Obama's Vaunted Ground Game Might Have Been Incredibly Overrated

A Harvard study finds the president only outperformed Romney by 1.6 points in swing states. But is that good or bad news for the GOP?
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What if we were all wrong about the Obama campaign's vaunted technological edge?

That's what two Harvard researchers are suggesting. In a new head-to-head comparison of voter turnout in battleground states, what many believe gave President Obama an edge -- his data-driven efforts at getting out the vote (GOTV) -- might not have mattered much after all.

In fact, the researchers discovered, when it came to turning out his swing-state base, Mitt Romney actually performed about as well as Obama did. The difference came down to little more than a percentage point. If those numbers are right, then either Obama's ground game was less effective than everyone says, or Republicans aren't quite at the disadvantage they think.

Compared to their counterparts in non-battleground states, swing-state voters turned out at a significantly higher rate -- 4.5 percentage points higher, to be exact. And when you break it down by party, the results are even more pronounced. Team Obama managed to turn out more Democrats in swing states than it did in safe states, by a margin of 15.4 percentage points. Registered swing-state Republicans, meanwhile, were 13.8 percentage points more likely to visit the polls than those across state lines. Here's how the study went down. There are 38 media markets in the United States that each cover a portion of a swing state and a portion of a non-swing state. Cross-referencing that with a national voter file, political scientists Ryan Enos and Andrew Fowler were able to identify 42 million individual voters. All of them were seeing the same ads on TV but, depending on which side of the border they lived on, they were getting different GOTV treatments, or personal outreach from campaigns encouraging them to vote, from either campaign.

So Obama bested Romney on swing-state turnout by 1.6 percentage points. In a closer race, that might be enough to flip a state. (What actually happened: Only four swing states were decided by less than a five-point margin. The race just wasn't that close.) But instead of focusing on whether 2012 could've ended differently, it's better simply to conclude that the figure contains a whole range of possible stories.

"You see a lot of talk in the media," Enos told me. "You know, 'Obama has a vastly superior technological campaign' and stuff. If it was vastly superior, it was 1.6 percentage points vastly superior."

Does that match up with the post-election narrative? Not really. A lot of ink has been spilled analyzing what Republicans did wrong, and what Democrats did right. One of the major lessons both sides drew from the experience was that data and behavioral analysis were key factors in the outcome -- an idea propelled by political journalists infatuated with the novelty of Big Data. (I'm as guilty of this as anyone.) That conclusion has done a lot to shape parties' behavior in 2013. Republicans, for example, are busy building a new data warehouse to compete with Democrats.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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