Friday, September 12, 2008

State of the Campaign #5: Ground Game

In addition to having a winning message, and a biography that allows viewers to envision you are president, and a strategy for winning 270 electoral college votes and the ability to bring Catholic swing voters into your column, you need to get your voters to the polls. You need a ground game, dedicated field workers who have organized precinct-by-precinct, know who plans to vote for you and a way of checking up on them come election day. In 2004, the GOP beat the Democrats on the ground but this year may be different.

The other day, I got a text message from the Obama campaign. Like many Americans, I signed up to be notified of Barack Obama’s vice-presidential pick by text message, and to sign up I had to give them my cell phone number. They let me know that Biden was the pick. They asked me to donate to the Red Cross when Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana. And, then Wednesday, I got the message: “Get info on how to vote at You can get registered, apply to vote absentee or find your polling location. Fwd msg to 5 friends!”

Sarah Palin may not know what the Bush Doctrine is but everyone knows what the Obama campaign doctrine is: organize, organize, organize. The decision to hold his convention acceptance speech at a football stadium in front of 84,000, despite the logistical nightmare (creating a plan B in case of rain, filling a stadium, distributing tickets, etc.), was made because they perceived a way to sign up volunteers. There was no charge to get into Invesco Field, but you had to provide your email and cell phone and promise to volunteer. That night, the Obama campaign added 45,000 names to its volunteer rolls. It is doubtful that John Kerry had 400 volunteers in Colorado in 2004.

The downside of the long primary for the Democrats was that it kept Obama from being able to focus entirely on the Republicans and created some bitterness in the ranks. The upside was that 36 million people voted in the Democratic primaries, an all time record. There was a ton of excitement but just as important there were hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters. Since 2006, more than 2 million new Democrats have been registered in the 28 states that tag party affiliation. In that same period, Republicans have lost 344,000 voters in those states.

According to the AP, changes in voter registration are central to Democratic confidence in some key swing states. Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary to Hillary Clinton by nine points. He has struggled with the white, ethnic, Catholic voters who prove decisive in the Keystone State. Since 2006, Democrats have added 375,000 new voters in Pennsylvania while the GOP has lost 117,000. The margin of 500,000 is more than twice as large as Kerry’s 2006 margin of victory in Pennsylvania: Kerry beat Bush by 194,000 votes.

Obama had hoped that aggressive efforts to register voters in traditionally red states like George and North Carolina could turn those states purple. This week, we learned that he is pulling staff out of Georgia: McCain’s successful convention and, even more, his choice of Sarah Palin, has strengthened his candidacy among evangelicals sufficiently that Georgia now appears out of reach for the Democrats. Virginia has become a battleground, however largely because of voter registration efforts. The Old Dominion does not register by party affiliation. But of the 202,000 new voters registered since the start of the year, 64 percent are younger than 35, a demographic that Obama should win handily. Kerry did not even contest Virginia in 2004 and Bush won the state by 262,000 votes.

You never know how your ground game does until election night. The effort to organize, register and mobilize young people has been a theme for Democrats for a long time, but no one has been able to get young people to vote in numbers commensurate with their share of the electorate. The Obama camp is using new technology and new organizing tools to get young people to the polls. If the election is as close as the polls indicate, the ground game could be the difference.

Michael Sean Winters

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