As Barack Obama trekked through the Philadelphia suburbs, Northern Virginia and Greensboro, N.C., in recent days, his campaign was ramping up a massive parallel effort in big cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Miami.
In the largely black precincts of those metropolises, radio broadcasts blast constant reminders to vote for Obama, field organizers swarm, and megastars including Jay-Z, Russell Simmons and LeBron James have led massive rallies, working to reach not just the substantial portion of the black community who regularly come out to vote but also the younger people and others who have never before cast a ballot.
Though the rallies are publicized, much of the advertising directed at black voters isn't. Get-out-the-vote ads on radio and television aren't released to the media, and the number of new voters Obama has registered is a closely held secret. He is, however, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to registering African-American voters. The campaign has, for example, a major initiative aimed at turning barbershops and beauty parlors into voter registration offices. This week, Kimora Lee Simmons' E! Network reality show, "Life in the Fab Lane," carried a campaign ad at the bottom of the screen reminding citizens to register to vote.
Monday morning, the deadline for registration in several key states, Obama appeared on two of the most widely heard African-American radio programs, where hosts implored listeners to register to vote and Obama directed them to his campaign's registration website.
"The African-American vote can be a game-changer in all sorts of states," Obama told host Steve Harvey. "In Florida, in Indiana, in North Carolina, in Ohio. I just want people to look at the numbers."
Little of this targeted outreach has produced images of Obama addressing black crowds or mingling with black officials, and most has gone unnoticed by the broader electorate.
"If you didn't notice it, then you probably weren't the target," said Obama spokesman Corey Ealons of the targeted advertising. He described the campaign's general voter registration drive — which has focused heavily on young voters, as well as African-Americans — as "a very extensive effort and that's been one of the highlights and major focuses of the campaign."
Obama's campaign is led by two of America's leading experts on the subtle dynamics of race and politics: the candidate himself and consultant David Axelrod, who has made a specialty of helping to elect black mayors and, more recently, the first black governor of Massachusetts. The model has been consistent: a media campaign that focuses intensely on white swing voters and a massive push to bring to the polls black voters who need no convincing of the historic nature of the candidacy.
Indeed, Obama's pioneering status has allowed him to run a campaign that focuses almost entirely on those swing voters and virtually ignores the base, at least in its public appearances. Obama doesn't do mega-rallies in a majority-black city like Detroit — and his is sometimes the only face that provides a measure of diversity to his television advertisements, which are peopled with the white voters he's trying to win over.
"What he has done is he's shunned black voters — but he knows that they know that he's black. And he knows that they know in our communities we have a certain feeling that he's got to do that to get those white votes," said Kevin Wardally, a New York City political consultant who worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton. "We inherently believe that what he's doing he has to do — he has to not be in Harlem to get those white votes."
Obama's holy grail is what Mark Blumenthal, the editor and publisher of Pollster.com, refers to as "asymmetrical black turnout": Obama doesn't just need black turnout to increase; he needs it to increase at a higher rate than white turnout.
"Ifthat happens, it could be worth a point or two in states like Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and maybe Indiana, and the polls may or may not be picking it up," he said.
Of course, every four years Democrats and their allies build a massive field operation, and every four years they claim that their efforts to turn out the party's base will carry them over the top. But close observers of the African-American vote say this year is truly different.
"We've never seen action like this when it comes to our targeted group, probably since 1984 or 88 when Jesse [Jackson] made his first runs," said King Salim Khalfani, the executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We didn't see numbers like this even with '04. We had lots of money in 2000 when we had our voter fund, but this year the excitement has been overwhelming through all sectors and classes."
"People who normally didn't care are excited, and it goes beyond class affiliation and age. Normally the older African-Americans are 80-90 percentile; now there are more young ones," he said. "It's just exciting. I've been doing this for 30 years, and have never seen anything like this."
African-American leaders in other key states echoed that impression.
"It's much easier now to register voters than it has been in the past," said the president of the Florida NAACP, Adora Obi Nweze.
And while Obama's campaign talks little about its field efforts, there's a quiet buzz of excitement about the shape of new voter registration. One junior Democratic staffer doing last-minute registrations in a swing-state suburb Monday told Politico that though his area was about 10 percent black, new registrants that day — the final day to register — were about half black.
Early statistics provide tentative support to the notion of a black voter surge disproportionate even to the massive turnout expected across the board in November.
In Georgia, for instance, the percentage of registered voters who are black has increased almost two points since 2004, to 29 percent, according to the Secretary of State's office. And, with early voting underway in the state, African-Americans are participating at vastly disproportionate numbers, casting nearly 40 percent of the early ballots, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Georgia is not a frontline state — though Obama's campaign did lead a voter registration drive there — but it may be a bellwether.
In North Carolina, for instance, 30 percent of a record-breaking surge of new voters announced recently were African-American voters; blacks make up just 22 percent of the state's population. In Virginia, registration isn't measured by race, but new registrants were concentrated in heavily African-American and Democratic counties, like the city of Richmond.
Obama sent lesser-known celebrities like L.A. Law's Blair Underwood, rapper Nas and comic George Lopez, to help register voters in Virginia cities, and he bused in college students from Washington to help.
It was part of a campaign taking place in venues ranging from barbershops to daytime television, and on many fronts well below the radar.
"The nontraditional pieces you'll find out about on Nov. 5," said spokesman Ealons.
Anna Phillips contributed to this story.