With voting under way, Romney camp faces test from Obama’s ground game

The first votes of the presidential election have already been cast — and in a battleground state.

As of Sunday, 602 ballots had been returned by mail to election officials in North Carolina. President Obama won the state narrowly in 2008, becoming the first Democrat to carry it in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976. It sits near the top of Mitt Romney’s target list this year.

By Saturday, almost half the states in the union will be issuing absentee ballots by mail, according to the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. Among them will be the battleground of Virginia. Yet another key state, Iowa, will allow in-person voting from Sept. 27.

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The fact that voting has already begun is an urgent reminder of the importance of the "ground game" — the overarching term for the multiple methods by which campaigns try to maximize their vote through face-to-face contact, or via mail, email or phone.

The Obama campaign has a near-legendary reputation in this regard, built upon the field operation that propelled the then-Illinois senator to victory over Hillary Clinton and, later, John McCain in 2008. The Romney campaign, however, insists that it has an infrastructure in place that will level the playing field.

Both campaigns carefully guard comprehensive information about their nationwide efforts. But the Obama campaign notes by way of example that it has 100 field offices in Ohio and 49 in North Carolina. 

“We have believed from the very beginning that this is going to be an extremely close election and we still believe it is going to be an extremely close election,” an Obama campaign aide told The Hill. “We think the ground game is going to make the difference.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus stated last week that volunteers for its Romney Victory effort had contacted their 20 millionth voter.

“We have a top-notch ground operation that is going toe-to-toe with President Obama every day,” Priebus said.

Team Obama has enjoyed one particularly meaningful advantage: it began putting general-election infrastructure in place while Romney still had a competitive Republican primary process demanding his attention. 

The president’s reelection team opened its first Ohio field office in mid-November 2011 — about six weeks before the Iowa Republican caucuses took place, and almost five months before Romney became the de facto GOP nominee.

Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf argues, based upon his experience as the deputy campaign manager for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, that this amounts to a major edge. Eight years ago, Elmendorf pointed out, then-President George W. Bush and his campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, “were building a micro-targeting ground game, while we were slogging through the primary.”

RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski insisted that the Romney effort had made up any shortfall, in part through a more focused deployment of its resources.

“We were never in a race for numbers, we were never in a race for field offices,” Kukowski said. “It is a bit of a Democratic way of looking at the problem: to imagine that you have to throw more people and more money at it. We feel very good about the team that we have in the field.”

The Romney side might have another advantage when it comes to off-setting Team Obama’s early start: as a general rule, the demographic groups that lean Republican tend to turn out more reliably at the polls than do the groups that favor Democrats.

The difference can be seen in opinion polls that present results from those they judge to be likely voters alongside results from the broader pool of registered voters. 

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, released on Friday, had Obama leading Romney by 8 percentage points among all registered voters, but by only 3 percentage points among likely voters.

“Traditionally, Democrats have had to do more hustling to get their voters to the polls,” said Michael McDonald of George Mason University, an expert on the issue of voter turnout. “This is a generalization, but if you look at their profiles — minorities, the poor, younger people — that’s a profile of people who tend to be ‘lower propensity’ voters.”

Republican strategists like Keith Appell have seen the same phenomenon.

“Over the years, there has been a trend of the Republican vote outperforming the polls,” he said. “We’ve always felt that if we were down a couple of points, we felt okay about it.”

Both sides are also trying to leverage technological innovation to their advantage. The Obama campaign in May launched Dashboard, its flagship online organizing tool. Among other features, it connects supporters to others in their neighborhood and enables volunteers to make canvassing phone calls from home.

“Maybe there are people who are really enthusiastic supporters who just don’t really want to walk into a campaign office,” the Obama campaign aide said. “Dashboard allows them to have that experience.”

But, the aide stressed, “It’s not the tool that’s newsworthy; it’s the fact that it makes it easier for people to get involved that’s newsworthy.”

Republicans have been trying to close the tech gap, acknowledging that they were outperformed in this area in 2008. They now have a smartphone application and a “Social Victory Center” app on Facebook.

“I think conservatives and Republicans have caught up somewhat with Obama and our friends on the left,” Appell said. “They far outpaced us in 2008. We caught up a bit in 2010 and we have just about drawn even with them.”

The tech-based competition is fierce. On Aug. 23, the Obama campaign announced it would be “the first political campaign in history” to accept donations via text message. The Romney campaign followed just eight days later.

Whether the ground-game is fought by text or by more traditional means, however, neither side is in any doubt how much it matters. The result of the election might well depend on it.

—Additional reporting by Colby Hochmuth