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On the Road: Toledo, Ohio

“In the misty night we crossed Toledo and went onward across old Ohio. I realized I was beginning to cross and recross towns in America as though I were a traveling salesman – raggedy travelings, bad stock, rotten beans in the bottom of my bag of tricks, nobody buying.”

– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

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Most of her life spent as a Republican, Debrah Harleston volunteered heavily for George Bush in 2004. As she threw herself into helping Barack Obama in Toledo, one of her first questions to her organizer was, “why are we canvassing so soon?”

Accustomed to the template she’d experienced with the Bush 2004 campaign in New York State, it seemed strange that Democrats would want to go talk to people at their doors many weeks in advance of an election. Phonebanking, sure, but the final weekend and final stretch was the customary time to knock doors.

Now that Debrah has settled into her role as one of Obama’s Toledo Community Directors, she’s amazed at the sophistication of the Obama structure. As a Community Director, she oversees three Neighborhood Team Leaders, volunteers who comprise the heart of Obama’s volunteering infrastructure. Each neighborhood team, in turn, has up to five different coordinators: (1) the canvass coordinator; (2) the phonebank coordinator; (3) the volunteer coordinator; (4) the data coordinator; and (5) where applicable, the faith coordinator.

In Ohio, Campaign for Change State Director Jeremy Bird told us, there are 1,231 defined neighborhoods, as of August 25 there were about 800 in place, and as of Saturday approximately 1,100 NTLs had been tested and were up in operation. By “tested,” Bird said, each NTL had undergone and met a series of specific challenges the field organizers had presented.

First, can the potential NTL organize a group of people? Whether by hosting a house party, a faith forum with a church group, or some other type of organizational meeting, the potential NTL needs to show they can lead the organization of their neighbors.

Second, can the potential NTL pass the voter contact test? Can he or she lead a canvass, can he or she build a group phonebanking night? It’s a leadership test, built around voter contact.

Third, are they willing to make the final commitment by attending specific training for their role? Debrah Harleston smiled as she told us about the imminent blooming of satellite offices throughout the Toledo area so that neighborhood teams can begin running right in the neighborhoods autonomously. They’ve been trained, they’ve registered their voters, and now it’s time to see how this baby runs.

After Barack Obama’s major economic address to 3,500 people in Toledo, the office several blocks away swelled to capacity with newly-fired up volunteers. One of the volunteers who’d come into Obama’s office in recent weeks is Debrah’s husband, such a staunch Republican that he’d long been donating monthly like clockwork. He’d even gone into the nearby Toledo McCain office, but when he visited it had been nearly empty. The explosive energy difference, Debrah told us, particularly in the past few weeks, made an impression on her husband, who planned to vote for Barack Obama.

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Obama’s organizers, the younger workers that the hacktastically uninformed Michael Barone fingers-crossingly dismisses as orange-stockinged Deaniacs merely waving visibility, spend much of their time recruiting and training NTLs, monitoring their progress, coaching them when they run into trouble. The key is, Bird noted, that the organizers have time to coach NTLs and their coordinators with reporting and accountability.

To that end, the Obama campaign is doing something remarkable: rather than keeping their vote goals close to the vest and internal, they trust their NTLs with those numbers. “If we tell a team leader that the vote goal for this neighborhood is 100 votes, and we give them a list with 300 names of supporters and persuadable voters on it, they respond with, ‘Wow, I can make this happen!'” Empower is not just an empty word emblazoned on Obama field office walls.

As to how to get buy-in from volunteers who may be used to different campaign practices, “they see it working,” Bird says simply. A lot of the volunteers are first-timers so they have no baseline to compare it to, and the veteran volunteers have seen other campaigns try different programs… and fail.

Volunteers direct and train other volunteers, in turn directed by the coordinators under the NTL. The coordinators report numbers to the NTL, who in turn report to people like Debrah, the Community Directors, who in turn report to the field organizer. The field organizer reports to the deputy regional or regional field director, who reports to the state field director. The numbers are off the charts. Debrah estimated that in the central Toledo field office this past weekend, at least 2000 folks had streamed through to volunteer.

In Columbus, Bird told us that the long primary had taught the campaign incredibly valuable lessons. Sometimes one regional would have 32 field organizers, an incredible number of organizers for a given region, but it didn’t work operationally because that’s too many FOs for an RFD to manage. With the primary process, the campaign learned the right proportions and ratios of NTLs-to-FO, and FO-to-RFD. “It was a very conscious decision” for field organizers to have no more than about 10 neighborhood teams, Bird said.

It’s why Obama for America State Director Aaron Pickrell told us, “Nothing about the structure worries me, which is weird,” referring to comparisons with past campaigns he’s experienced.

For some outstanding work on the Obama side of the ground game, check out Zach Exley’s series as well as Al Giordano’s blog, The Field. For organizers and any reader who wants further and deeper looks at the ground game, these folks are doing tremendous work that should get recognition.

We’re in southeast Ohio tonight and tomorrow morning, between Marietta and Athens, where we finally come across Joe Biden. The southeast area of the state is a huge swing area, within this still-tight swing state, and we’re still hoping to be permitted to talk to McCain volunteers so we can bring you that perspective. We’re working on it.

After Ohio: Pennsylvania.

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