March 1st, 2012
Also published on HuffingtonPost
Even as talk of a brokered Republican convention refuses to fade even after Romney’s Arizona and Michigan victories, you can see evidence of the profound advantage the Republicans would give the Obama campaign if they put off choosing a nominee until the party meets in Tampa in August. One small example from a recent NPR story:
“The Obama campaign has about a dozen paid staff in Michigan already and, it says, thousands of volunteers running voter registration drives, organizing house parties and recruiting more volunteers.”
The current Republican candidates — Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul — are in theory at least leaving a trail of supporters behind them as they campaign. Staff will move on from primary to primary, but most volunteers will stay at home, ready to be activated as the eventual nominee prepares a national machine for the fall. By contrast, someone nominated out of the blue in Tampa would have to build that network from scratch. He (or she?) would have roughly ten weeks to organize a nation-wide turnout operation, an apparatus their Democratic opponent will have been building for over a year by the time election day comes around in November.
Of course, the Republican National Committee and the state parties could theoretically build and staff a grassroots network through during the summer, but it’s less obvious that they’d be successful. They’d lack the singular focus and leadership of a campaign led by an actual nominee, for one thing. It’s also hard to imagine many people getting that excited to rally around a candidate-to-be-named-later — elections in our system ultimately swing on the people who run for office, not so much on party in the abstract. If the the Republicans put off choosing a candidate, the Obama campaign would certainly put the time to work while they dither and debate: Obama already has an organizing and voter mobilization model developed in 2008 and refined in the years since, and his people have spent the past few months reconnecting with past supporters and recruiting new ones.
Elections aren’t won entirely on the ground — the national mood will obviously matter, as will the state of the economy and the effectiveness of the rival campaigns’ messaging. But field organizing can make a crucial difference, particularly in tight races. And it also takes time — like online recruiting, grassroots work tends to be incremental and rewards a sustained effort. Republicans need to realize that time is one thing a fresh nominee emerging from Tampa (full-blown from the head of Zeus!) will NOT have. In that case, Obama’s grassroots effectiveness could be key to victories in battleground states across the U.S. Of course, the Democratic turnout operation end up being just another nail in a Republican presidential coffin already well-sealed if the economy continues to improve. In that case, though, how many House and Senate seats might it swing to the Democratic column?