Saturday, November 1, 2008

Stripping a Good (or Bad) Ground-Game

As all four of my loyal readers know, I spent yesterday driving people to early voting. Beginning at about 9:30AM, and running more or less continuously until the polls closed at 7:00PM, I shuttled a total of forty-four college students from a pick-up point on the campus of the University of Florida to the nearest early voting station in downtown Gainesville. And the remarkable thing about that statement is that there is nothing remarkable about it whatsoever.

For six months or more, all across the country, the Barack Obama campaign has run a pitch-perfect and hyper-disciplined ground operation. While John McCain was trying to decide whether Obama was a coddled celebrity and liberal elitist, or a nefarious black-underground wannabe with an ugly agenda for race-dividing, Team Blue was quietly building databases, developing a turnout plan, reaching every soft supporter that could possibly be reached, and all while cultivating supreme pride of ownership in the campaign among even the lowliest of its incidental volunteers ("If you have a suggestion for us about how this is or isn't working, Dave, here's a cell-phone with our regional offices already speed-dialed").

Perhaps not surprisingly, the local face of this juggernaut of retail prowess has been focused on turning out college students: state law allows any Florida resident to change his or her registration address at the time of voting, and as such any college-aged Obama supporter with a valid Florida driver's license may vote in the town of his college in favor of his "permanent" address, if he wishes. Thus it is, that an entire universe of potentially soft and fickle Obama supporters would be concentrated in an extremely small geographic area, ripe for banking.

What the Obama campaign did about this was to position teams of three or four (extensively trained) volunteers in strategic locations around the campus, specifically where large numbers of students would pass a small parking area on foot during class change-overs. The volunteers would ask passersby if they were Obama supporters, if they'd voted yet, if they'd like to vote, and if they'd like a ride--all while the vehicle in which they'd be riding was propped conspicuously a few feet away, its windows painted with waggish puns of the "Yes We Van!" sort. When drivers weren't driving, they were given cell phones and call lists, and phone-banked from their parked vehicles.

The effect of this one-two punch was to replace the entire, supposedly arduous process of gathering one's ambition to brave a monolithic and intimidating bureaucracy (the gathering process that so many college students had in past elections failed to accomplish) with an expression of support that could be officially manifested, on impulse. It is little wonder that, at my pickup point alone, the total haul for a single day's shuttle pickups was significantly over 300 people. And in case you've forgotten, Al Gore's official margin of "defeat" in Florida was less than twice that figure.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign's ground operations have been all but non-existent, even in places where he simply cannot win without one. Some well-respected columnists have fallen for the campaign's argument that they've had to sacrifice the typical Republican advantage in mobilizing voters. But the intrepid young souls at Fivethirtyeight have in the meantime been driving literally all over the country, looking for stories about the two field operations in the very sorts of crucial precincts where 1992 became 2000 and then, alas, became 2004. And what those less-traditional reporters have found (by practicing the traditional, unglamorous, shake-the-bushes job that journalism used to be), is a McCain/Schmidt/Davis team so shockingly unable to marshal ground-level resources as to leave room to wonder how they've managed to keep this thing even as close as they have.

At three stops in what was once the crucial swing-state of New Mexico, the Fivethirtyeight reporters found a single dialer working the phones at McCain offices in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and were handed a staged photograph in Espanola. In Colorado they were greeted by two closed-and-locked offices (in Durango and Grand Junction) and a posed photograph of a door-knocker in Cortez. The Des Moines office was open but contained not a single volunteer, while at the Troy, Ohio office, the Fivethirtyeight team arrived to take their photograph of the front facade at the same moment two local women approached the building to volunteer--only to discover that the building was closed and locked (in the mid-afternoon on a Saturday). They found one dialer working in Columbus, two volunteers and a security guard in Toledo, two dialers in the entire state of Virginia--despite making five stops there--and two more at two offices in North Carolina.

To put all of that in its proper context, I'd met more Obama volunteers than that, at the local field office, before I'd driven my first voter to the polls. What struck me more than once over the course of the day is, Republicans are supposed to be good at this kind of organization, and Democrats are supposed to be bad at it. Instead the roles of the two parties seem strikingly reversed this time around, and it's really starting to show in the numbers we've been getting for early voting and for other forms of "banked" support. Fivethirtyeight has moved Colorado and Virginia to "safe DEM," for one thing, and McCain's all-in gambit to win Pennsylvania has so far made barely a dent.

Of course as any Cubs fan will tell you, nothing is absolutely for certain until the final out has been recorded--which explains why Mr. Obama and his campaign have seemed so ruthless in their pursuit of deal-closure, and so quick to tamp down the only slightly early celebrations. All of us must do our part, and all of us must keep doing our part--notably to counter the horrific fraud that the other side is sure to try once again to perpetrate on a credulous public. Only with sheer margin-of-victory can this deal properly be closed. And if this column ends up seeming a bit breathless, it's because I'm going straight back out today.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


Anonymous said...

Keep fighting the good fight, Dave.

One of your "Four" loyal readers. ;-)

A. Gordon said...

Ugh, 5:17AM? Let's see, that was just after 3AM my time....I had just gone to bed 3 hours prior.

CNN's Campbell Brown (no bias, no bull, but tons of drama) reported the other day that the young voter crowd shockingly did not make up a significant portion of the early, not-absentee ballot, voting. I have no idea how they concocted these statistics but wondered if this is what you've noticed.

They then went on to compare it to students and their classes vs. final exam ala, students sometimes don't show up for class, but they do for the final.

Dave O'Gorman said...

We've been hearing anecdotal reports of the student vote "underperforming" in Florida, but at the precinct end of my loop yesterday, most of the people waiting in line were college students. There have also been stories suggesting that Obama has actually passed McCain in Florida, even when the mail-in absentee ballot *requests* are all counted as McCain votes. I wouldn't want to be counting on Florida, if I were Obama, but I think the chances of him winning it are good, anyway.

Erin said...

As loyal reader number 4, I thank you for your insight, and I thank you even more for your work to turnout the vote. I wish I had time to volunteer myself, but I have a full time job, a 2-year-old daughter, and a 5-month-old son. I just haven't had the time to do anything besides put up a sign in my yard.

So thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Well, we're all claiming the #4 spot, but anyway, thanks to your kick in my butt to get me out of the house and volunteering. I have knocked on more doors than I care to count, and have had a ball doing so. I think another thing the MSM has failed to mention is that this incredible "boots on the ground" phenom is not going away, and will be the basis for even more gains in 2 years. As you say, the Dems are supposed to be so bad at this, and speaking as a 63 yr old female, I can attest to the truth of that statement--we have been soooo bad. I think that this is due in large part to Dean's 50 state strategy. I argued with hubby who was an inveterate Hillary supporter, that she represented "old" Dems. He hadn't a clue what I meant, but it is so exciting to go to a rally, and there are young and old, black and white, hearty and ill, all gathered around and sharing stories and enthusiasm. That is something that McPain can't buy: enthusiasm and joy. The atmosphere at the local office (and we have never had one in our little town) is just bubbling over. I have also met a zillion new friends right in my own neighborhood==and lots of "Republicans for Obama".
Thanks to you, to and all the other blogs to keep our spirits up. whoopee!

A. Gordon said...

Local news is announcing here in CO that some 56% of active voters (~1.5 million) have already voted. Now, what an active voter actually is, I have no idea.

I've also heard that a very high number of folks have voted early in NM, but don't have numbers.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for a month or so.

I guess that means you have 5 loyal readers.