Beyond the presidential debates, one final factor matters more than all the rest in a close race: ground game.
It’s the ability to get your voters to the polls—a way of moving soft support into actual votes.
Field operatives have been undervalued in recent years, as the focus of campaigns has shifted to big-money ad-bombs, compounded by the super-PAC economy. But this presidential campaign is going to come down to a few percentage points in a half dozen states, and suddenly ground game is about to get a lot of respect.
So The Daily Beast decided to map out the Obama and Romney local headquarters across the country as one way of gauging the strength of each campaign’s ground game. And what we found was an overwhelming advantage—755 to 283—by the Obama campaign on at least this one metric.
In the key swing states of this election the numbers are stark:
In Ohio, 122 Obama local HQs compared to 40 for Romney.
In Florida, the Obama campaign has 102 local HQs versus 48 for Romney.
And in Virginia, a more even split—47 for Obama compared to 29 for Romney.
Within these swing states, the placement of these volunteer field offices is predictably stacked in populous swing counties like Hamilton and Stark in Ohio. But the Obama team’s numeric advantage allows them to place local offices in even more rural, red-leaning counties like Union, Muskingum, or Pickaway, which they lost even in the 2008 landslide.
The second tier of swing states also shows the Obama team’s focus on ground game—Iowa, in particular, is shaping up to be a must-win for Obama, and his campaign boasts 66 HQs in the state, compared to just 13 for the Romney campaign. Colorado has 61 Obama offices compared to 14 for Romney. And Paul Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin has 68 Obama HQs as opposed to 24 for the Romney-Ryan ticket.
“If this comes down to a 3 or 4 point race—which it looks like it will—ground game will matter.” says Ed Rollins, who ran Ronald Reagan’s landslide 1984 campaign. “And the Obama campaign has invested millions in ground game, going back to a foundation they built in 2008.”
This disparity would seem to reflect a longstanding concern I’ve heard from Republican operatives over the course this year: that the Romney campaign is insular and isolated from the national Republican apparatus. “Trying to run a national campaign out of Boston if you’re not a Democrat is idiotic,” is how one GOP mandarin put it. “You’re surrounded by the enemy. It’s like going to Moscow to negotiate a peace treaty.”
Conventional wisdom lays at least some of the blame on the Romney campaign’s colorful and controversial senior adviser Stuart Stevens, who has spent most of his career on the media-strategy side of politics rather than field operations. This perception compounds the historic advantage Democrats have enjoyed when it comes to get-out-the-vote efforts, often aided by unions on Election Day.
“Republicans are not good at ground game—it’s not something we’ve been good at in recent years,” concedes Ed Rollins, who ran Ronald Reagan’s landslide 1984 campaign. “If this comes down to a 3 or 4 point race—which it looks like it will—ground game will matter. And the Obama campaign has invested millions in ground game, going back to a foundation they built in 2008.”
But Rollins sees a bright silver lining for the Republicans in the current RNC leadership. “The chairman of the RNC is a ground guy,” he says referring to Reince Preibus. “He’s from Wisconsin, where ground game matters. And he’s done a tremendous job of building an infrastructure behind the Romney campaign—so Reince deserves a lot of credit for that.”
It’s an opinion seconded by longtime GOP operative Rick Ahearn. “Reince has been building the ground game since he’s been chairman—that’s what Rick Wiley has been doing as political director and my guess is that he’s been doing a very good job. I know they’ve got a lot of people canvassing in northern Virginia. They’re doing a lot of door-knocking and following up with phone calls on Election Day. And having just been through the fight in Wisconsin over the attempt to recall Governor Walker, Wisconsin’s got a ground game that’s the best in 40 years.”
That Wisconsin recall offers a sobering reality check for Democrats feeling overconfident about the impact of their ground game. The recall election was regarded by labor unions as having existential importance. They went all in. And they lost. The combination of super-PAC spending and national Republican support (aided by an RNC dominated by Wisconsinites) gave Governor Walker a larger victory than he’d received in 2010.
Moreover, local headquarters only give a bricks-and-mortar snapshot of local outreach. “Democrats love to use that metric,” says a frontline GOP operative. “The Obama campaign is a byproduct of the president—big government. But we’re contacting more voters than ever—we just crossed 34 million voter contacts on phones and 6 million doors, blowing past the McCain totals in 2008. The Obama campaign isn’t releasing their numbers, which tells me they don’t have them. So there’s this fallacy that the Obama campaign has this great ground game, but we’re just not seeing it on the ground.”
To that point, last weekend I drove through Carroll County and Columbiana County, Ohio—taking the long way between Canton and Youngstown—and was struck by the dominance of Romney-Ryan lawn signs in small towns and rural roads while Obama-Biden signs were almost unrepresented.
Ground game has been considered the Obama campaign’s trump card and much of that edge has been taken on faith, backed up by their lopsided dominance in local offices.
This year the get-out-the-vote aspect of the campaign—the purpose of ground game—has already begun in the form of early voting, which begins in North Carolina and Nevada this week. This new factor adds an urgency to ground game efforts in the weeks before Election Day.
It’s now clear that this election will be close. Mitt Romney has been surging in the polls since his first debate, building on an edge with independents. Ground game will matter more than most years—it will determine the winner in these key swing states. “Turnout is going to be very important,” agrees Rick Ahearn. “I think there are going to be a lot of surprised people on the 7th of November.”