Stella Okeke might have been a lost vote for Barack Obama.
The Nigeria-born nurse supported the president in 2008 and wanted to vote for him again. Yet it took a conversation with an Obama campaign worker on the doorstep of her Woodbridge, Virginia townhome on Sept. 22 to inform Okeke, 36, that she was still registered and needed merely to show up on Election Day to cast her ballot.
That kind of exchange, multiplied by the thousands around Prince William County, may determine whether Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney wins the election in the swing state of Virginia -- and the nation.
“If you win Prince William County, ballgame over,” said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. “It’s a drive for who goes to vote.”
After all the television ads, campaign rallies and speeches, strategists on both sides say the election in Prince William, as in so many competitive counties in battleground states, will come down to the ground game. The campaign that best combines sophisticated voter targeting with old-fashioned door knocking and phone calls may gain as much as a two-percentage-point advantage -- enough to decide a tight race.
While polls show Obama with an edge over Romney in Virginia, the president hasn’t recaptured the enthusiasm of his grassroots success of four years ago. He’ll need to at least come close to that turnout by supporters to claim victory on Nov. 6. Romney’s campaign, meanwhile, has updated the Republican playbook to compete in the rapidly changing state.
The president has “got a little bit of catch-up work to do,” said Connolly, whose House district covers parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties. “I don’t think he’s quite closed the deal yet.”
Obama in 2008 became the first Democrat to capture Virginia since former President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Obama carried Prince William County by 16 points, after President George W. Bush took it in 2004 with 53 percent of the vote. In 2009, just one year after Obama’s win, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell beat his Democratic opponent in the county by 18 points.
Prince William and its neighboring exurbs of Washington are “as purple as the color has ever been in Virginia,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, referring to the color that campaign experts commonly assign to areas not loyal to one major party or the other.
Prince William’s population increased 4.2 percent between April 2010 and July 2011, compared to 1.2 percent statewide, data released this month from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.
Hispanics made up 20.5 percent of the county in 2011, compared to 8.2 percent across the state. Median household income from 2006-2010 outpaced the rest of the state with an average of $91,098 compared to $61,406, the data showed. The July unemployment rate in the county, the latest data available, was 4.9 percent versus 5.9 percent statewide.
The Romney team is borrowing McDonnell’s successful template and leaning on the Virginia Republican Party to help implement its voter contact plan. McDonnell targeted minority voters through mailings and radio advertising in their native languages.
Romney campaign organizers earlier this month attended a local Asian festival. They gave an interview to the Korean Times and handed out Romney bumper stickers with Asian characters. It’s the “McDonnell playbook on steroids,” said Michael C. Short, the Republican National Committee’s Virginia spokesman.
“Obviously in 2008, we kind of got our clock cleaned here and kind of got caught flat-footed,” Short said. “We’re just casting a real wide net in Virginia.”
The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign has 30 offices around the state. With more than 100 paid staff and thousands of volunteers, it aims to contact nearly every one of the roughly 6 million voting-age people in Virginia, Short said.
On Sept. 21, the day Obama addressed a crowd of 12,000 in Woodbridge, the Romney campaign contacted its three millionth person, Short said.
Twenty-two miles away from where Obama spoke, at Romney’s Bristow, Virginia field office, about two dozen volunteers were working the phone lines. The campaign also dispatched volunteers to events and neighborhoods with “QR Codes” -- short for black and white “Quick Response” barcodes -- that voters can use to donate to the campaign or register their support.
In the Dominion Country Club neighborhood, Donna Widawski, 52, a retired U.S. Secret Service officer, was going door to door to talk with voters. Between homes, Widawski stopped a woman pushing a stroller and asked her to “please consider voting for Mitt Romney,” handing her a flier touting the campaign’s messages.
Beyond persuading undecided voters, both campaigns are trying to ensure their own supporters get out and vote. For Obama, that means prodding voters from a coalition that is weighted with women and minorities, including blacks and Hispanics.
“What is important is the rise of college graduate whites and the bigger decline in working class whites, who tend to move Republican,” said William Frey, senior demographer at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
While McDonnell handily won Prince William County, he did so with only 35 percent voter turnout. By contrast, the county had 75 percent turnout in the 2008 presidential race.
Obama volunteer Marilyn Karp, 71, on Sept. 23 was visiting more than 40 addresses in a racially diverse townhouse complex in the Lake Ridge neighborhood of Woodbridge, where she met Okeke and other voters.
“The winning side is going to have to go down two or three layers into the electorate and capture the person who otherwise is a supporter and probably not engaged and if not reached out to, wouldn’t vote,” Kidd said. “Many Latino voters are those second or third layers.”
Obama has maintained a presence in the commonwealth since 2008 and has about 50 field offices statewide, with two targeted to Prince William County.
“The excitement hasn’t reached the pitch it did in 2008,” said Rick Flaherty, 71, who was in Woodbridge on Sept. 21 to attend an Obama rally. Still, the rally netted several new volunteers, who lined up at the Manassas field office the next day to participate in a lunchtime phone bank session.
Rachel Macedo, 28, provides evidence of the work that lies ahead for the Obama campaign. She cast her ballot for Obama in 2008, the first time she’d ever voted. This year, she’s not sure she’ll bother.
“I side more with Obama,” Macedo said, as she took a break from her job grooming dogs at Dogs Gone Wild in Bristow. “I just don’t know if I’m going to vote this year. I’m not as excited as last time.”
So far, she hasn’t been prodded -- either by the president’s campaign or his rival’s.
“No one’s ever called me,” she said.