Must Read Series on the Ground Game

>> Saturday, October 4, 2008

I wrote a diary last night on the rise of the site created by Kossack Nate Silver aka Poblano. That site has done excellent work in a series of posts entitled On the Road where Sean Quinn aka PocketNines have visited six (6) different states and reported on the ground game he found there. If you have not read those posts do so now.

In my own opinion this series should win some type of writing award and not just for blogs either. If you have ever been interested in how the ground game works, what the campaigns are thinking this is must read material. It is an excellent look into the minds of the community level workers around this country dedicated to electing both Obama and McCain. Yes, i said Obama and McCain. It is one of the things i like most about this series of blog articles is that it delves into not only what Obama is doing and how he is organizing but also how mccain is organizing. It gives a complete picture. Here is the introduction explaining the series,

The story of the organizer and volunteer effort is one that needs to be told. It was much underreported in 2004 just how potently the Bush ground campaign organized. Say what you want about his governance – and we all have – but his competitive fire was lit for the election race. Republicans turned their voters out. Who’s got more heart this time? Missouri boys say: Show-Me.

This year, all available evidence suggests the Obama campaign is doing something unprecedented with its organizing efforts. Is it this: 29’2.5”? Is it Mexico City, 1968? The story seems to be hiding in plain sight. The effort is more reported than the Bush 2004 effort, but it is still underreported. More significantly, it is under-contextualized. Pollsters have to guess about turnout, and often they revert to more conservative estimates because their past modeling of likely voters suggests that’s correct. Besides, if ground games are equally effective, they should cancel each other out. There's an understandable bias against believing something and modeling it until it is proven. It's why big enthusiasm and GOTV can make up ground against a fully accurate poll of voter preference.

Just what is organizing? How does it work? What are the nuts and bolts? And why is it something a site primarily (but not exclusively) known for its polling analysis would want to cover as closely as possible?

And is the McCain campaign being given short shrift? Is it being taken too lightly? And what kind of galvanizing effect did the Palin addition offer the Republican base? This is not a one-sided story.

And it all deserves to be told in real time. We're tempted to do a photo series of the floors of organizers’ rooms, but we think organizer moms and dads would freak out. There ain’t no lipstick on that pig, we can assure you (and once had our own crazy-stupid organizer floor mess).

Since that first post the cities visited include carson, mindon, reno, and las vegas Nevada, Gallup, Espanola, and Albuquerque/Santa Fe New Mexico. In colorado they visited Boulder, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Durango/Cortez. They have hit up Omaha Nebraska, Des Moines Iowa and most recently St. Louis Missouri.

The articles discuss every aspect of the campaigns organizing efforts including the efforts on vote protection,

Many people have been asking about issues around the purging of voters from the rolls in various states, Colorado being a prime example. We hope to bring you more in-depth discussion of voter protection issues as we travel, and we’ve had several off-the-record conversations with campaign staff about those potential problems. We can report that Obama’s Voter Protection program, which has been actively soliciting local attorneys with civil rights experience, is fully on the case, much earlier than previous campaigns. In many instances, there are still negotiations going on with election officials where agreements in writing are being hammered out. Those party and campaign-negotiated agreements are much preferred to the injunction route to making sure voters have enough access, enough ballots, enough voting machines so that lines are as short as possible.

One post has dealt with the impact of early voting and why it is so important to the campaigns,

Consider a situation with no early voting. A campaign simply has to monitor the turnout throughout the day in targeted precincts to model what they expect to happen. The numbers get pipelined up to the boiler room and campaign staff makes decisions about where to throw ground troops to knock the final doors. But that is an extremely compressed period -- one day.

Now add in a multiday early voting period. When Executive Director Zach Moyle told us that the Republican Party will know several days in advance of November 4 whether they're going to win or lose Nevada, he wasn't kidding. That's what early voting/mail-in ballots do for a campaign. They can't actually see the tabulated vote, but they know if Joe Smith is a supporter of John McCain and Joe Smith has voted already, they don't have too much guessing what the score is.

The ground game is extraordinarily numbers-based. For both campaigns, every single precinct in every state has a vote goal -- a specific number of votes the campaign has determined it needs to stay on pace with its overall path to victory in the state. By voting early, a supporter of a given candidate are giving his or her candidate a kind of donation. The sacrifice is the feeling of having participated in a vote on Election Day -- it feels like giving up a little bit of tradition. But campaigns are less concerned with tradition than with winning.

I cant go post by post to give you all of the amazing detail, information and stories that are contained in the articles. I can tell you that every single one is worth reading, if not for the information about how the ground level operations work then for the stories revealed in Sean's travels like this one from Iowa,

What's a precinct captain? A year ago, Jane Brower didn't know. Now she captains her West Des Moines precinct like an veteran. She's built her own pyramid.

As both Republican and Democratic field organizers know, effective precinct captains are the single-most important volunteers a campaign can have. They are responsible for maintaining their own stable of volunteers that they participate in recruiting.

But when Jane first walked into an Obama field office during the pre-caucus period last September, she came to help address envelopes or generally help in what way she could. Slowly but surely, a skilled organizer named Caroline turned her into a precinct captain. Jane now manages 10 "block captains" who are responsible for their own slice of the precinct...

The story is worth reading in full. So after reading all of these articles detailing the stories, strategies, and stats related to the ground game i think that the latest post may be the most important. The latest post from St. Louis paints a very bleak picture for candidate McCain. If this comes down to the effects of the ground game and the street level activity and organization McCain is in a rough spot.

Let’s be clear. We've observed no comparison between these ground campaigns. To begin with, there’s a 4-1 ratio of offices in most states. We walk into McCain offices to find them closed, empty, one person, two people, sometimes three people making calls. Many times one person is calling while the other small clutch of volunteers are chatting amongst themselves. In one state, McCain’s state field director sat in one of these offices and, sotto voce, complained to us that only one man was making calls while the others were talking to each other about how much they didn't like Obama, which was true. But the field director made no effort to change this. This was the state field director.

Only for the first time the other day did we see a McCain organizer make a single phone call. So we've now seen that once. The McCain organizers seem to operate as maƮtre Ds. Let me escort you to your phone, sir. Pick any one of this sea of empty chairs. I'll be sitting over here if you need any assistance.

Given a choice between taking embarrassing photos of empty phone banks, we give McCain’s people the chance to pose for photos to show us the action for what they continually claim we “just missed.” No more. We stop into offices at all open hours of the day, but generally more in the afternoon and evening. “Call time,” for both campaigns, is all day, but the time when folks over 65 are generally targeted begins in late afternoon and goes til 8 or 9pm. Universally, McCain’s people stop earlier. Even when we show up at 6:15pm, we’re told we just missed the big phone bank, or to come back in 30 minutes. If we show up an hour later, we “just missed it” again.

The McCain offices are also calm, sedate. Little movement. No hustle. In the Obama offices, it's a whirlwind. People move. It's a dynamic bustle. You can feel it in our photos.
You could take every McCain volunteer we’ve seen doing actual work in the entire trip, over six states, and it would add up to the same as Obama’s single Thornton, CO office. Or his single Durango, CO office. These ground campaigns bear no relationship to each other.

I assume that Nate's model is taking the potential imbalance of turn out generated by ground level organizing into account for his model just as he is taking cell phone effects into account. After all that is what makes 538 so much better than the other sites.

One thing i particularly like is the exploration in the competing strategies of the McCain and Obama campaigns in how they are approaching the ground game. Obama is employing the principles of the 50 state strategy and the strategy he used in the primary where you keep it close in the places you lose and try to run up the score in the areas you win. Essentially caucus states versus california sized primaries. McCain in contrast is not opening offices to play offense. He is not trying to lessen the democratic margins in deep blue areas. This is probably due to the lack of funds he has.

Part of the justification for Picking Sarah Palin was supposed to be her ability to jump start the base. McCain needs those people to get out and hit the streets for him. I am not sure that we can generalize to all of the battle ground states but the effect does not appear to have been as great as advertised. If Palin has not been helping in states where McCain is battling with Obama but is instead confining her appeal to deeper red states that might not be such a great thing for McCain.

Beyond the amazing stories and the numbers that Sean has gone on the road to bring us, this series is a testament to journalism. This is something we are seeing less and less of, reporters not taking second hand stories, rumor and innuendo as given but instead hitting the ground and checking on things for themselves. It is real journalism. This diary might seem a little obsequious but i was really blown away after reading these articles. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Oh and they have lots of pictures.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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