Commentary Magazine


Topic: ground game

The Obama Ground Game Myth

In the last week, there have been two consistent themes being sounded by the Democrats. One is the assertion that Mitt Romney’s momentum has been halted and even reversed. The other is that their ground game is so good that the president is bound to win the election no matter what the polls say. These two talking points are closely related, since the polls that liberal analysts cite in order to assert that the president is edging back into the lead are based on assumptions about the composition of the electorate that are only possible if the Democrats match or even exceed the massive turnout they achieved in 2008.

Why pollsters would assume that a correct sample for the 2012 election would mirror the 2008 results when Obama rode a wave of disgust for the Bush administration and belief in his promise of hope and change is a mystery that demands an explanation that has yet to be forthcoming. Yet Democrats say the question is irrelevant since their ability to generate turnout is so expert and so superior to that of the Republicans they believe there is little doubt that once again the number of their voters will outnumber those of the GOP. To that end, journalists have been citing the fact that there are far more Obama campaign offices in states like Ohio than those working for Romney. But that is an argument that even some on the left understand is largely meaningless. Not only may the ground game advantage be a myth, the changes in partisan affiliation in the last four years render the optimistic poll numbers that are encouraging Democrats in the past week a self-deception that could lead to bitter disappointment on election day.

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In the last week, there have been two consistent themes being sounded by the Democrats. One is the assertion that Mitt Romney’s momentum has been halted and even reversed. The other is that their ground game is so good that the president is bound to win the election no matter what the polls say. These two talking points are closely related, since the polls that liberal analysts cite in order to assert that the president is edging back into the lead are based on assumptions about the composition of the electorate that are only possible if the Democrats match or even exceed the massive turnout they achieved in 2008.

Why pollsters would assume that a correct sample for the 2012 election would mirror the 2008 results when Obama rode a wave of disgust for the Bush administration and belief in his promise of hope and change is a mystery that demands an explanation that has yet to be forthcoming. Yet Democrats say the question is irrelevant since their ability to generate turnout is so expert and so superior to that of the Republicans they believe there is little doubt that once again the number of their voters will outnumber those of the GOP. To that end, journalists have been citing the fact that there are far more Obama campaign offices in states like Ohio than those working for Romney. But that is an argument that even some on the left understand is largely meaningless. Not only may the ground game advantage be a myth, the changes in partisan affiliation in the last four years render the optimistic poll numbers that are encouraging Democrats in the past week a self-deception that could lead to bitter disappointment on election day.

The field office gap has become as popular a talking point in recent days as the gender gap. Earlier in the week the Atlantic’s Molly Ball reported that not only are the Democrats’ offices more numerous, but that the GOP outlets are either sleepier or lack interest in Romney’s fate as opposed to those of local Republican candidates. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough was so impressed by this argument that he wrote in Politico that it showed that Romney was depending on emotion and intangibles while the Democrats were relying on practical organizational skills.

The problem with this simplistic argument is easily illustrated. There are far fewer GOP field offices, but that’s because as even Kevin Drum, a writer for the left-wing Mother Jones, wrote on Friday, Republicans are operating on a different paradigm:

There’s been a disconnect in the ground games of the major parties for some time. Democrats tend to rely on paid, professional operations, while Republicans rely more on volunteer efforts, largely from evangelical churches. This is something that actually works in the Republicans’ favor, since volunteer efforts from friends and neighbors tend to be more effective at switching votes than professional phone banks. (Also cheaper.)

The other reason why Republicans are not as obsessed with turnout is that their base tends to be more highly motivated and, as a rule, are already registered rather than having to be schlepped out to the polls with great difficulty. They are instead working on convincing independents to give Romney a second look, an effort that has borne fruits as polls show their candidate gaining ground among centrists.

That’s something that gets us to the heart of this conundrum about turnout. As Josh Jordan explains in National Review, both Gallup and Rasmussen agree that the partisan split between Republicans and Democrats has changed markedly since 2008. Whereas four years ago the Democrats had a seven-point advantage, this fall that has become a 1 or 2 point Republican edge.

Under those circumstances, it’s difficult to take seriously those polls like the Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll that shows Obama up by one point, since its sample has seven percent more Democrats than Republicans. But even there, there is little to encourage the president’s supporters since his numbers have been declining in that poll over the past week. You have to believe along with Obama staffer Jim Messina that their ground game that will produce an electorate that is disproportionately Democratic with more minority and young voters than even in 2008 to think such a result is even possible.

This makes the operative question this week not so much whether which polls are accurate as it is how even with a field office advantage can the Democrats possibly manufacture the sort of partisan turnout advantage that could re-elect Obama? In a year when independents are flocking to Romney, there simply may not be enough Democrats, youth or minority voters to offset the fact the GOP base will turn out in numbers that will far eclipse their totals in 2008. Discussion about a ground game may be simply an attempt to distract us from the fact that the president’s campaign is betting everything on an organizational plan that can’t overcome the way the electorate has changed over the course of the Obama presidency.

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