Contrary to what the national media had you believing, the Democratic presidential primary did not end on Super Tuesday, and Texas is now in play. You figure it's time to get involved. After all, you're a Dallas County Democrat. For the first time in a generation, you are relevant.
It's February 13 and you want to join the grassroots—man a phone bank, block-walk your neighborhood—but you're not sure how to go about it. So you go to hillaryclinton.com and are directed to a page that sorts campaign events by distance and ZIP code. You search for events within a 10-mile radius of 75232, which is part of Texas Senate District 23, the delegate-rich and racially diverse area (blacks do most of the heavy ballot-box lifting) that played a major role in the Democratic courthouse cleaning in the '06 election. You hit the "find" tab and read the results: "Sorry no events were found based on the search above."
You go to mybarackobama.com and are sent through a series of similar prompts. This time, you are informed that there are 15 events that match your search criteria. You expand your search to 50 miles for Obama and come up with 44 hits; doing the same for Clinton, you find 10 events.
These listings offer a snapshot of the grassroots operations of both campaigns in Dallas County—a telling glimpse into the ground war of the presidential candidates as they do battle for what has become a must-win state for Clinton.
Early on, both candidates have been playing to their strengths: Obama is targeting blacks, urban Anglos and young voters and was traveling to Dallas for a scheduled appearance on February 20; Clinton has stumped in El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, shoring up her support among older women, working-class Democrats and Hispanics in South and West Texas—the source of much of her narrowing lead in the polls. But with no public appearances yet scheduled for Clinton in Dallas (she has a private fund-raiser scheduled in the home of Dallas attorneys Debbie and Frank Branson on February 29), has she basically conceded the county or is she planning to mount a belated surge? Each day is vital to the four-week stretch that has become the Texas presidential primary season. A late start can mean a late finish.
"I can't see that Hillary has much of a presence in Dallas, and she is spending her efforts elsewhere," says Darlene Ewing, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. "She has tremendous support in Dallas County, and I think it's a mistake not to tap into it."
As of February 13, Dallas political consultant Kathy Nealy was the lone paid staffer running Clinton's Dallas campaign. Asked why the Clinton camp hadn't scheduled as many events as the Obama camp, she responds, "They are in the hype stage, but this is Politics 101, and I am in the planning stage. First thing you do is to get out the early vote." Early voting began February 19.
By February 18, Nealy was joined by four additional Clinton staffers from the national campaign, says Barbara Rosenberg, a volunteer Clinton organizer for Dallas, and more are expected. Rosenberg, a former state appeals court judge, says she has had volunteers ready to work since October "but they were on hold. It was only after Super Tuesday [February 6] that the national campaign changed gears," she says. "There is loads of enthusiasm for Hillary. We just opened our Dallas campaign office, and everything is now in place for the staff."
Obama's Dallas County grassroots operation has been up and running for a year, headed by full-time volunteers Molly Hanchey and Starshine Nolan. "There is a core group of 80 people who help out on a daily basis," Nolan says. "But we have access to a list of around 2,000 people who have shown interest through the Obama Web site. It's incredible, the outpouring of support we have gotten at the grassroots level."
On February 13, 20 staffers from Obama's national campaign arrived in Dallas and were introduced to a wildly upbeat crowd of volunteers (Nolan claims that there were at least 700) at a party at Gilley's Dallas on South Lamar Street. They drank beer, ate chips and salsa, and watched on a half-dozen big-screen TVs as Obama swept the Potomac primaries.
Former Dallas County Democratic Party chair and current judicial candidate Ken Molberg was there, not as a supporter but as an instructor who has been running both sides through the many traps of Texas' oddball, part-election, part-caucus primary system. "It has been so long since we have had a fierce primary fight in Texas [1988 between Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson], no one understands how the Texas system works," Molberg says. "It is truly one of a kind."
Texas will send 228 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, 126 of whom will be awarded based on the results of the March 4 primary in each of the 31 state Senate districts. Not all Senate districts are equal, with some receiving a larger share of these 126 delegates, which were pre-assigned based on prior voting patterns.
Molberg can envision a scenario in which a candidate wins the popular vote but loses the delegate count. Clinton could win the primary vote by carrying the state's rural and border areas, but Obama could still win the delegate count if he carries delegate-rich Senate districts in Dallas, Houston and Austin. North Texas has 26 delegates, six in Senate District 23 alone. No district along the border has more than 4 delegates.
But none of this ensures an Obama win, not with 102 delegates still up for grabs. Thirty-five of these are super-delegates—among them, state party leaders and the Texas Democratic congressional delegation. They are pledged to no one and are free to vote their consciences—a vote that ostensibly is intended to reflect the will of the people but can bring old political loyalties (read Clinton) into play. The remaining 67 are determined through a lengthy, caucus-driven process, which begins at precinct conventions 15 minutes after the polls close and ends at the state Democratic Convention in June.
But preliminary maneuvers for these 67 slots actually begin at local honky-tonks such as Gilley's, where on February 13 more than 520 volunteers signed pledge cards committing them to vote for Obama twice on Election Day—once at the polls and once at their precinct conventions.
"A big part of your ground game is making damn sure you get your people back to the polls after they close," Molberg explains. "If you get 10 of your people to a precinct convention and the other side shows up with 50, you're screwed."
Local party headquarters has been deluged with calls from Democrats asking how to become delegates. "I don't get as many calls from Clinton people because those are your old-line activists, and they know exactly what to do," Ewing says. "The majority of calls are from Obama people because they are new to the process."
At Gilley's, Molberg was surprised by the number of faces he did not recognize. "I haven't seen this much enthusiasm from new people since 1972." Of course, that was the year that gave the Democrats George McGovern.
Molberg noticed some "old heads" also working the crowd. Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk put in only a cameo appearance, but he has been stumping for Obama around the country and has become the surrogate-in-chief for Obama's Texas campaign. "This is more of a movement than it is a well-orchestrated machine," Kirk says. "Dallas County should be hotly contested by both candidates, particularly because of how well we did in the November ['06] elections."
Although local black leaders are largely breaking for Obama, Nealy considered it something of a coup when she and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Clinton supporter, convinced the Democratic Progressive Voters League, the oldest black political organization in Texas, to endorse both Clinton and Obama.
The Hispanic leadership seems deeply split along generational lines. Many older, more established Hispanic congressmen and legislators have thrown their support behind Clinton, whose reservoir of goodwill flows from her husband's presidency and before, when she was a young organizer working South Texas for the McGovern campaign.
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But Dallas state Representative Rafael Anchia counts himself among those young Hispanic leaders who are helping Obama erode Clinton's base. He believes that issues such as the war and immigration will energize new Hispanic voters and drive them into the Obama camp. "The opportunity for Obama in the city of Dallas is huge," he said. "Fifty percent of the [registered] Latinos here have registered since 2000, and that is a byproduct of young Latinos aging and foreign-born immigrants becoming naturalized citizens. These groups may not have as intense and intimate a connection with the Clintons as other Latinos."
Because the primary is generating so much heat and interest (10,000 people registered for a lottery to attend the televised Clinton-Obama debate in Austin on February 24, though only 100 tickets were available) experts are predicting a record turnout. SMU political scientist Cal Jillson says he believes the ethnic breakdown of the Democratic vote will be 27 percent black, 35 percent Anglo, 35 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. "I have seen estimates as high as 50 percent for the Hispanic vote, but I don't think it will break 40 percent."
Jillson says there are just as many Hispanics in North Texas as there are along the border, which is why he is convinced that Clinton will fight for them. "Obama has a much thicker ground organization," he says. "But unless Clinton runs out of money, I would be absolutely stunned if she didn't contest North Texas."
It's Feb 18, and you wonder if there has been a shift in the ground war in the five days since your last Web search for campaign events. You return to mybarackobama.com, click on the appropriate tabs, same 75232 ZIP code, same 10-mile radius. You find 22 events. You click onto hillaryclinton.com, go through the same machinations and you wait for the results: one event.