In a close election, the president's sophisticated organization -- which Republicans don't seem to have matched -- could make all the difference.
STERLING, Virginia -- A giant chalkboard takes up a wall in this unassuming office suite hung with Obama signs, one of more than 60 campaign offices for the president in this battleground state. On it is drawn a calendar of the final weeks before the election. Phone banks, canvasses, and campaign events are marked in color-coded chalk. And every Saturday through Nov. 6, in capital letters, is marked "DRY RUN" -- a precision-timed Election Day simulation drill, where everything from data reporting to snacks is rehearsed down to the minute.
Forget the polls, the debates, the last-minute ads and volleys of insults. This is how the Obama campaign plans to win the election.
Four years ago, Barack Obama built the largest grassroots organization in the history of American politics. After the election, he never stopped building, and the current operation, six years in the making, makes 2008 look like "amateur ball," in the words of Obama's national field director Jeremy Bird. Republicans insist they, too, have come a long way in the last four years. But despite the GOP's spin to the contrary, there's little reason to believe Mitt Romney commands anything comparable to Obama's ground operation.
And this time, Obama may actually need it.
Though he trounced John McCain organizationally four years ago, the irony was that Obama didn't really need his sophisticated field organization. Riding a wave of voter enthusiasm and Bush fatigue, and crushing McCain with fundraising and TV ad spending, Obama almost certainly would have won the 2008 election anyway. The political operative's rule of thumb is that organization can increase your share of the vote by two percentage points; Obama won the national popular vote by seven points. One academic study looked at Obama's edge in field offices and concluded they probably put a couple of extra states in his column, but he would have won without them.
This year is different. The polls are so close that a lively partisan meta-fight has broken out over which side actually has the upper hand going into the final stretch, with Romney claiming momentum is on his side, while Obama clings to slim leads in enough swing states to take the Electoral College. In an election that's tied in the polls going down to the wire, Obama's ground game could be crucial.
In the closing days of the race, "we have two jobs," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Tuesday. "One, to persuade the undecideds, and two, to turn our voters out." The former is the job of the president and his TV and other media ads. As for the latter, "That's the grassroots operation we've been building for the last 18 months."
The Field-Office Gap
While Obama's office in Sterling is one of more than 800 across the country -- concentrated, of course, in the swing states -- Romney commands less than half that number, about 300 locations. In the swing states, the gap is stark. Here's the numerical comparison in what are generally considered the top three swing states -- Ohio, Florida and Virginia:
But the difference isn't just quantitative, it's qualitative. I visited Obama and Romney field offices in three swing states -- Ohio, Colorado and Virginia -- dropping in unannounced at random times to see what I could see. There were some consistent, and telling, differences.
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.
"The Romney campaign doesn't do the ground game," Rick Wiley, the RNC's political director, told me. "They have essentially ceded that responsibility to the RNC. They understand this is our role." The disadvantage of this is that the RNC is composed of its state Republican Parties, which vary dramatically in quality. States like Florida and Virginia have strong Republican operations, while those in Iowa and Nevada haven't recovered from attempted takeovers by Ron Paul partisans, and the Ohio GOP still bears the scars of a protracted leadership fight earlier in the year.
And while the RNC and Romney campaign exert a centralizing influence, there is nowhere near the standardization of Obama's Starbucks-like franchise operation, each with its identical "I Support the President Because..." poster.