LEESBURG, Va.—The new Americans for Prosperity field office is a short walk from downtown, in an unusually stately office park. (Most things in Leesburg are unusually stately.) Today, National Prosperity Action Day, the red brick office is decorated with yellow balloons and loaded with trays of Famous Dave’s pork and brisket. Sixty-odd AFP activists mill inside and outside, getting to know each other before the big schlep.
For one day, the Leesburg office is AFP central. Tim Phillips, the Tea Party group’s affable president, is here to host a live-stream rev-up-the-troops documentary. He and a two-man crew walk through the office’s dozen rooms, and a camera-laptop contraption captures the Tea Partiers as they make calls. Each room has at least eight no-frills Samsung cellphones—“freedom phones,” cheaper than land lines—bowls of candy, and simple scripts. Phillips gathers the faithful in the parking lot, and boils the script down to a few sentences.
“We have a very simple message to the folks we’re reaching,” he says. “Do you know what that message is?”
“It’s about the disastrous impact that Barack Obama’s policies are having on our families, our businesses, and our nation. And we’re going to change it, right?”
Democrats are feeling better about the 2012 election. Every time Mitt Romney stumbles through a news cycle, every time a swing-state poll comes out, Barack Obama is doing better than he has any right to do. A year ago, no electoral mathematician would have predicted Democrats holding on to the Senate. As of right now, Harry Reid’s party is actually pulling it off.
Enter the Tea Party. Since 2009, the conservative movement has mushroomed with well-funded third-party groups that buy ads and canvass voters, independent of the Republican Party. According to a study of this mojo by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, AFP will spend around $62 million on Get Out the Vote efforts in swing states, managed by 116 organizers, headquartered in 51 offices. Compare that with Americans Coming Together, the Soros-funded 527 that spent $79 million to complement the Democrats’ turnout machines in 2004—then add in FreedomWorks, the Faith and Family Coalition, and all those local Tea Party teams.
But it’s AFP that makes Democrats clammy and nervous and paranoid. This is David Koch’s group, the one that was buying Solyndra TV ads nine months ago, because its money spigot never runs dry. Can it cancel out all the work that the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America has done all year?
I’m spending Saturday with AFP, so maybe I’ll find out. Of the 60-odd activists on hand, half have been bussed down from Baltimore County, Md. “They actually completed 197 survey calls on the bus ride to get here,” says Phillips. While the Virginia team makes phone calls, the Marylanders gather in the front of the office. Nick Loffer, the grassroots director, hands out 10 Motorola tablets, preloaded with data and maps that will tell them which voters are persuadable.
“You’re going to walk up to the household and hit ‘arrive,’ ” says Loffer. “You’re going to say something like this: ‘Hi, my name’s Nick. I’m with Americans for Prosperity of Virginia, and I’m concerned about the direction of our country. Do you have time to answer a few survey questions?’ If they say yes, you proceed with the questions.”
At 12:45 p.m. the Marylanders pile onto the buses. AFP staffers are waiting for them. Each group will consist of three people—the tablet-holder, the buddy, and a spare—and be dropped off at a predetermined spot. My bus makes its first stop, then heads up a hill, then stalls. “We need more ballast at the front!” says Nick Loffer.* Eight Tea Partiers move toward the bus driver. The weight balances, and the bus moves on. “Maybe Mayor Bloomberg is onto something about calorie laws!” jokes Loffer.
I do my part to solve the ballast issue and get off at the next stop, on Royal Street. Gail and Steve Koroupis, two retirees, are the team leaders. Eric Martin, who works in the Baltimore County sheriff’s office, is the bonus canvasser. Steve pulls a green AFP T-shirt over his collared shirt. Gail opts for a white AFP T-shirt. Eric sticks with a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and black socks. He’s the only one of us equipped for a few walking hours in Leesburg’s Indian summer.
Gail fusses with the tablet, spinning it around to figure out which direction we’re supposed to go. “They shouldn’t give these things to old people,” she says, chuckling. We miss our street, but I use my newly outdated iPhone to reorient us, and we double back to find an expansive ranch house occupied by a possible swing voter. Eric knocks on the door, hears nothing, and prepares to leave an AFP door hanger. (“Do you think the private sector is doing fine? President Obama does.”) Right then Patrick Henry, our 70-year-old African-American target voter walks out of a different door, scratching his head and asking who we are.
“Hello!” says Gail. “We’re from Americans for Prosperity.”
“We just have one question,” says Steve.
Gail pecks away at the tablet, trying to log us in. “You’re the first person we’ve talked to,” says Steve. “You’re our guinea pig.”
Finally, Gail figures out the tablet. “It says, how would you rate President Obama’s job performance?” she says. “Strongly approve, approve, undecided, disapprove, strongly disapprove?”
Henry scratches his head. “I’d have to say, based on the fact that he has no help, he’s doing well.”
“That’s strongly approve, I think,” says Gail.
“We’re not really here to debate the issues,” Steve assures Patrick Henry.
Gail tries to punch in the answer. “It’s not letting me do that,” she says. Eric steps up with an ice-breaker.
“We’re not really fond of Obama because of his policies,” he says. “He’s run up our debt $5 trillion since he took office, and it prevents the private sector from growing because it crowds out investment capital.”
Gail interrupts him. “I got it working!” she says.
“OK,” says Eric. “Sometimes I can’t help myself!”
The soft-spoken voter explains why he’s sticking with Obama. The activists politely try to change his mind. “You might want to consider, if you’re on Medicare, that President Obama is taking $700 billion out of Medicare,” says Steve. Henry keeps talking, but he never budges. “Mitt Romney’s problems are not my problems,” he says. “I’m in the middle class.”
“So are we,” says Steve.
After 15 minutes, the Tea Partiers decide to wrap it up. Everybody shakes hands. Henry clearly was glad for the company, but he didn’t help AFP move the needle. We stick with the tablet’s map and explore Leesburg. It doesn’t get any better. One address is a dentist office, closed for the day. The other is an apartment behind a “no solicitation sign.” The next is another business that greets customers with a new-looking Obama-Biden sign.
“Who came up with this list?” sighs Eric.
Steve looks across the street from that pro-Obama business and sees another black voter, sitting on a stoop next to a pickup truck loaded with construction gear. “Do you live here?” The voter, who doesn’t remove his dark sunglasses, says he does. “OK, you’ll do,” says Steve.
Eric and I stand over to the side, and Gail and Steve conduct their interview. “This is Obama country,” says Eric, who sounds more bemused than annoyed. “We’re not going to find Romney voters out here.”
Gail and Steve are getting one-word answers and recording them dutifully. Obama’s job so far? Approve. His choice for president? Obama. His choice for U.S. Senate? Undecided. It’s not going great, but it’s going—and then the tablet goes blank.
“Out of battery,” says Gail.
It’s only been an hour and 10 minutes, and we’re done for the day. I ask whether we can find a cellphone store and plug the tablet into a BlackBerry charger. “I’m not going there,” says Steve. So the Tea Partiers say a polite goodbye to their last subject. “Do you have work? Good! You don’t meet enough people with steady work.” We head to an intersection where the AFP bus can pick us up.
Nobody’s particularly satisfied with the day’s labors. “I don’t feel like we moved the ball,” says Steve. We see other green-shirted activists crossing Leesburg’s pleasant streets. We miss the bus, Eric calls it, and we finally catch it. The driver wends through Leesburg, picking up three more groups of people. One group, beset by the same low-battery crisis, is killing time by touring a graveyard.
“They’re looking for Democrat voters!” jokes Eric.
The Tea Partiers swap stories of voter contact, angry dogs, people who shut the door on the first question, and a couple of people who actually listened. Steve’s in a contemplative mood. “If Obama gets back in,” he asks me, “what are the odds, you think, that he’s impeached?” I say it would be tough to convict him of “high crimes” or to get a two-thirds vote in the Senate to expel him. “Well, there’s been a number of decisions which required the Congress to be involved, and he went around it.”
The bus arrives back at headquarters. AFP staffers have brought in fresh ice to cool their iced tea and lemonade. Virginia volunteers are finishing up with the phones and chatting with each other planning the next visits. The Marylanders are comparing stories, trying to figure out whether they reached enough voters. Shortly after 3:30, they gather in the front room again for a head count.
“We’re heading back to the so-called free state of Maryland,” says Loffer, the grassroots director. “I hope you enjoyed our low taxes and economic freedom.”
The Marylanders head toward their bus. They pose for a group photo. They get back to work, on their phones. And on Sunday, AFP will announce that its volunteers made 400,000 phone calls.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2012: This article originally misattributed the quote “We need more ballast at the front!” to volunteer Adam Nicholson.