CINCINNATI -- The presidential ground game unofficially begins Saturday for Hamilton County Democrats.
Hillary Clinton opens her Cincinnati office on Saturday and volunteers will be out canvassing neighborhoods and phone banking ahead of the March 15 primary.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’ supporters are planning a one-mile march of nearly 1,000 people in downtown Cincinnati on Saturday.
“This is an indication that these campaigns are about to ramp up in Ohio. And I think they will be doing so very quickly,” Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke said.
With Ohio’s primary just over three weeks away, campaigns for all presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat, will accelerate quickly in Ohio. And that may bring candidates here.
“I would fully expect sometime before March 15, both Hillary and Bernie will be in Cincinnati,” Burke said. “I would be really surprised if that was not the case.”
Clinton’s office here, on Kovach Drive in Lockland, borders Interstate 75 where Burke expects a giant billboard to be placed soon. The campaign already has two-fulltime staffers in Cincinnati, Burke said.
Her campaign also opened offices in Columbus and Cleveland this week.
The Sanders campaign is planning large marches for Columbus and Cleveland in the coming weeks, but the first begins at 1p.m. Saturday at Cincinnati City Hall.
While the Ohio primary is important, because it occurs later in the election cycle it normally doesn’t receive as much attention as earlier states such as New Hampshire and Iowa. That may be different this year, as political experts say the races are closer and the entire election is historically untraditional.
This primary pomp is a preview of the intense attention that will descend upon Ohio – and Hamilton County in particular – ahead of the November general election.
“I think frankly we’re the most important swing county in the most important swing state in the country,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said. “So we’ll be getting a lot of visits from presidential candidates.”
Yin and Yang Campaigns
The wind-up to primary season began here in a high-profile way – with a visit from Bill Clinton on Feb. 12.
Several hundred people crammed into a third-floor auditorium in the Clifton Cultural Arts Center to listen to the former president say why his wife is a better choice than Sanders or any of the Republican candidates.
Days later, Cranley held his own press conference for Clinton in front of city hall on Feb. 17 – the first day of early voting. Afterward several supporters, including Julie Sellers, president of Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, a union representing 2,800 teachers, walked to the board of elections office to vote for Clinton.
“She is the best chance to beat Donald Trump in the fall,” Cranley told WCPO. “I don’t want to see a President Trump.”
While the Sanders campaign isn’t hosting celebrities or sending out press releases about events, supporters are meeting nightly at homes to talk politics, make signs and phone bank. The campaign relies heavily on social media.
For example their Cincinnati#March4Bernie Facebook page posted that 913 people will attend the march here on Saturday. But as of Friday, organizers didn’t have a route for the march, a speaker list, or a PA system.
“I haven’t seen anything quite this grassrootsy before,” said Mike Moroski, a longtime Democratic activist and former Cincinnati City Council candidate, who supports Sanders.
“What you’ve got going on with Bernie is, somebody starts a Facebook group and just invites their friends,” he said. “This is different. It’s really not under the radar... it’s under the establishment radar and kind of counter cultural.”
On the Cincinnati#March4Bernie Facebook page, there are posts about a sign-making party for Saturday, group ride shares and instrument requests. One supporter asked if he should bring tambourines, bells and a big bass drum to the march.
On the official go.berniesanders.com website, there are 139 events listed within 100 miles of Cincinnati over the next five weeks. Most are simple posts – such as Ohio State University students who will meet at a statute, or others who want to meet at a library to phone bank.
“I go to these events and its all different kinds of people,” Moroski said. “It’s not uncommon to hear people say, ‘I’ve never voted in my life.’”
So what has Burke, who leads county Democrats here, heard about the Sanders’ campaign?
“Absolutely nothing,” Burke said. “We’re not seeing any real organization here yet.”
He offered to send out press releases for Sanders events, just as he does for Clinton, but to date, he said no one from the Sanders campaign has contacted him.
“His supporters are Democrats but they are operating outside of the traditional model,” Burke said. “I’m hesitant to liken Bernie to Obama, but he is getting an impressive number of people at big events nationally. And that excitement is good for everybody.”
'Hillary’s coffees' Ladies Gear Up
No one could be more excited for campaign season than Michele Mueller of Delhi Township.
“Our little coffee bunch is always excited and ready to take action,” Mueller said. “And looking forward to the big opening on Saturday.”
Mueller met a group of women, ages 65 to 88, at a Wyoming phone bank while trying to get Clinton elected to the White House in 2008. When the campaign ended, the disheartened women decided to meet for coffee to keep in touch.
And once a week, every single week, for more than seven years, they have done just that.
They call them “Hillary’s Coffees” — when they meet at College Hill Coffee Company and Casual Gourmet to talk about families, vacations, new jobs, weddings and funerals.
But their most frequent topic is their common bond: Hillary Clinton.
After WCPO featured them in a story in September, Clinton wrote each a personal letter, thanking them for their support and asking if she could join them for coffee sometime.
Florence McGraw, 84, of Sharonville, is known as the quickest on-foot campaigner in the bunch. She carries a hammer and screwdriver in the trunk of her SUV and uses them to pound campaign signs into front yards. She, and the rest of her friends, will be walking neighborhoods on Saturday.
“I love going door to door,” she said. “I just hope my legs keep going. I’m like a horse in a barn … I’m ready to go!”