In the Air and On the Ground

In recent years, a series of studies by political scientists have demonstrated that the most effective means of winning votes and getting your voters to the polls is one of the oldest: in-person contact. Having neighbors knock on doors and talk to people gets you significantly more votes per dollar of investment than direct mail or television ads. The only trouble is that putting together a comprehensive ground operation is really difficult. You need people, lots of them, and you need them to be devoted, enthusiastic and willing to put in long and frustrating days calling people and trooping from house to house.

Over the weekend, The New York Times had a good article explaining how the Obama campaign's allies, particularly labor unions, will be putting their focus on the ground game in this November's election, while the Romney campaign's allies will be focusing on the airwaves. It's going to be a pretty stark contrast:

With just more than six months to go before the November elections, two distinct strategies have emerged among political interest groups: an air war on the right and a ground game on the left.

A cadre of super PACs and nonprofit groups backing Republicans plans to spend more than $450 million to oppose President Obama and other Democrats, relying almost exclusively on waves of radio and television ads that will wash over battleground states in coming months. The onslaught has begun as Republican groups strive to damage Obama’s standing ahead of the parties’ national conventions this summer.

Liberal groups, by contrast, are focused more heavily on grass-roots organizing, led by labor unions that hope to spend more than $400 million to rally their members and nonunionized voters against likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and other Republicans.

The differing strategies mean that voters, particularly in swing states, probably will be inundated with television advertisements attacking Obama well beyond whatever the Romney campaign airs. At the same time, many voters also will encounter swarms of canvassers handing out fliers and knocking on doors in support of Democrats.

You could explain this with the fact that Mitt Romney's supporters just aren't as enthusiastic as they could be, but that's not really the reason. It's more institutional. The key outside support for the Obama campaign will come from labor unions, and grassroots organizing is what unions have a lot of practice at. In contrast, the key support for Romney is coming from organizations like Crossroads GPS that consist of a small number of political consultants sitting in an office in suburban Virginia, writing ads and buying airtime. They exist to be a conduit for extremely large donations from extremely wealthy conservatives. They couldn't mount a grassroots campaign even if they wanted to, which they really don't.

We shouldn't overstate the degree to which this will determine the character of the entire campaign–there will be plenty of people knocking on doors for Mitt Romney, and plenty of ads on the air for Barack Obama. But on the whole, it's looking like more money is going to be spent in total (from the campaign and the super PACs) on Romney's side, and there will be substantially more grassroots activity on Obama's side. Which all else equal is better for Obama.

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