Michigan: door-by-door battleground

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Any way you shake out the electoral math, Michigan may be the key to a winning scenario for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. While Kerry won the state by four points in 2004, no one in the Obama campaign is taking the state for granted.

State data indicates that almost 500,000 Michigan residents registered to vote in 2008. The Obama campaign also expects to add another 100,000 to 150,000 new voters to rolls across the state before the Oct. 6 deadline.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story in Michigan.

Excitement and energy in Detroit (with 600,000 registered voters) is high, and a large margin is expected to go for Obama. The Obama campaign realizes, however, that even with high vote totals in Detroit more has to be done carry the state.

Other areas like Ann Arbor, Ferndale, Saginaw, the Upper Peninsula and Grand Rapids will make a strong showing for Obama as well. But more must be done to convince undecided voters to support Obama in many of the suburban areas that surround these cities, Obama campaign organizers say. Grand Rapids, for example, is the second largest city in the state with 200,000 people. It is nestled in a mostly conservative Kent County with 500,000 people. While the city will go for Obama, the county will be a tougher sell.

So far the campaign has opened 25 offices across the state and spends most of its resources on organizers and neighborhood canvassing efforts. With about 200 field organizers and staff, the Obama campaign has put almost double the number of campaign staff in Michigan as the Kerry campaign had in 2004.

So far the Obama campaign’s efforts have been aided by the opening of Michigan AFL-CIO labor walks, which began on Sept. 4. A coalition of environmental groups including Environment America, the Sierra Club, among others are also supplementing voter registration and canvassing efforts.

In Grand Rapids, special teams of volunteers, informally called the “Chicago people,” arrived recently to talk to undecided voters, person-to person. Relating Obama’s personal narrative to the issues facing Michigan voters, including the economic crisis, declining public education, the broken health care system, volunteers knock on doors and have one-on-one discussions with voters in key areas throughout the state.

Canvassers register new voters, identify Obama supporters and help the national campaign focus on what kinds of message will appeal directly to the undecided voters in a given area.

This information — like the campaign’s message of change from the “bottom up” — can’t be bought from the best political consultants.

The McCain campaign is relying on traditional Republican techniques like TV smear campaign ads and misleading information about Obama.

The Obama campaign’s unique campaign style, which depends mainly on person-to-person contact, comes out of the community organizing tradition Obama put into practice when he worked alongside working families affected by steel mill closings in Chicago in the 1980s.

This biography is part of the campaign’s message to undecided Michigan voters. Many thousands of Michigan voters will make a personal contact with the Obama campaign for the first time hearing about how as a community organizer he helped people who face similar problems that Michigan residents face or are anxious about today.

While John McCain and Cindy McCain go around in $500 Italian shoes and $300,000 outfits losing count of how many homes they own and ready to implement more of the same Bush policies, Obama and Biden are ready to bring meaningful change by taking on the tough economic troubles Michigan voters are experiencing, campaign workers say.

Volunteers are talking to voters about Obama’s plan to provide direct tax relief to 95 percent of working families and his plan to invest in renewable energy sectors and to create 5 million new jobs that can’t be outsourced. Investment in schools and making college more affordable along with investing in a health care system that provides affordable coverage to everyone are other topics of conversation.

But voters won’t just get a dose of policy. Volunteers will emphasize the campaign’s deep belief in each individual’s ability and personal responsibility to improve our own lives and communities.

Part of the canvassing effort includes exposing John McCain’s role — in lock-step with George W. Bush — in helping to “fast track” free trade deals that have cost Michigan tens of thousands of good-paying jobs and McCain’s role in blocking legislation that would have ended tax incentives for companies to move manufacturing plants out of the country.

McCain’s positions to provide new tax breaks for Big Oil and corporate executives, while leaving working families in the lurch are of concern for Michigan voters. For example, McCain’s capitulation to Big Oil’s agenda and the anti-environmental section of the Republican Party endangers the Great Lakes, which are both the pride of Michigan residents and a source of economic growth for thousands of small business owners who rely on tourism near the lakes.

jwendland@politicalaffairs.net