Observations of a Texas Obama Volunteer
Stefan Haag is a recently retired Austin Community College professor of government.  He volunteered on the Obama campaign in Austin (Travis County) in the weeks leading up to the March 4, 2008 primary and precinct conventions and has generously provided an account of his experiences.
Early Appeal

My interest in Senator Obama's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination began in February 2007 when my wife attended an Obama rally at Auditorium Shores in Austin.  Approximately 20,000 people lined up about three hours before the scheduled speech on a rainy day in Central Texas.  My wife was so impressed that she convinced me to contribute to his campaign.  In fact each of us contributed $100 shortly thereafter.

I purchased his book, The Audacity of Hope, to learn more about him, his experiences, and his policy proposals.  The book is an impressive read.  He is thoughtful, articulate, and clearly stated his policy positions and plans for the United States.  His message of hope and a transformation of United States politics was inspiring.

For admission to the rally in February 2007, e-mail addresses were required.  This gave the campaign a foundation for its presidential primary campaign in Texas.  We received frequent e-mails from the Obama campaign, providing information as well as requests for donations.

The Campaign Takes Off

Shortly after the February “Super Duper Tuesday” failed to live up to expectations and Texas became a major target for both Democratic candidates, I started receiving e-mails from the Obama campaign announcing an opportunity to become involved with the campaign in Texas as a “precinct captain.” I volunteered, and about a week later, I received a notification that I was now a precinct captain, given a link to a Web site, and instructed to sign in. The Web site was quite complete, explaining the role of precinct captains and how phone calls to potential Obama supporters in my precinct (Travis County 366) could be conducted. Initially, there were more than 1300 potential supporters on my phone list (there are 4200 registered voters in precinct 366). There were approximately 13 precinct captains (including my wife and I) in our precinct initially. Some were more active than others. My wife and I made more than 300 phone calls between February 19th and March 4th.

Soon after becoming precinct captains, we were informed that precinct captain training would be conducted at the Austin office on Saturday, February 16th. We attended the training. There were multiple training sessions conducted by young volunteers who had been involved in earlier states’ primaries or caucuses (our trainer was from San Diego, CA). The training involved a PowerPoint presentation describing the campaign’s strategy in Texas and how precinct captains fit into that strategy. There were 30-40 people attending our training session, which lasted approximately 30 minutes. The presentation was educational and informal. I was impressed with the number of people streaming into the Austin campaign office, the enthusiasm of the volunteers, and the diversity of the participants (age, gender, and ethnicity).

On February 18th, Victoria McCullough, the Obama field representative for 17 precincts in Southwest Travis County introduced herself via e-mail. Most of my contacts with Victoria were via e-mail or conference calls (approximately 3). She was an effective organizer, informed, and helpful to all of the precinct captains. Later, a volunteer from Mississippi, Joseph Wolfe, who had volunteered in New Hampshire, assisted Victoria, conducting training sessions for door-to-door canvassing that was conducted on the weekend before the primary election and for the precinct conventions that occurred after the polls closed on the evening of the primary election. Probably about half of the precinct captains from precinct 366 attended those training sessions.

One thing that impressed me was the evolution of the precinct captain’s Web materials during the course of the campaign. With early voting in Texas beginning on February 19 and extending through February 29, the campaign made a concerted effort to get Obama supporters to vote early. Logging in to the Web site, the volunteer was provided a script, a set of pull down boxes that allowed the caller to record whether and how strongly the call recipient supported a candidate, whether the person would vote early, whether the person would vote on Election Day, and whether the person would attend the precinct convention. When the form was submitted, the next person to be called would appear. Over the course of the early voting period, the script was refined, the options expanded to include a list for canvassing, and a list for calling. At the final stages, a list of all potential voters residing at a particular address came up together so that information could be logged after talking to one member of the family. There were also options provided if the person could not be contacted. The calling list included some Republicans, some fax numbers, and many disconnected numbers.

The calls that my wife and I made resulted in some very satisfying conversations with Obama supporters, a lot of disconnected phones, and a few people that were downright hostile. (I had one person shout “fuck” when I asked if we could count on his support for Barrack in the primary election; another just laughed.) Most were courteous, even if they supported Hillary or planned to vote in the Republican primary election. A large percentage, probably about 75 percent, had no idea that the precinct conventions existed, much less how they were conducted and their effect on the allocation of Texas’s 193 pledged delegates to the Democratic national convention. We phoned potential voters until March 4th.

The weekend before the primary was devoted to canvassing the precinct, contacting potential voters and leaving door hangers for people who were not home. The plan was to stage out of precinct captains’ homes on the Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday preceding the primary election.  We volunteered our home as the staging site for Sunday and Monday. However, on Saturday night, Joseph e-mailed the precinct captains that all houses in precinct 366 had been canvassed on Saturday and canvassing on Sunday and Monday was cancelled. In lieu of canvassing, we made phone calls.

Victoria had asked if precinct captains would be willing to house volunteers from outside Texas who would be arriving to help the campaign from Saturday through Election Day. We volunteered, and on Saturday, a volunteer arrived to stay with us. He was a young city planning consultant from Oakland, California, who has an advanced degree from UC–Berkeley. He worked from the headquarters in Austin primarily, but on Election Day, he worked a precinct near ours, doing essentially what my wife and I did at our precinct. An important part of the volunteer experience was meeting other volunteers, sharing stories about the campaign, and learning why Senator Obama has such a large and enthusiastic following.

During the campaign in Texas, Senator Obama appeared at several events in Austin.  The debate [Feb. 21, 2008 in the LBJ Auditorium at the University of Texas] was an impossible ticket.  The rally on Congress Avenue [on Feb. 22] drew at least 20,000.  I was fortunate to see and hear him at the town hall meeting on the economy on the morning of February 28th at the Austin Convention Center.  Seeing and hearing him in person confirmed that I had chosen to support the right candidate.

The television ads for Obama and Clinton were inescapable during the three weeks leading up to the primary election.  The ad that probably had the greatest impact was the Clinton ad questioning Senator Obama's ability to be commander in chief--the 3:00 a.m. phone ad.  Many political observers suggested that the fact that late deciders chose Clinton over Obama was attributable to this advertisement.

Election Day

On Election Day, my wife and alternated at the precinct polling site, Mills Elementary School, which is located about five blocks from our house. We brought a card table, which we set up 100 feet from one of the entrances to the polling site (required by the Texas election code). We had an Obama yard sign and several flyers (the tickets to the precinct conventions, the explanation of the precinct conventions, and a flyer for Obama). I was at the precinct from 6:45 a.m. until the polls closed at 7:00 p.m., except for a few half-hour breaks when my wife relieved me. We were both there from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. During the day, several other precinct captains joined us. Also, several out-of-state volunteers joined us for one-to-two hour shifts.  There were usually four or five people at the Obama table.

Throughout the day, we approached voters, asked if they were voting in the Democratic primary election. If so, we asked them if they were supporting Obama. If they were, we thanked them for their support and gave them a ticket to the precinct convention that evening, explaining that approximately two-thirds of the pledged delegates (67 delegates) were apportioned based on participation in the precinct, county, and state conventions. Just as we found in the phone calls, few voters on Election Day knew anything about the conventions that evening and their importance to the selection of pledged delegates. This was the most satisfying experience during the campaign. Other precinct captains spent time helping in the precinct. Most gratifying was watching a young woman who had been very quiet and shy during the meetings of precinct captains find her voice talking to people about Obama and the precinct conventions. She remarked, after her first few encounters with voters, “This is awesome. I’m really enjoying this!”

The Democratic precinct chairman, Chuck King, was also at the polling site, encouraging people to attend the precinct convention and become involved in party politics. Although an Obama supporter, he was there to encourage participation in the Democratic Party. I asked him how many people he expected at the precinct convention that evening. He said, “Probably between 50 and 75 people.” I laughed, stating that I thought many more would be there.

The Clinton campaign had a large table that was located about 50 feet from our location. We conversed occasionally. There was no animosity, no contests, or altercations. Their table had two or three people present most of the time. Rarely, however, did I notice them approaching voters. They had a sign that stated, “If you voted for Hillary, see me.” I assume that they were informing people about the precinct convention that evening.

Precinct Conventions

When the polls finally closed and all voters in line to vote at 7:00 p.m. had voted, we moved into Mills Elementary School cafeteria for the precinct convention. Chuck King called the meeting to order as temporary chair of the convention, was nominated to be permanent chair, which he won, and appointed the temporary convention secretary, who was elected permanent secretary.  Initially, there were three tables for people to sign in at. Soon, Chuck had appointed other people to man additional sign-in tables. In order to participate, you needed proof that you had voted in the Democratic Party primary and were registered in precinct 366. Most participants brought their voter registration card, which was stamped “voted Democratic” when they voted in the primary election, either during early voting or on Election Day. The final tally showed 478 participants. Barack received 293 votes, Hillary received 184 votes, and Edwards received 1 vote. Because 8 votes were required to receive any delegates to the state senatorial/county convention, the Edwards supporter was allowed to switch his or her vote. Since the person had left, he or she was not able to vote. The 65 delegates allocated to precinct 366 were then awarded to the candidates. Barack received 40 delegates, Clinton received 25 delegates. Then, the actual delegates were chosen. Usually, it’s difficult to convince people to participate in the next round of conventions. This time, there were more people who wanted to be delegates than there were delegates available. However, since there is also one alternate for each delegate, several people opted to be alternates rather than delegates. They were then ratified by the convention participants. In effect, Hillary supporters chose their delegates; Obama supporters chose their delegates; and the entire convention ratified the choices.

The convention concluded after a delegation chair was elected (Bill Hamm, an Obama supporter) and the precinct voted on several resolutions. The resolutions become the basis for the Texas Democratic Party’s platform, which is adopted at the state convention in June.

In precinct 366, there were 1,678 votes cast for Democratic presidential nominees. Of those, 1,028 (61.3 percent) voted for Obama, and 643 (38.3 percent) voted for Clinton. Of the Obama voters, 28.5 percent attended the precinct convention, and 28.6 percent of Clinton’s voters attended the precinct caucuses. Victoria McCullough attended the precinct convention in our precinct, but left before the convention ended to attend to problems in another precinct for which she was responsible. I was pleased with the convention results. Chuck King conducted the convention fairly and without any of the problems that purportedly occurred in precincts that had no precinct chair.

Observations and Conclusion

I’m somewhat ambivalent on the “Texas Two Step” process for selecting national convention delegates. On one hand, I have participated in the primary/caucus system since 1988 in Texas. (In 1984, Texas Democrats did not hold a primary, selecting its delegates in a caucus system.) I enjoy the interaction among people attending the precinct convention. I also value the extra effort required to participate in the conventions, and at times, I have observed something akin to deliberative democracy as people discussed their support for a particular candidate. On the other hand, I have reservations about whether the convention participants accurately represent the membership of the Texas Democratic Party.

In 2008, participation in both the Democratic primary and precinct conventions exploded. The primary drew 2,868,454 voters, nearly 23 percent of all registered voters in Texas. Participation in the precinct conventions also swelled to, by most estimates, nearly a million voters. In Texas, with its legally (as defined in the state’s election code) closed primary but functionally (there is no registration by party; so any registered voter can participate in either party’s primary) open primary, there are many crossover voters. This allows Republicans and independents to participate in the Democratic primary, hopefully drawing new participants to the party’s ranks. However, it also allows Republicans who want to cause mischief in the Democratic primary to influence the selection of the Democratic Party’s nominee.

One controversy that interested me was whether a Republican crossover vote in the Democratic primary affected the outcome. Accordng to exit polls, self-identified Republicans constituted 9 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary. They voted for Obama over Clinton, 53 percent to 46 percent respectively. However, Daron Shaw, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, cited polls indicating that about 25 percent of Republicans planned to vote in the Democratic primary election. Another poll indicated that Republicans and independents who were likely to vote in the Democratic primary in Texas favored Obama over Clinton, 71 percent to 25 percent. According to the exit polls, independents, which constituted 25 percent of the Democratic primary voters, split 48 percent for Clinton and 49 percent for Obama. Were crossovers important, and did they help Clinton? I really don’t know, but I wouldn’t doubt it. For example, in heavily Republican Lubbock County, there was a dropoff of 5,506 votes (23 percent) between the votes for presidential nominee and the next highest race in votes, which happened to be a contested race for Lubbock County Democratic chairman. Lubbock County chose Clinton over Obama by 53 percent to 47 percent.

Although the effect of this participation may be negligible, I’d rather not allow the possibility. The precinct conventions, and the selection of some of the pledged delegates through this process, are probably more effective in ensuring that participants are actually party members. A recent study of caucus participants in Iowa indicates that strong party identifiers are most likely to participate in caucuses.1

I expect the Texas Democratic Party to consider changes in the selection of delegates before the next round of primaries and caucuses in 2012. If I were making the decision, I would favor a truly closed primary (registration by political party) that selected the delegates. The precinct conventions would remain, but like in the Republican Party of Texas, their purpose would be restricted to party activities (selecting delegates to the county/senatorial district conventions and considering resolutions for inclusion in the party’s platform). If the primary remains functionally open, then I’d prefer to maintain the current, two-step process with 75 percent of the pledged delegates chosen in the primary and 25 percent of the pledged delegates chosen in the convention system. I also favor the current system for allocating delegates chosen in the primary among the state's 31 senatorial districts, basing the number of delegates on support for Democratic candidates for president and governor in the most recent elections. This system rewards support for the party in recent elections.

In conclusion, volunteering in the Obama campaign was a very rewarding experience. I met a lot of fellow Democrats, shared stories, laughs, and frustrations when the primary vote resulted in a Clinton victory. However, Obama won the precinct conventions by a large enough margin that he will win more delegates from Texas than Clinton. Of course, this won’t be known for sure until the middle of June when the Democrats hold their state convention in Austin.

By Stefan Haag
March 2008
(Edited by E.M. Appleman)

1. David Redlawsk, Daniel Bowen, and Caroline Tolbert, “Comparing Caucus and Registered Voter Support for the 2008 Presidential Candidates in Iowa,” PS: Political Science & Politics 41 (January 2008): 129-38