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Obama's re-election strategy: Get face to face

President Barack Obama's re-election hopes are a numbers nightmare: 9.1 percent unemployment, increasingly negative job-approval ratings and a gap in enthusiasm between Republican and Democratic voters.

But mention the data to the Obama campaign's political director, Katherine Archuleta, and she'll counter with a set of figures of her own: one on one.

That's the buzzword and guide-star of the campaign, which is organizing itself, volunteer by volunteer and neighborhood by neighborhood, in a subtle word-of-mouth effort that, Democrats hope, could surprise Republicans next year.

"This campaign is based on one-on-one relationships. And that's something the president is very adamant about, and it's really based on his work in communities in Chicago," Archuleta said. "We're reaching out. Not on a general basis, but on a one-to-one basis."

Since April, the campaign says, it has contacted 350,000 Floridians by knocking on their doors or calling them. It has recruited 8,500 active volunteers in the state, and overseen 1,891 volunteer-driven events such as phone banks, neighborhood walks and house parties.

All of it was made possible by about 3,000 one-on-one meetings between campaign staffers, community leaders, volunteers and neighbors in the state.

Meantime, the Chicago-based campaign has been assembling and dissecting data in a sophisticated, well-funded operation. It's also making a strong play for the Hispanic vote, which is growing more crucial with each election and which Archuleta, who has Latina roots, implicitly understands.

"They have a formidable organization and a lot of knowledge," said Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who has worked for a number of Florida candidates, including U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami in 2008.

"In the Diaz-Balart campaign, we worked overtime to hit our targets when we saw how the Obama campaign was turning out the early vote," McLaughlin said. "We were afraid of their organization."

But now, McLaughlin notes, Obama has so many problems with voters and the economy that it will be a far harder task for him to get re-elected, regardless of the grass roots organization.

The Obama 2012 effort ultimately revolves around getting supporters to share personal stories about how Obama's policies have tried to help them and their neighbors. Recently, as part of the president's "We Can't Wait" initiative, he has announced plans to help struggling homeowners, veterans and college graduates paying back their loans.

Archuleta, 63, shares the story about how the Affordable Care Act helps her college-age daughter, who recently had a bout with cancer, obtain insurance. A person with a gay family member might be reminded of the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" military policy. In another case, Archuleta said, she helped persuade a Cuban-American man to give Obama a second chance after explaining how the president eased restrictions on family travel to Cuba.

But the effort isn't just an exercise in tallying up discussions or selling Obama like an Amway salesman.

Flush with cash, the campaign is a hard-nosed and sophisticated data-mining operation. It has an iPhone app, Are You In, that elicits users to share personal data about themselves and their neighbors' and friends' political views. Its Facebook page, which also helps the campaign track numbers about supporters and potential supporters, has more than 23 million "likes," which CNN reports is 10 times more than all the GOP candidates combined.

And the campaign uses a Facebooklike social networking program that integrates and tracks the nationwide campaign's efforts from volunteer block walks to door knocks to the nature of the one-on-one conversations with voters. The reports are shared on a daily basis with Archuleta and other upper-level campaign managers, who can target campaign themes, problems and successes down to the individual level.

The Obama campaign is concentrating on its core constituency groups that include "Latinos, African-Americans, seniors, women, the (gay) community, veterans, faith-based communities, issue-based constituents and all of those key constituents who have a strong interest in and support for President Obama," said Archuleta. As the former chief of staff to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Archuleta also has ties to unions, a traditional Democratic base.

But Hispanics are perhaps the most crucial bloc in Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Archuleta's home state of Colorado. The campaign has a lot of selling to do with Hispanics, who along with blacks have been disproportionately hit by the economic downturn.

Still, Republicans' comments about English-only America and their opposition to the immigrant-friendly Dream Act makes it easier to persuade Hispanics to vote for the Democratic candidate.

"We're not reaching out into the Latino community like typical campaigns, 60 days ahead or at that last moment," Archuleta said. "We're reaching out to all communities — and importantly to the Latino community — now. We're building relationships at every level."

Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican strategist, said the one-on-one stories will go only so far in a nation where only 43 percent say Obama is doing a good job, according to a recent Gallup survey. Other polls indicate a majority of Americans don't support Obama's health care law and don't believe he has a sound plan to fix the economy.

And though Obama blames Republicans for scuttling his agenda, members of his own party haven't always gone along. Also tolling on the president: Home foreclosure rates are still high in the nation — especially in states like Florida.

"The Obama campaign is knocking on doors of homes that are far more likely to be in foreclosure now than they were in 2008," Wilson said. "It's nice to talk about having a ground game of grass roots volunteers. But the fact is the places where Barack Obama won in close contests is where he spent the most on television."

In Florida — where elections are ultimately decided on the air by way of ads and not by grass roots activism — Obama spent about $39 million on TV ads compared with less than $15 million by Republican John McCain in 2008. Obama beat McCain in Florida by just 3 percentage points — 236,450 votes — despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans by 657,000.

Today, Republicans have narrowed the registration gap by about 100,000. A recent CNN poll showed that, by a 22 percentage-point spread, Republicans were more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats.

Though Democrats still have a half-million registration edge, it's a good bet that the Obama campaign or the Democratic Party will launch a voter-registration drive, which became more difficult after Florida's Republican-led Legislature imposed new elections regulations this year.

But that's grist for a story for another time.

"This campaign is all about our personal stories," Archuleta said. "It's all about the one on one. It's about personal reasons to support the president."

Obama's re-election strategy: Get face to face 10/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 9:41pm]
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