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Dave Matthews, Vaseline and Other Weapons in the Battle for Virginia

Wire. Duct tape. Electrical tape. Three half-foot lengths of solid steel rebar. These were some of the materials that Virgil Dolby, 61, used to try to secure his refrigerator-sized Romney–Ryan billboard against the vandals who would pry it from out of his front lawn every night. When nothing deterred them—not even the gobs of Vaseline he smeared onto the plywood frame he’d built for it—he and his fiancée, Anna Yevropina, chose to display it another way: mounted in the bed of his rusty gray pickup truck, which he parked along the highway at the edge of Sterling, Virginia, on Saturday.

“We wanted high exposure,” Dolby said, grinning. They got it. Clusters of passing cars offered lots of honking and whooping. Ten small Romney lawns signs planted in the grass around their truck shivered in the icy wind. Yevropina, a naturalized citizen from Moscow swaddled in a knee-length quilted coat, waved both arms at the road. When I ventured that she must be used to the cold, she smiled and barked, “No! I hate the cold!” An unseen driver yelled, “Romney rules!”

Dolby and Yevropina chose an optimal spot to anchor their sign. Sterling is what you might call persuasion territory. It is a diverse, white-collar town right on the Virginia-Maryland border, with a median income of $83,000, in Loudon County, Virginia’s most affluent. Obama carried this area with 54 percent of the vote in 2008. Yet Loudon and its surrounding counties remain competitive. Romney's chance of winning Virginia, and its 13 Electoral College votes, depends on his ability to coax the area’s well-to-do white voters who supported Obama four years ago to abandon him, in the next 72 hours.

The Obama campaign, in the waning days of the election, has an entirely different mission: ensuring turnout among those who are already persuaded. And on Sunday, the president’s almost absurdly precise Virginia ground game brought canvasser Gerry Wurzburg, 62, to a clump of anonymous apartment buildings in Dale City, 40 miles south of Loudon County.

Their owners mostly belong to the minority, lower-income set, the kind of voters who favor Obama but may be less likely to vote. Wurzburg, a brisk woman in lounge clothes and New Balance shoes—and, as I soon discovered, the Academy Award-winning director of the 1992 documentary short Educating Petersaid social issues are her passion; hence, why she is such a fan of Obama. The person who answered the first door she knocked on, however, was less enthusiastic. Alonzo, 36 (he withheld his last name), told Wurzburg that he would vote for the president—that is, if he decided to vote at all, which seemed unlikely. “Obama’s not gonna help me out,” he said. Wurzburg was gentle but unfazed. “I think this country could be very different if he doesn’t win,” she offered. Alonzo rubbed his temples. “Yeah, that’s what he said last time.” A children’s show blared from the television inside the apartment. “And I’ve been unemployed since I voted for him four years ago. Kind of ironic.”

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Wurzburg soon encountered more sympathetic people. When she asked a forty-something man and woman in the stairwell whether they are voting for Obama, they smiled and answered almost in tandem, “Of course we are!” A woman who was initially hesitant to open the door for Wurzburg instantly warmed at the sight of her clipboard. “Oh hi! You’re Obama! I like Obama!” And next door to an apartment with an eviction notice taped to its door, Wurzburg made arrangements with Frank Eaton, 63, who had just thrown out his back, to have the campaign drive him to his polling place.  Later, she murmured of Alonzo, “I think we got him to vote.”

The Romney "Victory Office"  in Sterling, located between a vacant strip-mall property and a Sleepy’s Mattress Store, was bustling on Saturday with persuaders. They pulled up in Audis and Chevy Suburbans to the office, which was plastered with every Romney sticker imaginable ("UVA Wahoos for Romney!"). Nancy Theis, a D.C. resident in her late sixties, volunteered there as a phone banker. Wearing a long fur-trim coat, she said that speaking with the fed-up voters had made her confident that Romney, whom she already refers to as “the president,” will win the state and the presidency. “People are so very anxious to tell you why, after they voted for Obama last time, they are so disappointed.”

Persuasion versus turnout is not the entire equation in Northern Virginia, and for an edge, Romney can look to the mechanics of Election Day. The particulars of the state’s ballooning population growth may favor Obama, but its election laws skew the other direction. Virginia has a lenient but potentially confusing voter ID law, and voting rights groups anticipate squadrons of conservative poll watchers who face a very low evidentiary burden to call votes into question. Someone like Alonzo—who says he lost his voter registration card and doesn’t have any bills in his name at his current address, two forms of ID he could use to vote—would be an easy target for a challenge. Many Romney supporters I met planned to work as poll watchers on Tuesday, including Yevropina, who did so when she lived in Maryland “because of all the African-Americans."

Obama supporters are nevertheless in a heady mood. On Saturday night, roughly 25,000 of them swarmed Northern Virginia’s Jiffy Lube Live for a rally with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Dave Matthews Band. Natalie Spaulding, 27, drove three hours to meet friends there. The smell of booze surrounded their group, who were waiting in line outside the amphitheater and clutching Solo cups. “I am expecting a duet between Michelle and Obama, with Clinton on the sax.” “The trifecta.” “And Sasha and Malia doing backup vocals!” “And what’s the dog’s name? Bo dancing in some sort of costume.” “Can you write that down? We’re expecting to see the trifecta.” I wondered aloud whether Obama had ever voluntarily listened to a Dave Matthews song. Spaulding thought it over. “Yes. Ten times.”

I moved down the endless line of supporters. They were mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings. The Atlanta transplant who was really just there to see Dave for free, and the grungy Brooklyn musician who archly implied that he could live without the band's set. “Obama’s absolutely going to win Virginia,” said Cody Moore, a Fairfax-area 24-year-old standing in line with his girlfriend. I asked if he’d run into Obama’s legion canvassers. “Oh yeah, we lost that thing, didn’t we?” he said, apparently referring to the campaign’s doorknob hangers, which list polling places and voter ID information. His girlfriend giggled and playfully hit him. “Dude," he said, "I guess we’d better find that thing.”

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