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Obama's paid staff dwarfing McCain's

Democrat targets 50 states as rival focuses on tossups

John McCain is sending smaller staffs to some states but spending more on TV ads than his rival, Barack Obama. John McCain is sending smaller staffs to some states but spending more on TV ads than his rival, Barack Obama. (Carolyn Kaster/associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / July 20, 2008

Behind the headlines about the unprecedented success of Democrat Barack Obama's fund-raising machine lies a more prosaic truth - his campaign will need every penny of its $300 million goal to bankroll an unprecedented 50-state general election campaign with a massive army on the ground.

His campaign already has by far the largest full-time paid staff in presidential campaign history, and unlike Republican rival John McCain's, continues to grow by the day.

National polls show the race remains close between Obama and McCain, but the Obama campaign is paying closer attention to polls in more than a dozen states that show Obama has a chance of winning in November. The states were won four years ago by President Bush, in many cases by huge margins. In theory, at least, Obama's effort could nudge states such as Virginia, Indiana, and North Dakota into the Democratic column and produce a surprising Electoral College boost.

McCain so far is running a more traditional campaign, targeting perennial tossup states such as Florida and Ohio, sending smaller staffs to those states than Obama, but spending more on television ads. His campaign manager, Rick Davis, said recently that his staff will eventually increase to about 450. By earlier this month, it had opened 11 regional offices in key states and another 84 offices across the country in a joint effort with the Republican National Committee.

"It is an incredible amount of progress for a campaign that ended the primaries with no money, little infrastructure, and no formal organization outside the early primary states," Steve Schmidt, who was put in charge of day-to-day operations this month, said in a memo. "By putting emphasis on our regional operations . . . we have built a campaign that will be nimble when it counts and close to the ground where grass-roots activity will drive our message and efforts."

Obama, meanwhile, is already running uncontested television advertising in seven of the historically Republican states and is sending in large paid staffs.

"Between the Obama staff and the Democratic Party staff there will be several thousand" paid operatives on the ground deployed across the country, deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said in an interview. "I don't want to get too specific; it gives away strategy."

Large staffs are working in traditional battleground states and every state will have at least some paid staff, with "large-scale operations in 22 states, medium operations in many others, and small staffs in only a handful of states," Hildebrand said.

Obama and the Democratic Party have about 200 paid staffers working in Florida and more on the way, 90 in Michigan with plans to expand to 200 by August, at least 200 each eventually in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and 50 in Missouri with plans to expand to 150, according to published reports and interviews with Obama campaign officials. Hildebrand said state organizations should be at full strength by the end of August.

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that in May the campaign had a payroll of about 900, not counting nearly 500 part-time workers who were paid stipends. As of May 31, the Obama campaign staff was well over twice the size of the Bush reelection campaign staff in 2004 and nearly three times the size of McCain's current staff, and has expanded significantly since.

Through the end of May, the Obama campaign had spent $35.7 million on salaries and benefits, triple the $11.9 million spent by the McCain campaign, according to tabulations by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

Obama's labor-intensive strategy will become increasingly expensive, though the campaign took a large step toward its goal by raising $52 million in June after wrapping up the Democratic nomination. But it will probably have to exceed that figure every month until November to hit its target, and the Democratic National Committee, which announced that it took in $22.4 million last month, faces a similar task to reach a goal of $180 million by the election.

Davis told reporters this month that the Republican Party and McCain campaign hope to raise a combined $400 million to be competitive in the fall. That includes $84.1 million in public funding McCain says he will accept after his formal nomination on Sept. 4. Despite assertions in the past that he would also take public funding, Obama will become the first presidential candidate to refuse the public grant since the advent of federal financing in 1976.

Obama's campaign is optimistic it can reach its lofty targets because it achieved ambitious goals in its long, brutal fight to upset Hillary Clinton and win the Democratic nomination. Underlying the optimism is an unerring faith in the premise of the Obama candidacy that many Americans are angry, anxious, and engaged as never before in the political process because they want change.

Under Obama, the state party operations, which traditionally have been called victory committees or coordinated campaigns, have been renamed in each state as the "Campaign for Change."

"The climate has made millions of Americans who haven't been involved in a political campaign ever in their lifetimes very active," Hildebrand said. "We estimate that 70 percent of our grass-roots volunteers haven't worked in a campaign before. . . . We're somewhere just shy of 2 million volunteers, and we think we can potentially triple that on Election Day."

That would mean 6 million volunteers. For comparison, about 116 million people voted in the 2004 presidential election.

The Obama-Clinton battle set primary turnout records in state after state, and Hildebrand expects more of the same in November: "We think the turnout will be beyond record turnout, and if we're effective, we will have done two additional things - brought in millions of new people who are registered to vote and we will increase the percentage of registered voters who will turn out."

To accomplish that, Obama's campaign is assembling what would be the largest field operation in the history of American politics. Advertising and campaign communications will be important and debate performances will be critical, but the Obama campaign is investing heavily in the importance of organizing voters and getting them to the polls on Nov. 4.

It's a major departure from the 2004 Democratic game plan in which the ground organization was split and sometimes duplicated between the Senator John F. Kerry-Democratic Party operation and a group called America Coming Together, financed primarily by wealthy liberal activists and labor unions. ACT spent about $80 million and had 300 employees and 1,400 paid canvassers working in 17 key states.

In their nomination fight, the Obama and Clinton campaigns built sophisticated state-by-state organizations, often in a matter of weeks. Hildebrand said the Obama campaign employed three different organizing models over the course of the campaign, and in May, about 30 of the top state and field directors met to map a strategy for the general election. They came up with a neighborhood and volunteer-based plan that incorporates elements of the Republican model under Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, on which Schmidt worked closely with Rove. The GOP used commercial marketing data and volunteers organized Bush supporters around the "virtual precinct" of their own social networks.

"This allows us to increase the volume of voters we're talking to and have it be done with people who live in their community," Hildebrand said.

Veteran Democratic operative John Sasso of Massachusetts said that level of organization is "unprecedented on the Democratic side." The Obama model, particularly in its use of the Internet as an organizing tool, is a significant upgrade, he said.

"People tend to believe information delivered by people they know and who live in their neighborhood more than an ad they see on television or what some third party from out of their state is telling them," said Sasso, who supported Clinton in the primaries and has played key roles in many presidential campaigns. "It can really change the electoral map."

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