November 6th, 2012
What does a modern political field operation look like? I argued the other day that four million donors, most of whom have given small amounts apiece, built the foundation for a powerful ground game that the campaign hopes will push Obama over the top. Here’s a glimpse at what they paid for:
Many voters, bombarded by calls, have stopped picking up their phones. The volunteers often went minutes at a stretch with no one answering. Voters who did pick up often hung up immediately.
Obama campaign officials say why they have put greater emphasis on door-to-door canvassing, although they also have made millions of calls, distributing phone numbers of voters by email to volunteers who agreed to make calls from their homes.
The Democrats scoff at Republican claims of on-the-ground parity, insisting that the nature of their volunteers will give them an edge. Many have worked in their communities for a year or more with some, like Ramos, on the job continuously since 2008, said Jeremy Bird, the campaign’s national field director. An organization that uses local volunteers to canvass neighbors — first registering them, then getting them to the polls — has an advantage that newcomers will not be able to match, he and other campaign officials insist.
“There are homes we’ve been to every week since April or May,” said Elena Squarrell, 28, the Obama campaign’s neighborhood team leader for a nine-block area near downtown Denver, her native city. “We know a lot of the people, so they feel comfortable” asking questions or expressing worries about voting procedures. “We’re really able to help.”
Throughout the year, Obama’s campaign has integrated its voter turnout activities into its other operations, using rallies, for example, as recruitment centers for volunteers. In recent weeks, when campaign officials passed out tickets to rallies, they often put the distribution centers near early voting locations.
Crucially, all of this activity both generates data (on individual voters) and is driven by data, as Sasha Issenberg has so carefully documented this year:
Since 2008, Democrats have administered randomized-control experiments to test the impact of GOTV contact on voters with different score combinations, with the goal of quantifying where those contacts are most likely to produce a net vote. The most fruitful terrain turned out to surround voters with turnout scores centered around 45. Delivering a GOTV contact to a voter with a 100 support score and a 45 turnout score increased the likelihood of netting a Democratic vote by 4.5 percent; delivering a GOTV contact to a voter with a 75 support score and a 45 turnout score increased the likelihood of netting a vote by 2.7 percent.
Obama’s analytics department synthesized all of this research into a new GOTV score that combines predictions about one’s likelihood of voting and supporting Obama. It, too, ranks voters from zero to 100, but this one doesn’t assess voters’ characteristics so much as prioritize them based on their susceptibility to the campaign’s efforts to modify their behavior. When canvassers like Darley-Emerson get a list of names, it has been edited according to the one criterion that matters: how likely her visit is to generate a new vote towards the president’s re-election—whether the canvasser remembers to ask who the voter is supporting or not.
Note that neither a strong ground game nor an emphasis on data is new for Obama! Online-enabled grassroots organizing was central to his 2008 campaign, as was the data about the voting public those organizers generated that the campaign could put to use strategically. What’s different this year is the scale and the efficiency of both.
The Republicans, by contrast, have focused their local work on phone banks and (recently) paid canvassers…neither of which is likely to be as effective as the comprehensive system described above. Phone banks are fine, but why not do them online? Someone can download a list of numbers and make calls from home, and modern virtual phone bank systems hide the caller’s number to provide privacy. If people are driving across town to a campaign office, put them to work in person. Paid canvassing is even worse — Democrats and allied groups tried it in 2004, and it was a bust.
In some ways, the this year’s Republican grassroots campaign is like a modern field operation seen through a glass, darkly: the outlines are there, but the vision is blurred and it can’t help but fall short on the details. And if I’m right, it’ll fall short at the polls.