MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In the heart of Red State America, where a Democrat hasn’t been chosen for the White House in nearly four decades, Doris Crenshaw and other party activists are campaigning as though they were at ground zero in a swing state.
Crenshaw, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr., is engaged in a different struggle now: helping roust members of President Obama’s base living in otherwise Republican strongholds to do their part to help him beat Mitt Romney in the fall.
The chances are exceedingly slim that such efforts will flip a state like Alabama into the blue column come Election Day. But the work here is part of a longer term “50-state strategy” put in motion by the Democratic Party last decade. The objective is to build the party apparatus in states that have been traditionally Republican and make them eventually winnable for Democrats.
“Even though Alabama is red doesn’t mean it’s going to be red forever,” said Sebastian Wygoda, 17, one of the Obama campaign volunteers. “It takes awhile, but look at North Carolina. No one could have said eight years ago it would be a swing state.”
Toward that end, the Obama campaign is relying on volunteers and paid staff in Republican bastions — from the Deep South to the Mountain West — to make thousands of phone calls and organize dozens of trips to canvass and register voters.
‘This time the turnout of the [Obama] base is going to matter as much or more.’
“We will be playing even though we are not in play,” Crenshaw, 69, said last month as painters were sprucing up the Southern Youth Development Institute, located in a rundown brick building where King had his headquarters during the seminal bus boycott of 1955. “All of us have relatives in Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. We will be working on our relatives and friends.”
A hundred miles north in Birmingham, a similar effort was unfolding at Obama’s state headquarters. A team of volunteers wearing “Alobama” T-shirts worked the phones.
Some were calling people in Alabama, making the pitch for the president and his policies and educating them about voter registration and requirements.
“We call them all, Democrats, independents, Republicans,” said W.D. Foster, 49, a disabled veteran and retired police officer who volunteered one evening last month. “We’re trying to see whether they’re in for the president and if not ask why.”
But most, such as Bruce Nelson, 58, were calling voters in Florida and North Carolina, while organizers lay the groundwork for a series of bus trips to those swing states.
“The purpose of having a field organization in Alabama or Utah isn’t that the president is going to win the states,” said Ben LaBolt, the Obama campaign’s national spokesman, referring to another solidly Republican state. “We want to ensure if you are a supporter in a traditionally blue or traditionally red state you still have the capacity to influence undecided voters.’’
In Alabama, Romney’s campaign is taking a different approach — but one that shares the broader strategy of using the state as a launching point for Southern battleground states. He does not have a field office in Alabama, instead relying primarily on local officeholders to spread his message and help get out the vote.
“There is not a whole lot of action going on,’’ said Jeff Peacock, vice chairman of the Alabama Republican Party and grass-roots organizer for Romney. “Our challenge is to make sure there are opportunities for people to get involved.”
Christopher Walker, the Romney campaign’s spokesman for the Southeast, said the campaign’s Boston headquarters is enlisting more volunteers in Alabama and has identified chairs for Romney in two-thirds of Alabama’s counties.
“One of the things we are looking at is traveling to other states,” Peacock added, “to knock on doors and make phone calls. It is more important to go door-to-door in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia than it is in Alabama.”
That’s a message the Obama campaign has taken to heart. In neighboring Georgia, where Obama lost to Republican Senator John McCain in 2008, a similar game plan has been developed.
Shirley Franklin, former Democratic mayor of Atlanta and a vice chairwoman of the Democratic Convention in 2008, said the Obama team registered hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters four years ago. This time, she said, the focus is on using this corps to make a difference across the border.
“There is a heavy emphasis on North Carolina and Florida,” said Franklin.
Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University, said the strategy had success in 2008 in such places as Iowa, where thousands of students were bused and flown in to help Obama win the Iowa caucuses and the state in the general election.
“This time the turnout of the base is going to matter as much or more,” he said.
There are risks, he added. If the cross-border campaigning is not well organized, it could duplicate efforts in some areas and miss voters in others. Also, loads of out-of-staters could alienate some voters.
Yet if it is specifically targeted, with minorities enlisted to work with fellow minorities and students sent into college towns, it could make a real difference, Cain said.
The Republicans, meanwhile, tend to build grass-roots support through churches or, this year, the Tea Party movement, said Cain, who specializes in presidential campaign strategy.
“But I am not sure Romney is going to be able to organize the Protestant churches,’’ he said. “It will be interesting to see whether the Protestant churches mobilize for a Mormon.”
Even for the Democrats, enlisting volunteers to make the calls, register voters, and spread the president’s message isn’t easy.
One of Crenshaw’s foot soldiers, Courtney D. Meadows, an 18-year-old ordained minister, said the black community is not energized as it was four years ago.
“What we are dealing with is a very complacent generation,” he said. “We want to develop in them the need to participate.”