Political Animal


October 24, 2012 1:16 PM A Comparative Take on the Ground Game

By Ed Kilgore

Most of the stories on the “ground game” of the two presidential campaigns and their parties are a matter of dueling quotes, with Team Obama touting its sterling 2008 reputation and its vast sea of field offices while Team Romney compares its effort to Bush/Cheney ‘04 and its largely invisible (but reportedly very effective) direct voter contacts.

But The Atlantic’s Molly Ball decided to go into a battleground state (the easily accessible Virginia suburbs of DC) and look around, and her story, though not very conclusive, is well worth reading.

To make a very long story short, Ball found that the Republican “ground game” was more focused on down-ballot candidates than the Big One; was not at all preoccupied with voter registration or other efforts to expand the playing field; and didn’t seem particularly innovative in its strategic underpinnings or its infrastructure. And while she couldn’t completely document the alleged superiority of Obama’s 2012 GOTV program to its 2008 predecessor, she saw signs everywhere of a carefully thought-out and standardized effort.

Such accounts could obviously miss important factors. Some of the registration-based “playing field expansion” for the GOP was conducted in the runup to the 2010 midterm elections, as reflected in big shifts in the partisan registration numbers in important states like Iowa. And there wasn’t much in Ball’s story about the mechanics of the actual “knock-and-drag” whereby reliable voters are produced at polling places, either early or on November 6. But it’s still the best comparative look we’ve had so far, so give it a gander, and share any personal glimpses you’ve had at comparative “ground game” efforts in the comment thread.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • David in NY on October 24, 2012 1:36 PM:

    "The fact that my [Republican] canvassers only encountered voters Romney, Allen, and Perkins clearly had sewn up might be a sign of poor targeting, since campaigns' time is better spent turning out people who might not vote without the extra encouragement."

    This has been my experience canvassing and phone-banking for Democrats. Nearly 100% preaching to the choir, and a choir that, on election day, has usually already voted by the time I get to them.

    Now, if the campaign has lists of newly-registered voters, that could really be important, since they may be drop-outs on election day, not know where to vote, or the like. But in general, I've been disappointed in what I had achieved in a day (or a few hours).

  • David in NY on October 24, 2012 1:46 PM:

    I said the above to provoke responses from people who maybe have more experience or understanding than I do. I will be phone-banking next week for my union.

  • c u n d gulag on October 24, 2012 1:48 PM:

    I was involved in registering voters in the Fayetteville, NC, area back in '08, and I was shocked by how many people were not registered.
    There were so many more ways to register than back in '76, when I first voted.

    And I think we made a difference, because President Obama won the county (home of Fort Bragg) and the state, and Larry Kissell took the Congressional seat - both narrowly.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 24, 2012 1:50 PM:

    Instead of campaign offices, the RNC likes to tout voter contacts, a metric that includes the doors knocked and phone calls made by volunteers, and which cannot be independently verified. (It still counts if no one answers the door, I was told, because the canvassers leave literature behind.)

    My mother was told me about how the GOP campaigns in NC this weekend. She said that she received one flier from the GOP in her PO Box and another flier at her home address. Hoo-boy, was she pissed!!! So I wouldn't be surprised if those "contacts" were basically the entire registered voter roll-call, no matter party affiliation.

    It's not necessarily a bad tactic if they think a flier or two is enough to snag an undecided voter and motivate them to vote a month or two later. But it certainly registers more as an empty and impersonal gesture.

  • RonZ on October 24, 2012 2:03 PM:

    Not saying that Ms. Ball is wrong, per se. I can't know, and neither can anyone else prior to the election.

    However, I think that treating the DC suburbs as battleground areas is misplaced. Though there are still significant Republican outposts, the DC suburbs are among the most progressive areas of a purple state. Indeed, the tale of the 2012 election in Virginia will be a GOTV contest between Obama and Kaine's efforts in the DC suburbs and Northern Virginia and Romney and Allen's efforts in the rest of the state, especially the rural areas.

  • Steve LaBonne on October 24, 2012 2:12 PM:

    And while she couldn’t completely document the alleged superiority of Obama’s 2012 GOTV program to its 2008 predecessor, she saw signs everywhere of a carefully thought-out and standardized.

    Prediction: after January 2016 somebody is going to try to hire Obama as a CEO (not just as a figurehead) because- unlike MBAs Bush and Rmoney- he truly is an excellent manager.

  • SecularAnimist on October 24, 2012 2:32 PM:

    The Republican "ground game" consists primarily of suppressing the Democratic turnout through voter disenfranchisement, voter roll purges, intimidation, deceit and fraud -- and when those things fail, hacking electronic voting machines and otherwise corrupting the counting of votes.

    Ed Kilgore seems dismissive of this stuff -- but it's what put Bush and Cheney in the White House in 2000 and gave them a second term in 2004, and the GOP is doing it on a massive scale in 2012, with as little effort to conceal it as Romney gives to making his blatant lies even remotely believable.

    Here's my prediction of how this election will go:

    When the sun rises on the morning of November 7, 2012 there will not be a clear winner, and we will see the equivalent of Florida 2000 getting started in every battleground state, with Republican secretaries of state, GOP-run boards of elections, and GOP-appointed judges holding all the cards.

  • Robb on October 24, 2012 3:05 PM:

    Something to keep in mind however is that the Republicans don't need as organized a GOTV effort. Their partisans are generally more likely to be registered and ready, and more able to get to the polls.

    Democrats need to start early with registration (vilified all the way), and have a much less mobile and motivated population to deal with. A stellar GOTV program is a bonus for the GOP and essential for the Democrats.

  • gus on October 24, 2012 4:43 PM:

    "Team Romney compares its effort to Bush/Cheney ‘04 and its largely invisible (but reportedly very effective) direct voter contacts.”-Kilgore

    That probably includes churches...mostly protestant ones. This time with the zeal of the Latter Day Saints who door knock quite often, or so I hear.

  • markg8 on October 24, 2012 9:29 PM:

    I've been phonebanking for OFA from IL to IA and WI for a year now and we've done a lot of ID and persuasion calls to figure out who the person supports and help undecideds make up their minds. We're beyond that now. In late September we started in IA on early vote by mail and have moved on to making calls to hardcore Ds in those states who have already voted asking them to volunteer.

  • exlibra on October 24, 2012 10:15 PM:

    Because of my accent, I don't do phone banking but I have been knocking on doors (people are less rude about "are you even a citizen? What's your business peddling Obama?", when they're face to face), in my rural/small town south-western Virginia, for the past 4 weekends. The first 3 weeks, we had both "turnout" and "persuasion" people on our lists. Last week (and, I assume this weekend and the next) we've only had "turnout" ones. We still ask them if they're planning to vote for Obama and Kaine and our local Congressional (House) candidate, but it's mostly pro forma, since the people we're bugging are usually hardcore Dems, as several people have mentioned above. The only exceptions are what I assume to be (from their ages) the first time voters. So far, I've knocked on two such doors; one was definitely a lost cause, since I know the mother (the subject of our quest was not at home) and she's as rabidly anti Obama as I am for :)

    Once we get them to say when they're planning to vote, we make sure they know where to go, ask them if they need a ride, and ask if they'd be willing to volunteer.

    Until the last week, we also carried voter registration forms with us. Now, we offer to make getting the absentee ballot as easy as possible, should they say that's how they want to vote (we have a list of acceptable reasons for voting absentee, since it's a requirement in Virginia).

    And we annotate the lists as well as possible, so that we don't bug the same people again. I guess we're pretty well organised and we do have a lot of volunteers -- of all ages, from 18 to 80 -- given how small the two towns and the county are.