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Judging the Ground Games

Since 2006, Democrats have had an edge in turnout operations. It pre-dates Obama, and it mainly involves using modern technology to facilitate traditional methods like phone banking and canvassing and data collection. It wasn’t so long before that when the Republicans were thought to have the edge in ground game, in 2004, with their “72-hour program.” So both sides have a potential claim to be able to move voters on the margins, in a consequential way, in what will be a series of close races across the country.

From the Democratic side, they have two things going for them. One is that a substantial portion of the outside money being spent on the race has been put into turnout operations. The phone banks seem to be humming at about the same rate as 2006. The other point in Democrats’ favor is that they have a centralized GOTV network inside the national party.

Organizing for America, the network that grew out of Mr. Obama’s campaign, began a program this week intended to reach seven million voters over seven days. The president will speak on a conference call to thousands of volunteers from the group on Wednesday evening, an incentive for people to hear directly from him and get them to agree to help Democratic candidates in the final push to Election Day.

“For the 2008 first-time voters, specifically, they really wanted to change the country,” said Jeremy Bird, deputy director of Organizing for America. “When folks see the president, it really makes them think about the importance of continuing that change.”

There’s no doubt that 2010 is a test run for Obama’s GOTV in 2012; that’s the reason for OFA’s existence. But it can help Democrats in tough races in the process.

On the other side, the RNC has basically gone dormant, outside of Michael Steele’s party bus, this election year. They have a far less sophisticated ground operation, and have given much less to state parties (unless you’re Guam) than the Democrats.

Republicans have made up for this deficiency in spades, by using corporate-funded outside groups. But while most of that money has gone into television ads, it’s hard to know how effective turnout operations will be. The LA Times sees problems, not the least of which is that the right has apparently just started their turnout operations.

But the push to get the nation’s conservative voters to the polls is fractured and untested, with some “tea party” activists refusing to cooperate with more mainstream Republicans, in contrast to the unified and well-organized parallel effort by unions and Democrats, according to key players on both sides.

For the final stretch, Crossroads is dedicating $10 million to the “ground game.” The conservative Americans for Prosperity expects to spend $17 million, opening field offices in 12 states. Tea party organizers, state parties, antiabortion groups and business associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have also begun their own get-out-the-vote efforts.

The state parties in Illinois and California, in particular, are well funded and sophisticated, and may surpass voter outreach those states have seen in the past […]

“There is a sense now that Republicans may not be able to capitalize on the backlash against [President] Obama and the Democrats because they lack the well-organized voter ID and get-out-the-vote effort that they have had in the past,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist who has been comparing the ground game of both parties. There is enormous variation now state to state, he said.

California’s an outlier because of Meg Whitman’s money and attention to the ground game, and her souring profile in the polls may mean that even her GOTV operation (which was successful in a special election for state Senate earlier this year) will save her.

The numbers I see in this brief are dwarfed by numbers on the Democratic side. And the lack of coordination may not matter in TV advertising, because there’s enough independent info floating out there to know which seats to target. But it means a heck of a lot in GOTV. In 2004, the Democrats outsourced their ground game to outside groups like America Coming Together, and basically everyone was bumping into one another in the field. It didn’t work. You need organization and coordination.

Now, there are other reports, like Adele Stan’s excellent Tea Party Inc. series, that suggests the right will have a big ground game. However, I’m struck by this, from none other than Ralph Reed:

“We’re building databases of faith-based and fiscal conservatives in every key congressional race, U.S. Senate race or governor’s race, and a lot of targeted state legislative races,” Reed explained. “Those voters are going to be contacted an average of seven times. We’re gonna mail ‘em, we’re gonna phone ‘em, if we have an e-mail, we’re gonna e-mail ‘em, if we have a cell phone number, we’re gonna text-message them. And at the end, we’re gonna knock on their door.”

Now that’s an actual ground game, but it could also be Ralph Reed blustering. It certainly didn’t work for him in a Lt. Governor primary in Georgia a few years back.

So I’d call the evidence somewhat inconclusive, but with a lean to Democrats because of their prior history and coordinated message.

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David Dayen

David Dayen