Adrienne White stood in the middle of the downstairs bar of a trendy Westside bakery and told the 100 women around her to take out their phones and prepare to receive a script and a list of phone numbers to call.
White, who is leading Hillary Clinton’s efforts to mobilize female voters in Georgia, told her rapt audience their targets were other women who have consistently voted in Democratic primaries. Their job was simple: ask the person on the other end of the call to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, mention that early voting starts in October and stress that they are volunteers, not paid staff.
At Donald Trump’s posh Sandy Springs headquarters, Maureen Giannone played the role of traffic cop as a steady flow of volunteers roamed around her, some parked over phones as they dial number after number, and others readying a list of addresses to visit to make in-person pleas in support of the Republican presidential nominee.
“I’m officially addicted to politics,” Giannone declared with a smile in the middle of her latest 12-hour day at the office. “And I knew that if you really wanted to make a difference in politics, you have to get involved.”
While the drama of the 2016 campaign plays out on television, news sites and social media, the real work is in call centers, computer servers and neighborhoods where volunteers knock on doors and work on phone banks to make personal contact with voters.
It’s a high-tech mission where campaigns carefully craft messages that can be personalized for individual voters based on the enormous amount of data they collect. Campaigns know your name, address and voting history from databases purchased from the state. In many cases they know your phone number and email address.
Did you choose a Democratic or Republican ballot in a primary? That’s a big clue mined from the state’s voter rolls.
Did you order an absentee ballot but haven’t mailed it in yet? You can expect a phone call or a visitor encouraging you to do so — as long as you vote for the right candidate. Do you typically cast your ballot during early voting? One campaign or the other will be watching to make sure you do so this year, too.
If you sign into a campaign’s website using your social media account, they might know as much about you as your friends do. Drive a Honda? A campaign probably knows. Own a boat? Enjoy opera? Root for the Dodgers? Somewhere that could be documented in a computer file on a campaign server.
That data, jealously guarded by campaigns, drive the modern election ground game. So does the army of volunteers each candidate can muster to put that data to use.
Campaigns know there’s no better way to reach undecided or unenthusiastic voters than personal outreach from friends or neighbors.
“This is the kind of race where ground games matter. Voters tune out ads. They tune out TV,” Anne Holton, the wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, said during a recent visit to Atlanta. “But what they don’t tune out is person-to-person interaction.”
The Trump and Clinton campaigns each claim more than a dozen staffers and thousands of volunteers in offices throughout the state. Each campaign hopes to reach tens of thousands of voters ahead of the Oct. 17 start of early voting and the Nov. 8 election. And both believe their work now will pay dividends in 2018, when the governor’s office and other statewide seats are up for grabs.
Democrats in Georgia say they have an advantage this year, since Clinton’s campaign has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost the party’s grass-roots program in Georgia while Trump largely is relying on the state GOP to run his program.
“With one operation, we are ensuring that we use resources efficiently to communicate our campaign message in every corner of the state — that benefits everyone,” said Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement. “The organizing we continue to do in Georgia not only will help Democrats in November but for election cycles to come.”
Trump’s Georgia organizers dismiss Democrats’ talk of an advantage in 2016 and proudly note that a Democrat hasn’t won statewide here in any election since 2006. No Democratic presidential candidate has won Georgia since 1992.
“There is a real excitement among our supporters because this isn’t just a campaign, it’s a movement,” Trump spokeswoman Jennifer Hazelton said. “We’re targeting the voters we need to turn out to win and are making sure they get to the polls in November.”
Boots on the ground
The GOP flexed its muscles a few weeks ago, when hundreds of Trump’s supporters showed up to a grand opening at his campaign’s Sandy Springs office — and many walked away newly minted volunteers, leaving with armfuls of campaign swag and pledges to knock on neighbors’ doors and work the phones.
“I’ve waited for him to run for years, and now that it’s happened, I’m all in,” said Tyler Brown, a teacher from Savannah who plans to knock on doors and help people get to the polls. “My friends are all voting for him, too, and I’m making sure they are staying in the fold.”
Jermane Enoch, a Trump volunteer who helps coordinate his outreach to black voters, is organizing a prayer breakfast involving African-American churches and a barbecue in the next few weeks. The campaign is also targeting Republican voters in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties where support for Trump was softer in the March primaries.
Some Trump supporters have gained a bit of celebrity for their efforts. Kathy Potts and Becky Love have made rounds on TV networks with their T-shirts declaring themselves “deplorables,” mocking Clinton’s controversial comments in September about her opponent’s followers.
But Potts still prefers one-on-one contact with voters. She likes to carry with her a basket labeled “deplorables” at every voter drive she can find. Inside are hundreds of absentee ballots.
“We are trying to make a statement,” she said. “And it’s working.”
‘A way to play a part’
Clinton’s Atlanta headquarters is often packed with college students, a group the campaign is working hard to win over. Anjali Coryat, an 18-year-old student at Spelman College, got her start as a volunteer at the Democratic National Convention in July, where she organized and distributed more than 400,000 signs.
She was hooked. Now she spends afternoons at the downtown Atlanta headquarters, where she decorated the shabby walls with Clinton memorabilia and helps volunteers work the phone lines.
“It’s cool because it’s a way to play a part in the campaign, even if it’s small,” Coryat said. “Because anything we can do to push forward the campaign helps.”
Many of Clinton’s youngest volunteers look to 27-year-old Sarah Beeson, who is the president of the Young Democrats of Georgia and an arbiter of what to do — and what not to do — on canvassing runs.
The short version: Don’t mess with people’s mailboxes. Do stick to the talking points. Don’t go out after dark. Do canvass with a buddy. And, for heaven’s sakes, if you see a Trump sign in a yard, don’t bother.
From doing to donating
If Democrats’ claims that this year is different sound familiar, that’s because much the same was said in 2008 when Barack Obama brought his vaunted campaign organization to town.
Hoping for a surge in turnout from black voters, Obama opened offices across the state and bought advertising on Georgia TV stations. The campaign relied on a vast voter file — thought to be the most robust in American political history — that was constantly updated based on details from visits from volunteers.
But Obama largely pulled out of Georgia by late August 2008, and there were few remnants of his political machine left after the election. In 2012, Georgia again became a “donor” state: Obama raised money here and his re-election campaign dispatched dozens of Georgians to other states to volunteer.
“Our state party had a manpower shortage after that,” said Jane Kidd, who was chairwoman of the state Democratic Party in 2008. “We’d gotten used to having beefed-up staff in an election year, and then that money and those people went away and we wished we had more people to do a lot of the groundwork.”
That’s changed this year. Clinton’s campaign has all but merged with the state party. The two share data, voter lists, volunteers and more.Together, the coordinated campaign has 12 offices and 39 employees working full time. This past weekend, the party and the campaign hosted a women’s summit where more than 260 women signed up for more than 500 volunteer shifts.
Call it Trump talk
Trump’s Georgia operation went through an upheaval last week when Brandon Phillips, who was the campaign’s state director for nearly a year, was forced to resign after a 2008 guilty plea on trespassing charges surfaced. His successor, Billy Kirkland, is a Trump adviser and former aide to U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
Trump raised little cash during the primaries and built a bare-bones organization, which forced him to rely more on the Republican National Committee and state parties than any other GOP candidate in recent history.
That political alliance, though strained at times, has given him an instant network of grass-roots infrastructure and volunteers across the nation. In Georgia, that means he has 10 field offices, from Valdosta to Dalton, equipped with three full-time employees, 10 field staffers and a field director who steer the Trump loyalists toward likely supporters.
It can be tough work. A trio of Trump volunteers recently trekked to a Sandy Springs apartment complex to knock on doors of potential supporters. But the voter they hoped would answer the door wasn’t at home. Instead, they were met by 24-year-old Amir Grant, who flatly told them he would never support the Republican.
“I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about,” said Grant, who works at a grocery store.
That triggered a lengthy debate over Trump’s economic and immigration policy with Dylan Kellos, a 17-year-old high school student who logs long hours at Trump’s headquarters while he’s on fall break. He’s used to this: He’s knocked on hundreds of doors this year in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
In the end, Kellos managed to extract something of a concession out of Grant before his group headed to the next door on the list.
“I do think that no matter what happens — even if we elect Hillary — that not much will change.”
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