Is Persuasion Over?

If you read only one article about the respective ground games of the Obama and Romney campaigns, it should be this one, from Molly Ball of The Atlantic. As Ball says, it's long been axiomatic that a superior organizing operation can get you about an extra 2 percent on election day. The 2012 presidential election looks to be one where 2 percent will make the difference between victory and defeat, and almost everyone on both sides has acknowledged for some time that Obama has the better ground operation, not only because of their superior use of technology and social media but because they've been building it for four years. Ask Republicans today and they'll say they've nearly caught up, enough so that they can fight the Obama campaign to a draw. But that's not what Ball found. Visiting both campaigns' offices in different states, she saw a pattern: not only does the Obama campaign have nearly three times as many offices as the Romney campaign, the offices of the two camps look very different:

Obama's office suite in Sterling was in an office park next to a dentist's office. The front window was plastered with Obama-Biden signs, the door was propped open, and the stink bugs that plague Virginia in the fall crawled over stacks of literature -- fliers for Senate candidate Tim Kaine, Obama bumper stickers -- piled on a table near the front reception desk. In rooms in front and back, volunteers made calls on cell phones, while in the interior, field staffers hunched over computers. One wall was covered with a sheet of paper where people had scrawled responses to the prompt, "I Support the President Because...", while another wall held a precinct-by-precinct list of neighborhood team leaders' email addresses.

Only about a mile down the road was the Republican office, a cavernous, unfinished space on the back side of a strip mall next to a Sleepy's mattress outlet. On one side of the room, under a Gadsden flag ("Don't tread on me") and a poster of Sarah Palin on a horse, two long tables of land-line telephones were arrayed. Most of the signs, literature, and buttons on display were for the local Republican congressman, Frank Wolf. A volunteer in a Wolf for Congress T-shirt was directing traffic, sort of -- no one really seemed to be in charge and there were no paid staff present, though there were several elderly volunteers wandering in and out. The man in the T-shirt allowed me to survey the room but not walk around, and was unable to refer me to anyone from the Romney campaign or coordinated party effort.

These basic characteristics were repeated in all the offices I visited: The Obama offices were devoted almost entirely to the president's reelection; the Republican offices were devoted almost entirely to local candidates, with little presence for Romney. In Greenwood Village, Colorado, I walked in past a handwritten sign reading "WE ARE OUT OF ROMNEY YARD SIGNS," then had a nice chat with a staffer for Rep. Mike Coffman. In Canton, Ohio, the small GOP storefront was dominated by "Win With Jim!" signs for Rep. Jim Renacci. Obama's nearest offices in both places were all Obama. In Canton, a clutch of yard signs for Sen. Sherrod Brown leaned against a wall, but table after table was filled with Obama lit -- Veterans for Obama, Women for Obama, Latinos for Obama, and so on. The Obama campaign uses cell phones exclusively, while the Republicans use Internet-based land line phones programmed to make voter calls. Every Obama office has an "I Support the President Because..." wall, covered with earnest paeans to Obamacare and the like.

In a technical sense, the Romney campaign actually does not have a ground game at all. It has handed over that responsibility to the Republican National Committee, which leads a coordinated effort intended to boost candidates from the top of the ticket on down. The RNC says this is an advantage: The presidential campaign and the local campaigns aren't duplicating efforts, and the RNC was able to start building its ground operation to take on Obama in March, before Romney had secured the GOP nomination.

To repeat, the Obama campaign has been building its ground operation for four years; his re-election effort began the moment he took office. Part of the genius of Obama's organizing effort in 2008 was how it combined control and delegation. Obama headquarters knew exactly what every field office was doing, carefully tracked multiple kinds of data, and coordinated their volunteers' activities to get the maximum impact from every block walked and list phoned. But they also enabled the volunteers to feel like they had ownership of their little corner of the campaign. You could design your own signs, assemble your own lists of people to contact, and make your own page on my.barackobama.com. One of the reasons campaigns often have trouble retaining volunteers and getting the most out of them is that volunteering can be disappointing. You think, "I'm going to help out that candidate I like so much!", then you find yourself in a depressingly drab office, making cold calls and reading a poorly-written script to surly voters. It's disheartening, and lots of volunteers come once and then never come back. I've never seen any data on this, but I would be surprised if the 2008 Obama campaign didn't have better rates of retention and hours worked per volunteer than almost any campaign ever. And it looks like their succeeding at duplicating and even exceeding that effort this year.

Now, some caveats: the true nature of both campaigns' ground operations are somewhat opaque to even the most dogged reporters. Perhaps Romney's operation is better than it appears. The Romney grassroots effort is also being supplemented by substantial help from outside groups, particularly the religious right, as Adele Stan of Alternet has reported. So in the end, it could be a wash. But that's not how it looks right now.

And with 13 days left, the Obama campaign is beginning to think less about persuading the few remaining undecided voters, and more about getting their people to the polls. Here's an ad they put out today:

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