Ground Game

11.01.12

In Last Days of Campaign Ground Game in Ohio Comes Down to Math

As Obama maintains a slim lead in Ohio the state has become an arithmetic problem for both campaigns—measuring early voting and overall turnout, and making sure voters get to the polls.

The weather is getting cold, but the ground game here in Ohio is already hot.

The polls are tight in the Buckeye State with President Obama maintaining a small but steady lead of between two and four points in most polls. Ohio is his firewall and Romney’s must-win state, at least in terms of precedent—no Republican has ever won the White House without it.

At this stage of an election, politics becomes a math problem—measuring early voting and overall turnout, making sure that your voters get to the polls.

Early voting began here on Oct. 2nd, and it remains a core part of the president’s re-election strategy, especially after Republican efforts to restrict early voting periods were rejected by the courts.

According to a new CBS/New York Times poll, almost a quarter of the likely Ohio electorate has already voted, and among these early voters, Obama is beating Mitt Romney 60 percent to 34 percent—or a 26-point spread. 

But Republicans are more likely to vote on Election Day—in part reflecting their age and commitment to tradition. So Democrats need to build up a steady lead in early voting, and that’s why the Obama Campaign has set up more than 100 local headquarters across the 88 counties of Ohio—more than twice the Romney campaign.

Democrats do best in cities such as Cleveland and Columbus. Republicans do best in more rural counties. And that means the swing districts—like Stark County—are where this presidential election will be won or lost.

I went out to the Democratic Party headquarters and a local Republican victory center to get a sense of the energy and strategy in the final week of the election.

The Stark County Democratic headquarters is a small weathered brick building in Canton filled with campaign literature, computers, phones, and political memorabilia from FDR to JFK to Obama. 

As a handful of mid-day volunteers called supporters of incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown, County Chairman Randy Gonzalez sat down to discuss his focus on early voting efforts: “We’re chasing the early vote to make sure that the people who requested those absentee ballots are getting them turned back in, and we’re tracking that with the Board of Elections, and I know that we’re outperforming Republicans at this point.”

But Gonzalez isn’t resting easy—and he’s particularly anxious about what he calls a “nightmare scenario.”  If voters request an absentee ballot to vote early but don’t send it in—and instead show up at the polls on Election Day, they will cast a “provisional ballot”—which will not be counted until up to 10 days after the election, if the outcome is close enough to merit counting these provisional ballots. It’s something new to scare you the day after Halloween—the distant possibility that we might not know the winner of the election until Nov. 16th. Ground-game efforts are attempting to ensure that nightmare scenario doesn’t occur.

“We’re making sure that we’re getting on the phones—at least to Democrats—to make sure they get their ballots back in,” says Gonzalez. “Right now, there are 40,000 that have been mailed out and about 24,000 have been returned.  So 17,000 ballots could literally be the difference in some elections—not just the president, but all the way down the ballot for us.”

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images
The swing districts—like Stark County—are where this presidential election will be won or lost.

Despite the underlying anxiety, Gonzalez feels cautiously optimistic about the election outcome—though it’s a little disconcerting to find out that he consults FiveThirtyEight blog regularly to soothe his nerves. “I would say the president is going to win here—I’d give it a 75-80 percent chance. I feel very comfortable. I think a lot of the rhetoric we’re reading is sometimes just overplayed to make it look like a closer game. To build up the hype. I feel really good that the president and his campaign will get out the voters and the true message will come through.”

Down the road at the Republican Victory Headquarters, a temporary storefront is packed with volunteers working the phones and waiting for Sen. Rob Portman and the “Commit to Mitt Early Vote Express” to roll in. 

A senator first elected in 2010 and Romney’s debate sparring partner, Portman is a respected figure in the Senate and a former Bush Office of Management and Budget director. The mild-mannered man is a rock star in this crowd, and he was greeted with rounds of applause when he entered the room, bearing a box of cookies topped with Mitt Romney’s face in frosting.

Portman’s pitch was about the importance of early voting among volunteers so that they could be free on Election Day to be active parts of the GOTV effort.  I asked him about this message given the efforts to restrict early voting and his overall sense of the ground game to date. He laughed easily and said “a lot of Republicans just prefer to vote on Election Day. That was true in 2008—and we believe we’re doing a little better than 2008 and Democrats are doing a little worse than 2008. Republicans tend to like going down to the polls on Election Day … Democrats are more focused on early voting.”

Some close observers believe Portman’s local team could provide a critical edge for Romney’s ground game with the state so close.  “We ran in 2010 and we’ve still got folks on the ground. But it’s really not about organization,” Portman acknowledged. “It’s not about how many offices there are—it’s what being done in those offices. It’s about volunteers and what’s in their heart. We’ve seen just a lot of passion in the race. We’ve got the enthusiasm and the energy on our side this year.”

It’s clear that this is a play-to-the-base election in Ohio. Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden were rallying overflow faithful in Mahoning County while Portman was speaking to his packed house of volunteers. The next morning, Sen. Sherrod Brown was at the Golden Lodge union hall in Canton with his Get Out the Vote message, firing up members of the Steelworkers Union with a classic working man pitch—jobs and mills and good middle-class wages. The improving economy in Ohio is an asset when it comes to facts and figures, if not yet the overall feeling on the street.

There is a difference in tone between the two campaigns’ ground games here in Ohio. At the Obama for America headquarters in nearby West Massillon, the walls are brightly colored and inspirational Obama iconography is everywhere, along with pamphlets showing the president’s record and how it applies to Ohio, personal testimonials interspersed with hand-written posters reminding people to finish their call sheets. It has the feel of a college dorm even though more than half the volunteers working their cellphones at night are graying baby boomers.

In contrast, Republicans in Ohio have learned to love Mitt Romney, but the real energy comes from the motivation to kick Barack Obama out of office. The Republican vice chair of Stark County, Jane Timken—part of the family that owns a prominent, eponymous local business—walked that line in her plea for volunteers at the Victory crowd in Canton. “ My daughters always asks me why I’m always on the phone, why are you always in a meeting, why are you always doing this stuff for the Republican Party, and I look her straight in the eye and I said, ‘My America—the America I grew up in—will not be your America, if we don’t get Mitt Romney elected.’”