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On the Road: St. Louis County, Missouri

“We arrived in St. Louis at noon. I took a walk down by the Mississippi River and watched the logs that came floating from Montana in the north – grand Odyssean logs of our continental dream.”

– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

St. Louis County Volunteers -

The meat of this post is below the slideshow, and it’s about the McCain ground game. It’s probably going to make a little stir.

Our apologies in advance to the Obama organizers and volunteers who aren’t going to get the full justice they deserve in this post. They believe Missouri is going blue this year, and they’re working their bodies into the ground to make that happen.

We’re getting used to this relentless Obama operation: organizers trained in both tactics and campaign culture, working so hard they have trouble remembering what happened 48 hours ago – it’s too distant – and convinced that if they stay in their lane and trust the structure it’ll pay off in the end.

Obama has 40 offices now open in Missouri, and Justin Hamilton, Obama’s Press Secretary for Missouri, told us that while he couldn’t confirm below or above the published reports of 150 organizers (it didn’t come from the campaign), the campaign is only adding to its ground force. Organizers have now recruited 2500 neighborhood team leaders statewide, folks who do the far more effective work than any 30-second ad or yard signs, actual face-to-face contact and persuasion of their neighbors.

For a Democrat to win Missouri, he or she has to follow the Claire McCaskill map, which is win the blue urban centers in Kansas City and St. Louis city by wide margins, hold down the losses in outstate Missouri (McCaskill spent huge time in and around Springfield, and got to 42% there while Kerry only managed 37%), and then win highly populated St. Louis County (20% of Missouri’s overall vote) by enough votes to hold on for a win. McCaskill won St. Louis County by 12, Kerry only won it by 9. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the County, 63% to 36%.

Something interesting is happening with John McCain’s campaign. Up until now, we’ve had no trouble gaining access to field offices and volunteers. Here in St. Louis, we were told by Tina Hervey, Missouri Republican State Party Press Secretary, that she had never heard of FiveThirtyEight, and while they trusted Politico, we were people who they had to decide whether we “shouldn’t or don’t need to be talking to.” (McCain’s Missouri press secretary actually works out of Iowa, and did not return calls or email.) I told Tina that’s not a story we wanted to write, that this was our first Republican resistance, and that while she may not have heard of us, we’d probably go over 2.5 million site visits this week, now that we’re regularly past 400,000 per weekday. I told her I’d hold off writing her flat refusal and give her the opportunity to change her mind.

No budging. We were told that we’d be asked to leave public field offices we now attempted to visit. We did not get any promised follow-up helping get access to the post-debate Palin rally last night, and we were locked out. Hmm.

Let’s be clear. We’ve observed no comparison between these ground campaigns. To begin with, there’s a 4-1 ratio of offices in most states. We walk into McCain offices to find them closed, empty, one person, two people, sometimes three people making calls. Many times one person is calling while the other small clutch of volunteers are chatting amongst themselves. In one state, McCain’s state field director sat in one of these offices and, sotto voce, complained to us that only one man was making calls while the others were talking to each other about how much they didn’t like Obama, which was true. But the field director made no effort to change this. This was the state field director.

Only for the first time the other day did we see a McCain organizer make a single phone call. So we’ve now seen that once. The McCain organizers seem to operate as maître Ds. Let me escort you to your phone, sir. Pick any one of this sea of empty chairs. I’ll be sitting over here if you need any assistance.

Given a choice between taking embarrassing photos of empty phone banks, we give McCain’s people the chance to pose for photos to show us the action for what they continually claim we “just missed.” No more. We stop into offices at all open hours of the day, but generally more in the afternoon and evening. “Call time,” for both campaigns, is all day, but the time when folks over 65 are generally targeted begins in late afternoon and goes til 8 or 9pm. Universally, McCain’s people stop earlier. Even when we show up at 6:15pm, we’re told we just missed the big phone bank, or to come back in 30 minutes. If we show up an hour later, we “just missed it” again.

The McCain offices are also calm, sedate. Little movement. No hustle. In the Obama offices, it’s a whirlwind. People move. It’s a dynamic bustle. You can feel it in our photos.

Up to this point, we’ve been giving McCain’s ground campaign a lot of benefit of the doubt. We can’t stop convincing ourselves that there must – must – be a warehouse full of 1,000 McCain volunteers somewhere in a national, central location just dialing away. This can’t be all they’re doing. Because even in a place like Colorado Springs, McCain’s ground campaign is getting blown away by the Obama efforts. It doesn’t mean Obama will win Colorado Springs, but it means Obama’s campaign will not look itself in the mirror afterward and ask, “what more could we have done?”

You could take every McCain volunteer we’ve seen doing actual work in the entire trip, over six states, and it would add up to the same as Obama’s single Thornton, CO office. Or his single Durango, CO office. These ground campaigns bear no relationship to each other.

Here on out, our skepticism is going to be higher. We truly respect organizers on both sides, because it is grindingly hard work for minimal pay. It’s powered by a belief in doing what’s right. We do not quote them or get them in trouble. Moreover, we truly respect direct action by volunteers – who do exist on the McCain side, just as a tiny, tiny fraction of the Obama side – but if the attitude continues on this unhelpful and obstructive turn, we’re going to spend less time making excuses for what we observe. Less benefit of the doubt. Show us real work and we’ll cover it. We want to.

We’ll be up in Chicago tonight making Nate pound RCP shooters. Then, Indiana. There’s a huge story unfolding in Indiana.