Obama's Big Bet - The Power Of The Ground Game

by dday

Over the past few days, a fair number of high-profile progressive bloggers have been, to put it mildly, flipping out about Barack Obama's campaign style and his chances in November. Josh Marshall thinks there need to be consistent lines of attack against McCain. John Aravosis thinks Team Obama is in a bubble and this is feeling like the Democratic campaigns of the past. Matt Stoller thinks it's time for message testing to find the attack that'll work on McCain.

All of these are very smart people who want Obama to win - some of them were his staunchest supporters in the primary - and see it slipping away. I think they all make points which are valid to varying degrees. But they are failing to totally account for the X factor of the election, an X factor which is going virtually unmentioned throughout the blogosphere - the historic ground effort that the Obama campaign is banking on to win. It is not without peril, but it is a very new thing, and I think we have to understand it if we want to understand the twists and turns of this election.

It's true that McCain has gained in small but measurable ways in most polls over the past month. It's true he has found a couple lines of attack against Obama and hammered them consistently. It's true that the combination of Obama's world trip and his vacation in Hawaii, along with the crisis in the Caucasus, has made McCain more present in the campaign than at virtually any other time.

This is also the way that the traditional media, particularly the cable news media, looks at the campaign. Something happens in their line of sight - a Swift Boating, a tough political ad, a bad convention - that convinces the public en masse to vote one way or another. In the historical aftermath of these elections, narratives get set up to "explain" how a candidate won or lost. But the reality is that campaigns are much more complex. They have a life that goes beyond advertising and day-to-day attacks on the stump. And I truly believe that the majority of them are won or lost on the ground.

As bloggers, we are essentially writers, and as such creative people, who tend to focus on the creative aspects of the campaign ("Obama should do an ad that says X!!!"). There is a whole other aspect, and as much as it pains me to say it, here's David Broder - gah! - capturing it:

But the Obama folks are not leaving it to chance. Plouffe said that "turnout is the big variable," and the campaign is devoting an unusually large budget to register scads of new voters and bring them to the polls. "That's how we win the Floridas and Ohios," he said, mentioning two states that went narrowly for George W. Bush. "And that's how we get competitive in the Indianas and Virginias," two of six or seven states that long have been Republican -- but are targets this year.

"That's why I pay more attention to the registration figures than to the polls I see at this time of year," Plouffe said. "The polls will change, but we know we need 200,000 new voters to be competitive in Georgia, and now is when we have to get them."

That mind-set -- take care of business and don't worry about irrelevancies -- is what struck me in talking to Obama's team in the primary states. Here, as in the states, they seem singularly devoid of turf battles or personal feuds.

Joe Rospars, who coordinates the computer files for organization, fundraising and communications, tested my limited knowledge of that world with a half-hour seminar on how these things work together. Rospars, who had a similar job in Howard Dean's 2004 campaign, said that "the big difference this year is not the technology, it's the coordination."

Mike Lux said that was the first time he's EVER heard a top Presidential campaign head say something like that about the importance of voter registration, and I agree with him.

One of the very few blogs which has charted this sea change in the importance of field is the estimate 538, where Nate and in particular Sean Quinn have detailed the advantage between the two campaigns at this point. Keeping in mind that we're 77 days out, some of these numbers are simply incredible. Obama has a 3:1 lead in field offices, behind in only one battleground state (Florida). His edge in voter contacts - knocking on doors and making phone calls - is maybe 35:1, and that's probably an extremely conservative estimate. Sean today gave context to this TPM report about McCain's spending advantage on television by looking at the big picture:

Readers here know that Barack Obama is dwarfing John McCain's ground operation; we've written about it repeatedly. Those thousands of paid organizers are not working for free. The field offices and the phone lines and the Blackberries and the reimbursed travel miles are not free. Moreover, Barack Obama pays his organizers out of the Campaign for Change, which is funded by Obama's own campaign; McCain's are mostly paid by the coordinated committees which in turn are funded by the RNC, RNSC and RNCC, further impacting the way spending numbers are attributed to each campaign.

While millions may be spent on advertising, so too is one campaign spending millions on ground game while the other is spending virtually nothing. Obama is investing more massively than any campaign in the history of American politics on the ground game. McCain is essentially not investing in ground. His early summer numbers of 20,000 phone calls nationwide for a whole month would be those of a single, low-budget House campaign. That's the equivalent of one person working ten hours a day for a month. For the entire nation. It's basically the equivalent of zero contacts. When Martin writes that McCain's ground campaign is revving up, it's essentially starting from nothing and is now in 1st gear [...]

As the story hits the discussion slipstream, hopefully it will not be framed as "hey, look at this surprising development, the guy with more money is being outspent because he's foolishly and riskily airing TV ads in lesser battlegrounds." Sure, Obama is spending plenty on ads, and he is spending advertising dollars more broadly (and thinly) than is McCain. But people are also failing to appreciate of dollars spent on the dramatic all-in move that Obama has made in organizing and neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion.

I have seen this first-hand over the weekend, when I talked with people who attended Camp Obama, a two-day organizing seminar held throughout the country. There were over 200 volunteers at one Los Angeles location, all of who are now empowered to be organizers with defined roles to play for the rest of the campaign. Most of the more senior organizers who ran the Camp Obama meetings and are running field operations in all 50 states were volunteers on the primary campaign who were gradually given more and more responsibility. The mantra of the weekend was that "this is a numbers-driven, people-centered campaign," and the goals of the organizers were to get more volunteers to make more contacts to reach the targets set by the campaign, which are nothing short of massive. Southern California is adopting the Las Vegas congressional district in Nevada, and the timing of calls and trips and voter contact aligns directly with deadlines on voter registration and early voting. The contacts made now are going to go into that voter file for GOTV later. The goal is nothing short of reaching every persuadable voter in all of Clark County between now and the election, and they've already had a heck of a head start.

This money for field, which is where the real cash advantage is being held, is frankly likely to pay more dividends than any 30-second ad or exchange on the stump. In fact, we're already seeing the effects in the surges in Democratic voter registration throughout the country, such as the big uptick in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere. They are learning from their mistakes in the primary (in Philadelphia, for example, there will be street money in the fall). And unlike in 2004, when the haphazard field efforts of John Kerry and outside groups like ACT fizzled and disappeared shortly after the election, this infrastructure will be sustained and enduring, built to strengthen the party for the next couple decades.

For all the talk of post-partisan "unity," Barack Obama has been proving himself the most party-focused presidential candidate in recent history--possibly ever. Paradoxically, although Obama's success has been more dependent on personal charisma than any recent nominee's has, he's been leveraging that charisma to build a broader Democratic infrastructure less dependent on the presidential nominee [...]

In the months that have followed, the Obama campaign has announced plans for training camps that will turn out thousands of new organizers dedicated to electing Democrats, and has signaled that it will spend millions in blood-red states where Democrats haven't seriously invested in building party infrastructure for decades. The campaign has constructed a fundraising machine based around small-donors that promises to end the age-old competition for dollars between different wings of the Democratic establishment, enabling the creation of a unified electoral strategy. It has argued that "real change" requires the sort of legislative successes that only a strong congressional party can produce. In short, the candidate running on his exhaustion with traditional party politics has directed his campaign to build a new kind of Democratic Party--one that may put to shame anything that came before it.

(do read that whole article.)

So that's the bet - that Obama can enlarge the core Democratic demographics' percentage of the electorate enough to just overwhelm McCain with numbers. And as Chris Bowers notes, a victory with that coalition could have a galvanizing effect. I truly believe that the coalition Obama is building is more progressive than he is, or than he chooses to be, and the infrastructure is in place to pressure him as President, leveraging all of this support from the grassroots, the millions of people that will be out on the ground on Election Day, to push for a sensible progressive agenda.

There are (mostly) positives and (a few) negatives to this. First of all, going all in on the field means that the campaign must pay attention to every single vote being counted in ways that no other Democratic nominee of recent vintage ever has before. With so many new and inexperienced voters and the continuing shrieking from the right on voter fraud, it's clear that suppression and intimidation will be the new battleground. I think the Obama campaign is at least thinking about this earlier than their predecessors by building an election protection team.

Second, while field matters, this is a big country, and message has its own importance. The problem is that it'd be a bad bet to message your way to victory because you have to deal with a traditional media that has simply stacked the deck. Well-paid conservative operatives have gamed the media system with their noise machine for years, and the chattering class is bound to typical narratives about Democrats and Republicans. That's not easily overcome - while I think that Obama has largely been ON message with his tying McCain to a third term for President Bush, something he's repeated since the day he wrapped up the nomination, it gets less traction than a mindless "celebrity" ad. We have a petty, trivial media that has institutional barriers for progressives.

While it's important to define your opponent early in a campaign, it's just as important to define your voters, to find them, capture their information and turn them out. That's how lots and lots of campaigns are won. There hasn't been a Presidential campaign that relied on turnout to this degree (although I would argue that it was Rove's use of evangelicals as a GOTV army in '04 that won the election more than the Swift Boaters) because nobody could inspire that many volunteers needed to pull it off. Obama has, and he's making the investment, which is entirely based in the community organizing he worked in decades ago, not only because it's his best opportunity to win, but his best opportunity to transform the electorate and prepare the ground for a progressive agenda.

Now, here's my greatest fear on this. Bill Scher's piece about Deval Patrick's missed moment is heartbreaking if you think that Obama is building a coalition to both win elections and govern. It offers pitfalls for both Obama and his supporters.

Deval Patrick won a massive 21-point victory for governor, after thumbing his nose at the Democratic party machine in Boston, and basing his campaign on organizing grassroots progressives. He faced typical right-wing attacks on crime and taxes and he faced them down with progressive arguments, ending 16 years of Republican governors in Massachusetts.

Patrick quickly worked to protect the state Supreme Court ruling upholding equal marriage rights for gays. But after that, his next battle was to legalize casinos, something his grassroots base was vehemently against.

Patrick's rationale was he needed more revenue to close a large budget gap that jeopardized critical government services. But as blogger Frederick Clarkson observed during the casino debate, that argument ran counter to his progressive mandate: "Patrick got it right when he argued during the campaign that rather than debating whether we should raise or lower taxes, we should first consider what we want to do and then discuss how to pay for it. In that spirit those of us who were with him from the beginning are saying that it is time to talk."

The result? Patrick lost both the casino battle and the enthusiasm of his base.

But the fault does not solely lie with Patrick. It also lies with the state's progressive movement.

Beyond protecting gay marriage, the progressive activists of Massachusetts also failed to hit the ground running with a clear issues agenda to prod the governor and state legislature into action. As the Boston Phoenix noted:

"One reason these progressives are feeling marginalized might lie in their lack of unanimity on the issues. It was easy to feel united and effective on an issue like gay marriage, says [Boston progressive politician Matt] O’Malley, because all the progressive groups were working together on it. It’s been hard to find other issues that bring the left together in the same way.

That leaves progressives often splintered, working at cross purposes, or fighting losing causes."

For us in the progressive movement to realize the potential of the "Obama Moment," we cannot be splintered. We need to have priorities and focus, while maintaining the progressive community's strong breadth and diversity. How do we learn a lesson from these moments missed?

We must realize that even with an expected "spasm of furious activity," as Borosage and vanden Heuvel envision, not every single issue can be addressed in the first 100 days. And we need to establish a level of coordination even though we are primarily a bottom-up community, not a top-down hierarchy with a single leader barking marching orders.

There is pressure on both Obama and this growing movement of supporters - for Obama, it's to define himself in a way to maximize volunteer support, and for the supporters, it's to know our principles and values and pressure from the bottom up to realize them.

It's a big bet.