LAS VEGAS — It was at a modest house on the outskirts of this gambling mecca last weekend that I finally became confident President Obama would win reelection. As I approached the door, I noticed three young men standing inside, drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon. No point trying to talk a bunch of slackers into voting, I thought. Best to move on.
Then, one ambled over. "What's up?" he asked, clearly wondering why a middle-aged white guy was standing on his porch, clipboard in hand. But when he saw my Obama button, he broke into a goofy smile.
"We already voted," he said. It was still three days before the general election.
We've heard a lot in the last few days about the efficiency of the "ground game" that delivered the election for the president. I was just one pair of boots on the ground, so I'm not able to talk about how this thing was set up and managed by the generals and field marshals in Washington and Chicago. But from the vantage point of a grunt on the front lines — one foot soldier among thousands knocking on doors and trying not to get lost in strange neighborhoods — I can say the operation was impressive.
The last time I'd worked for a political candidate was in 1968, for Gene McCarthy. As I remember it, precinct work then involved a bunch of kids piling into a Volkswagen, heading to a residential neighborhood and knocking on random doors until we were chased off by angry Nixon supporters. After that, my career as a journalist didn't allow me to get involved in politics.
But with the 2012 election shaping up to be close, and no longer working in journalism, I decided to volunteer in one of the swing states.
The first clue I had to the campaign's efficiency was the prompt response I got after sending an email to the Nevada campaign. A worker asked for my phone number, called me promptly and assured me the campaign could use me.
When I arrived in Las Vegas, I was directed to the Stratosphere Hotel, where the campaign was putting up California volunteers (I assume in donated or deeply discounted rooms). The campaign office in the hotel, a short distance from the clinking of chips and the electronic chatter of slot machines, was in a state of controlled chaos. So many people had come from California — 150 from Los Angeles alone — that they were having trouble finding rooms for all of us, though eventually they did by putting more than one in a room.
The next morning, I rode to my staging area on a bus that had been arranged for by L.A. City Council member (and mayoral candidate) Eric Garcetti. I expected the air in the campaign office to be thick with anxiety, given what people said about the closeness of the race. Instead, there was a sense of calm purpose and determination among the youthful campaign workers — black, white, Latino and Asian.
Before heading out, we were instructed on how to conduct ourselves: Be polite, make sure you know where to tell voters to cast their ballots, ask if they need rides. And finally: Make sure you don't mispronounce the name of the state. The second vowel in Nevada, we were cautioned, is a short A as in "cat" rather than a broader A as in "ball."
In the parking lot, next to the seven gleaming white vans that awaited us, were sheets of butcher paper tacked to cardboard listing the names and phone numbers of volunteers. Our driver, a businesslike young woman from Spokane (without exception, every staffer I met was young and whip-smart), gathered us in a circle and asked us to introduce ourselves.
When we were dropped off, each of us was handed a clipboard, pens and a map with the addresses we were to visit marked. Next to each address was a voter name with an accompanying phone number and party registration. We were also given lots of bottled water to keep hydrated in the desert heat.
The first neighborhood we canvassed was dirt-poor, with more than a few abandoned homes, evidence of the housing collapse that hit Vegas so hard. As I began knocking on doors, I got a surprise. Even in this graveyard of suburban dreams, Obama literature hung from doorknobs at house after house, left by previous waves of volunteers. The campaign's shock troops had already blanketed this part of the city — and more than once.
Nevertheless, I found people who needed help, particularly with locating their polling places. The people I talked to seemed to really care about the election and about voting. I became so energized by what I was encountering that I found myself thanking Mitt Romney voters too for doing their duty. One of them thanked me back.
That night, I slept soundly. But the campaign staff clearly hadn't gotten much rest. When we turned up the next morning, they'd prepared a brand-new set of maps and addresses, all meticulously coded, as before, and attached to clipboards. They had recorded our results from the previous day and charted a fresh battle plan. This time, I was assigned to start at a huge apartment complex.
The most memorable exchange of my time in Las Vegas was a furtive conversation with an elderly woman through the back fence of a house with an eviction notice on the door. She quietly assured me that she and her husband would vote, regardless of where they were living on Tuesday.
When I got back to the campaign office after my last shift, I talked to an earnest but exhausted Obama worker named Edward. "I'm thinking you've got this sewn up," I said. He flashed a weary grin but said nothing.
Former Times staff writer John Johnson is the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book "Peppermint Twist," which tells the story of the mob-run nightclub that gave birth to the Twist dance craze.