Obama’s Philadelphia Strategy

Barack Obama is in absolutely no danger of losing Philadelphia.

And yet on Oct. 11, he spent one of the precious few days remaining before Election Day making four separate campaign appearances throughout the city, telling predominantly black audiences how important it was that they got out to vote. He confessed, repeatedly, his love for “sweet potato pie,” called supporters “brothers and sisters” and warned them not to be “bamboozled.”

Just a few weeks ago, such an intensive investment of time turning out a vote that is so clearly his might have been seen as a defensive move of sorts—an effort to rack up the margins on friendly turf in a crucial swing state to hedge against a potential shortfall among those Obama-resistant white voters who went so convincingly for Hillary Clinton in the primary.

Now, though, with Mr. Obama sitting comfortably atop the polls in the battlegrounds—he’s up over John McCain by single digits in Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Missouri and by double digits in Pennsylvania—some prominent supporters are coming to regard the possibility of big turnout of the urban base, as well as newly registered young voters and committed suburban liberals, as a virtual guarantee of victory. 

As Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia told reporters after one of the Oct. 11 rallies, “If we maximize the vote in the city and the suburbs, we take the state.” Other Democrats put the proposition in more dramatic terms.

“They are using a nuclear weapon compared to conventional weaponry in politics, and no one has ever exploded a nuclear weapon like this before,” said Simon Rosenberg, a former Bill Clinton operative and president of NDN, a Washington-based think-tank once known as the New Democrat Network.

Mr. Rosenberg said that the Obama campaign had already proven its get-out-the-vote capabilities with its primary-season performances in places like Virginia, where Mr. Obama received more votes than all the Republican candidates combined. He said that the Obama campaign’s Internet, field and fund-raising operations had fundamentally reshaped the electorate by registering more women, African-Americans, Hispanics and young people who identify as Democrats.

While many observers have speculated about how much Mr. Obama’s support could drop as a result of hidden racial prejudice among voters, Mr. Rosenberg thinks a lot of the polls are, if anything, underestimating Mr. Obama’s numbers because they aren’t fully measuring the Democratic shift in the electorate.

“He could be giving the Democrats a new coalition that they can ride for the next 30 or 40 years,” he said.

It’s not a coincidence that the McCain campaign and the Republican Party, as well as conservative media outlets and pundits, have been putting so much energy into attacking Mr. Obama over his connection to ACORN, an advocacy group for low-income voters that has been linked to several incidents of voter-registration fraud.

Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, has gone so far as to call the group, which Mr. Obama appears to have worked for in the 1990s, a “quasi-criminal group.” 

The criticisms are meant to taint, preemptively, the (legitimate) success the campaign is likely to enjoy racking up massive vote totals in densely populated Democratic bastions.

“From the very beginning this has been, for Obama, a turnout operation,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “His strongest supporters are African-Americans and young people, who have traditionally the lowest turnout rate. So he has got to get those people out. There are not many people who are going to be converted.”

Mr. Baker said that whatever last-minute erosion of support Mr. Obama suffers because of racial bias among white voters, the Obama campaign’s emphasis on turning out the base in places like Philadelphia, Cleveland and other urban areas in battleground states “neutralizes it and then they basically reverses it.  The focus of this campaign now is preaching to the choir so that the choir puts on its robes and sings.”

In Philadelphia, that was literally the case. Black women in gospel robes cheered Mr. Obama from the audience as he spoke in North Philadelphia’s Progress Plaza, surrounded by stores with signs like “Auto Tags” or “Dollar World. We Are Open.”

As he paced the stage in short sleeves, his tone was fiery.

“Parents, you’ve got to parent, and fathers, you’ve got to father,” he said, letting his diction slacken into folksy familiarity. He talked about the need to “invest in cities” and relayed an anecdote about his love of sweet potato pie. At the end of his speech he talked about the possibility of the children or grandchildren of the audience members becoming president. “We have a history of overcoming, Philadelphia!” he said.

At the day’s last event in West Philadelphia, where he spoke at an intersection by Billies Boomer Lounge, the Bushfire Theater of Performing Arts (presenting “Mojo Secrets”) and the “Hope Rising Child Learning Center,” he told the thousands of black supporters who cheered him from the street and sidewalks, “I’m like a lot of you.”

The Obama campaign argues that they are running a balanced campaign on two fronts. They say they are energizing their base in urban areas and dorm rooms and directing supporters to the polls early, like they did on Oct. 13 in Ohio, where Mr. Obama asked supporters to vote that day. (The campaign distributed polling location information on fliers.) But they also point out that they have spent enormous time and resources in conservative areas where Democratic presidential candidates haven’t visited for generations, and say they are in the hunt in classically conservative states like North Carolina, Colorado and Ohio as a result.

“Everyone is scratching their heads because we’re not used to Democrats being able to chew gum and walk at the same time,” said Tom Ochs, a Democratic consultant with ties to the Democratic National Committee. “I don’t think one is a feint, and the other is a real key to victory. They have to do both.”

In Scranton, Pa., on Oct. 12, the Obama campaign dispatched Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with Scranton native Joe Biden and Senator Bob Casey, to talk to her former supporters.

“A lot of her voters had already moved over the course of the last months,” Mr. Casey said in a brief interview after the event. He explained that Mrs. Clinton and her husband had a particularly strong appeal to moderate Republicans and independent voters who would, along with the more locked-in Obama voters, “make a strong coalition.”

“I’m 64 and Obama was a culture shock to me,” said Ralph Morris, a retired boilermaker from nearby Waymart who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary and wore a Nittany Lions cap at the Scranton rally. “I had to get transitioned into the idea of voting for Barack Obama. My sons, they grew up in a more integrated world. I grew up in the ’50s. Maybe when I was younger, I wouldn’t have voted for Barack. There was no interracial schooling for me. But my father couldn’t change in later life. But I have to change if I want things to get better.”

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, speaking on an Oct. 14 conference call with reporters, explained the walk-and-chew-gum outreach strategy this way: “We’ve put forth an unprecedented field operation for a presidential campaign and while we’re doing a lot of voter persuasion out there, that’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is making sure that people get registered and turn out. So, we have undertaken voter registration efforts unlike any campaign in really American presidential history in terms of registering voters, our staff and our volunteers have spent an enormous amount of time on this, and we’ve been able to register millions of them.”


Obama’s Philadelphia Strategy