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The Hype on the Obama Ground Game, and Why It May Not Be As Giant a Factor

In a briefing in Charlotte today, Jim Messina expanded on a theme I’ve seen quite a bit of recently, that the Democratic ground game will provide the edge in the 2012 election.

“On the ground we continue to see just incredible enthusiasm,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said at the ABC News/Yahoo News Newsmaker forum on Tuesday. “And we are going to beat all the ’08 records because we have had five years to build this, in part because we know how to do it better.”

Referencing the technological innovations that the campaign could bring to voter turnout efforts, Messina added: “This is light-years ahead of where we were in 2008. We are going to make 2008, on the ground, look like ‘Jurassic Park.'”

According to Messina, the campaign will knock on 150 percent more doors than it did in 2008, in addition to registering roughly that many more voters than four years ago. They are also planning a multiplatform digital operation to engage voters during the convention, as well as a “dashboard” that would allow people to organize unregistered voters or those not yet supporting a candidate by using the campaign’s own voter lists.

This connects with a lot of chatter going into this week. Seth Masket, a political scientist, compared the number of field offices between the Obama and Romney campaigns and concluded that Obama was far ahead of the curve. “It seems more like the campaigns have different philosophies when it comes to deploying campaign resources, with the Romney folks believing they can win in the air and the Obama folks believing this will be won on the ground,” Masket wrote. In addition, a couple pieces in the New York Times looked at the Obama campaign’s ground advantage in Colorado, as well as the allied union campaign in Ohio. Again, you see this dichotomy, between the air attacks from Republican-allied SuperPACs, and the ground efforts of Dem-allied groups.

“It’s clear now that the Republican super PACs are going to outspend Obama massively,” said Joseph A. McCartin, a Georgetown University professor who has written extensively about unions’ role in politics. “That’s where I think labor’s true importance will be highlighted this time. Whether what labor can do is enough is yet to be seen.” […]

Here in Ohio, union leaders expect that a record number of volunteers, pressing for Mr. Obama and Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat and a favorite of labor, will call or knock on the doors of 2.3 million voters by Election Day, Nov. 6, double the number they reached in the last presidential race.

“The truth is we’re never going to come remotely close to matching the money on the other side,” said Jim Lowe, a senior organizer for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. “But this allows us to reach a far wider audience.”

The AFL-CIO provided a background report on their grassroots mobilization for the election. They plan to deploy over 400,000 union members across the country, including in House and Senate races (one of their priority states is Massachusetts, with Elizabeth Warren on the ballot).

This is all very compelling stuff. Let me give you three reasons why I wouldn’t put too much stock in it.

1) Heard it. This is the exact same refrain that we heard in 2010, that the Obama campaign organization would provide a ground edge for Democratic candidates, that labor would mobilize, that Democrats would outwork their counterparts on the ground. It didn’t materialize. Money did swamp the ground game that year. Similarly, in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall, which the Obama campaign called a “dry run” for their voter targeting efforts, they didn’t move the needle; the final result mirrored the 2010 election between Scott Walker and Tom Barrett. The difference is that you have a more motivated actor in the Obama 2012 campaign, and their organization always cared more about electing a President than anyone else. But money does tend to rule in political campaigns, especially at the downticket levels.

2) Finding the voters. The difference between 2008 and 2012 is four million foreclosures and millions more jobless. That increases the transient nature of a subset of voters that are more naturally inclined to go for Obama. I’ve read countless stories about how the foreclosure crisis is making traditional grassroots campaigning far more difficult. Here’s one, from Wisconsin.

In many Milwaukee neighborhoods, high foreclosure rates and high rates of poverty are making it more difficult for groups involved in get-out-the-vote efforts to find potential African-American voters, even in a presidential election year.

The effort to locate potential voters in Milwaukee is of particular concern to the Democratic Party, which counts immigrants and minorities among its constituencies.

For James Hall, the head of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, the challenge of locating voters in high-poverty areas, especially areas hit hard by foreclosure, is not new. But the task of locating and signing up citizens has been exacerbated by the economic downturn.

“It’s a huge challenge reaching individuals who are displaced or relocating on a regular basis,” Hall said. “The Milwaukee Public Schools has the same problem.

“They are unemployed or impoverished and it results in a community of a large number of people who are not in the most stable of circumstances.”

As a general matter, when you’ve lost your home and out of work, you aren’t motivated to vote even if you could be located. And several of the states at ground zero for the foreclosure crisis – Ohio, Florida, Nevada – happen to be contested states in the Presidential election.

3) Don’t sleep on Romney. While the Obama campaign may have stronger capacity in 2012 (frankly, being on the front lines in 2008, I’d be a bit surprised if this were true), the Romney campaign will look like night and day compared to John McCain’s. The McCain campaign had, almost literally, no volunteers. By contrast, even Jim Messina today had to admit, “They are doing more than the McCain campaign, so I want to give them credit for that.”

Two things loom large here. First, Christian evangelicals road-tested their micro-targeting get out the vote campaign in that same Wisconsin recall, and found it very successful. Ralph Reed, a political animal if there ever was one, is leading these efforts. The second X factor is the Mormon church. If you think that the first-ever Mormon nominee for President won’t be able to assemble an army of followers willing to knock on doors in strange areas far from home, you don’t know the Mormon church. You also weren’t in California for the Prop 8 campaign, where Mormons organized the largest state in the country, for maybe the first time ever. I’m going to expound on this further in a later post, but this is something that I don’t even think the Obama campaign appreciates.

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David Dayen

David Dayen