate since 1987 and average wages down $4,000 since Bush took office in 2000, Swain said, Indianans Hoosiers are hungry for change. [Note: Swain didn’t say “Indianans,” I did. Sorry everybody.]

Still, Swain acknowledges it’s an uphill fight. “History was not on our side” when the campaign decided to work a large campaign here. When the polls were a little tighter, many criticized the Obama effort, arguing that Indiana couldn’t possibly go blue, and that working the ground here is a waste of resources. Instead, we have a race that, in Dan Rather-speak, is as tight as a tick. Recent polls have showed the race within the margin of error, and the Obama campaign is confident that in a coin flip race — a better ground game can make the difference.

Still, Democrats have to be considered the underdog here. Indiana hasn’t gone blue since 1964 in LBJ’s landslide year, and Republicans won by roughly 510,000 votes in 2004. Still, if we apply our 80-20 split on the self-selecting new Obama registrants (80% Obama registrants, 20% McCain) and a 75% turnout rate (newly registered voters vote in higher rates than regularly registered voters), then Obama just added approximately 318,000 votes in Indiana. Now the challenge is to get about 100,000 existingly-registered Bush voters to switch to Obama, approximately 4% of the roughly 2.5 million Indiana voters from 2004.

We’ll be back in Indiana before the end, we suspect, as this could be one of Election night’s great dramatic stories. Locals in Lake County predicted a long night, especially as Republicans have resisted early voting centers in Gary and Hammond, Democratic strongholds and the 5th and 6th biggest Indiana cities.

My smashed laptop in tow (and really, what a great debate hosting effort by Belmont University, once again, it was awesome to have five different people flatly refuse us access to even a restroom after we’d had to sit for hours behind a 14-car pileup on I-65), we’re already at Barack Obama’s Dayton, Ohio rally, and we’re headed toward the Palin rally in Wilmington later this afternoon.

Eucher State - Brett Marty