11/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Calif. Obama Volunteers Work the Swing States, on the Road and in the Office

When the C-SPAN broadcast of the final presidential debate ended, Democrats at the San Mateo County headquarters ceased their cheering, laughing and applauding to get down to business. Some volunteers cleaned up paper plates and folded the 60 chairs where supporters sat to watch the debate in the front office, and others huddled in a backroom to face the difficulty of convincing undecided voters in swing states.


Cooke Kelsey, a software programmer, recently spent a month volunteering in Ohio. His main concern is over voter intimidation, legislation that may confuse or complicate the voting process, and faulty voting machines. "Unless we have ten points lead [in Ohio], it's going to be a legal crisis. The whole system is messed up," Kelsey said.

Half of Ohio's counties still use voting machines by Diebold, a company that admitted their programming error may lose votes and would not be fixed in time for this election.

Kelsey is concerned that the country will see another fiasco like the Florida punch cards in 2000. But after interacting with Ohioans for several weeks, he's also worried about racism and a possible "October surprise," a term used for campaign tactics or breaking news that comes in the final days before the election, meant to tip the scale.

While Kelsey was in Cleveland and Columbus, he observed a "laser-like" Republican campaign team, organized to "micro-target" voters by all means necessary. He noted that the Democrats on the other hand were just working hard, "pepping people up."

As an apprentice to a field director, Kelsey knocked on doors, helped with mailings, organized volunteers, and made phone calls. Predictably, many residents hung up at the sound of someone saying they were from the Obama campaign. There was about 1 percent of the people called, however, that Kelsey called "the gold" -- the undecided voters who stayed on the line.

"You get the undecided voter who's willing to talk and you can feel it happen," Kelsey said. "I saw in my own eyes the persuasion happening." He said he wishes he had more time in Ohio to reach more of those kinds of voters. "I just feel sorry that I couldn't hack it until the end [of the campaign]."

It was a big time commitment for someone like Kelsey to take a month off to volunteer in a swing state. John Boisson, a grocery clerk, is taking a week off of work to volunteer for Obama. Handed a small flyer to go volunteer in Colorado, Boisson said that he wanted to go, but was afraid of driving in the snow -- something the Californian had never done before.

But Mike Aydelott, the Obama campaign manager for San Mateo County, is keeping his head in the game by staying local. In fact, Aydelott was working in the back room and did not even watch the debate. He said he wanted to stay focused on the day-to-day tasks without being distracted by television pundits.


"Take nothing for granted," Aydelott said. "Everything we do counts." Although San Mateo County is already heavily Democratic, his goal is to win bigger and make it "a clear statement" from the choice of president all the way down the ballot, including a 'no' vote on California proposition 8, which would legally define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Aydelott said that about 70 to 80 people volunteer in the office on a given day, many of them using their cell phones to call places like New Mexico. The office is bustling seven days a week, according to volunteers, and even in a county where a win for Obama is all but certain, organizers insist on continuing to "fight the fight."