ST. PETERSBURG — A massive army is rumbling to life in Florida, though it sometimes looks deceptively like a ragtag band of recruits.
Take a peek at an early planning session for volunteers on President Barack Obama's re-election: about 40 people crammed into a dingy St. Petersburg office — Edyth James offering up her homemade pineapple upside-down cake and deviled eggs with dill; a 90-year-old woman recounting voting for FDR; and a Stetson Law student from Iowa saying she just wants to help.
Standing before them, an upbeat 25-year-old in flip-flops talks about his parents immigrating from India, the American dream and the vast amount of work ahead of them.
"First we're going to reach out to everybody we know who's already a voter. Second, we're going to expand the electorate and make sure we get more people involved in the process," said Saumya Narechania, who recently traded in his White House job to work with volunteers in the Tampa Bay area.
"And third, we're going to make sure that people who are voters and people we are reaching out to to expand the electorate become volunteers."
In 2008, Obama created the largest grass roots operation Florida had ever seen. They had just four months starting from scratch after Obama became the party's nominee to put together a mighty volunteer-driven campaign. (Remember, Obama didn't even campaign in Florida's early primary because of the Democrats' boycott.) It culminated with tens of thousands of volunteers and 600 paid staffers spread across the state mobilizing voters and delivering Florida to Obama by a 236,000-vote margin.
But that was nothing. This time the campaign starts the buildup with a team that has been on the ground for two years and now has 16 months to build a vast network of neighbors talking to neighbors and friends talking to friends about ensuring Obama's re-election. Similar networks are being constructed in other swing states.
"We have the advantage of 16 months of organizing and being able to experiment in the field to establish our best practices," said Ashley Walker, who has been leading Obama's Organizing for America effort in Florida since the election. "That's a real advantage for us — figuring out what works and what doesn't, so by the time we're ready to hit 'start' we have our plan down, we have a grass roots organization that is built out statewide."
Heidi Sanchez, a retired lawyer in Belleair Beach, already spends about 15 hours a week volunteering for the campaign, and noted that many of the ground troops from 2008 changed phone numbers or moved and the campaign needs to constantly update and expand its database of supporters and volunteers.
"It's a luxury having the time we have and it's absolutely not too early to get started,'' she said.
The organizing is well under way across the state, though not always visible. About a dozen paid staffers are spread across four campaign offices in Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville and Tallahassee, and two more are expected to open soon. Last Saturday hundreds of volunteers statewide gathered to hold phone banks, collect commitment cards and go door to door to register voters by mail.
Speculation that Obama supporters may not be as energized this time is nonsense, say campaign volunteers and leaders.
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On Wednesday, the Obama campaign announced a record $86 million fundraising haul for the past three months, which includes more than $38 million for the Democratic National Committee. Of the money to the campaign, 98 percent was in contributions of $250 or less.
"This should end any chatter about our grass roots base," campaign manager Jim Messina said. "Our people are back and energized."
But most of Obama's backers from 2008 have been slow to respond. He ended the election with 3.95 million donors; so far, 552,462 people have given, and about half are first-time donors.
Landon Anderson, a 28-year-old full-time University of South Florida student with two part-time jobs, is among those volunteering for the first time with Obama.
"It's going to take a lot of volunteers to really hit the ground hard and send a message and give people accurate information. In 2008, it was transformational change, and in 2012 there's even more need for transformational change — politically, economically and socially," said Anderson, who was among the Obama volunteers that recruited more than 200 people at last month's St. Pete Pride Festival to sign "I'm In" cards committing to help on the campaign.
Picture a giant multilevel marketing operation — volunteers recruiting more volunteers to recruit still more — mixed with lots of groovy self-empowerment sentiment and the latest social media innovations. That's pretty much the Obama grass roots model.
Paid operatives act like customer service representatives, helping volunteers set and accomplish specific goals and decide for themselves what works best in their city, neighborhood or street.
"The best ideas come from you," Narechania, the Tampa Bay field director, told volunteers in St. Petersburg. On the wall behind him was a hand-drawn sign: "Respect. Empower. Include. Win!"
"It's not about Obama, it's about us," said Bernadette Ohran of Gulfport, who spends about 40 hours a week volunteering and has the elite title of community organizer. "I feel like this is my contribution to the future of our family, friends and country. I have never had such an opportunity to contribute in such a direct way, and it's because they listen."
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Obama will need every last true believer to carry Florida again.
He won last time in the shadow of an unpopular George W. Bush and after outspending John McCain on TV ads by more than 2-to-1. He's now the incumbent presiding over a lousy economy, and independent voters who decide Florida elections are at best divided on his performance, after handily going for Obama over McCain in 2008.
"As it appears today, the 2012 winds for the president would be headwinds, rather than the tailwinds he enjoyed in 2008,'' said GOP fundraiser Slater Bay-liss, a former Jeb Bush aide who like many Republicans viewed the state party in 2008 far more focused on promoting then-Gov. Charlie Crist than winning the presidency.
For all the hype about Obama's Florida ground game in 2008, Republicans still turned out at a higher level than Democrats — nearly 80 percent, compared to 76 percent for Democrats and 66 percent for other voters.
"It really wasn't the tidal wave that a lot of prognosticators predicted,'' Bayliss said.
This time, however, there is a lot more time and a lot more experience to fine-tune the operation, the campaign says.
"We have a lot of work cut out for us, but we get to spend 2011 organizing and building our organization so that when 2012 comes around, it's just a matter of turning it on,'' said Walker, OFA's Florida director. "And we get to do all of this while the Republicans are still determining who their candidate's going to be"
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Reach Adam Smith at email@example.com.