What Happened in Ohio: About That Ground Game (Part 3)

By Matt A. Mayer

“Obama for America never went away.” – Aaron Pickrell, Ohio Obama for America Strategist

As I noted in Part II, both the ORP and Governor Romney did not get their get-out-the-vote operations set-up as early as needed to compete with the Obama campaign. At its peak, the Romney campaign had 40 field offices operating in Ohio. In comparison, the Obama campaign had 137 field offices across Ohio – more than three times as many. In addition to the field offices, the Obama campaign was active in college campuses making sure that the youth vote turned out for them

As Aaron Pickrell noted at a post-election forum after the election, the Obama campaign hired its 2012 reelection team in March 2009. As reported in The Hill article, “Data Drove Obama’s Ground Game,” that team quietly and methodically developed a voter identification system as complex and sophisticated as any ever assembled. They spent years doing all of the spadework necessary to have a very localized knowledge of Ohio voters. This work allowed them to mobilize an enormous volunteer effort in the campaign’s final weeks and days to make sure that their supporters voted.

The Romney team had mere months to catch up and the fractured, weakened ORP couldn’t offer much help. The most vivid example of the gulf between the two operations came out on the Sunday before the election. The Romney campaign in Ohio bragged that it had knocked on 70,000 doors on Sunday. The Obama campaign crushed that figure by hitting over 376,000 doors on Sunday.

As detailed in the Ace of Spades blog article, “The Unmitigated Disaster Known as Project ORCA,” the Romney campaign’s GOTV effort called Project ORCA was an unmitigated disaster, leaving thousands of activists with nothing to do or deployed poorly. In Ohio, it was even worse as detailed by one activist:

It completely came apart less than 5 days before the elections as over 100 ORCA volunteers in my county alone had not received their assignments, their information packets, their credentials, access to the application and database they were supposed to use…and the final conference the night before the election did not work. There was no coordination below state level, and the single coordinator at the state level could not begin to handle the issues. On election day, we found that only 2 of 9 precincts in a polling place were being worked by ORCA volunteers, and the way ORCA had set it up we could not get them to enable our people assigned to the 2 precincts to also handle the other 7. The Democrats did not have that problem, and worked all 8 precincts. Meanwhile, we had several volunteers working outside polling places all day that could have been used to help ORCA volunteers, but again ORCA could not adapt to the need. ORCA did not address at least half the polling places in my County.

If one thing could be said about the approach to GOTV by the two campaigns is that the Romney campaign seemed to be focused on the quantity of contacts whereas the Obama campaign focused on quality of contacts. The Romney campaign pushed out email after email telling us how many millions of telephone calls and doors they knocked on, but what they didn’t tell us is that most of those calls went unanswered or ignored and the doors they knocked on either received no answer or didn’t have enough of the voters inside needed to win. In contrast, the Obama campaign localized the election over the course of years by having the same people repeatedly knock on doors of neighbors many times and used enormous amounts of data to micro target base and persuadable voters with the right messages.

So, when all the dust cleared on election day, the Obama campaign successfully minimized its expected turnout losses enough to stay ahead of the Romney campaign, which failed to improve upon the McCain campaign’s poor showing in 2008. Here are some specifics from Ohio exit polling:

  • The black vote jumped by 4 points from 2008 to 2012;
  • The white vote declined by 4 points from 2008 to 2012;
  • The 18-29 year old voter remained about the same from 2008 to 2012;
  • The female vote went for President Obama by 4 points more than the male vote went for Governor Romney;
  • Liberals went for President Obama by 88% as conservative went for Governor Romney by 81% (those base voters noted in Part I);
  • Moderates went for President Obama with 57% of the vote;
  • While Governor Romney won independents by 10 points, those voters, along with Republicans, were only 31% of the vote (again, too many base voters stayed home);
  • Democrats represented 38% of the vote; and
  • While Governor Romney won the suburbs by 4 points and rural areas by 22 points, President Obama won cities of over 50,000 by 34 points and those voters represented 25% of all voters.

Two more points on the turnout need to be highlighted. First, geographically, in the battle between the Cleveland area (19% of all voters) and the Cincinnati area (27% of all voters), President Obama’s take in the former – 60 – far outmatched Governor Romney’s take in the latter – 52% – thereby making it very hard from Governor Romney to catch up in the rest of the state. This reality is especially true when President Obama wins Central Ohio by 4 points and Eastern Ohio by 3 points. In sum, President Obama won those parts of Ohio in which the voters accounted for 58% of the vote, with the real difference coming from the Cleveland and Columbus areas.

Secondly, one of the big questions on election day was: what would be the impact of the Republican’s botched effort to reform collective bargaining rights for government workers in 2011? Though many teachers, firefighters, and police officers are conservative, some of them vowed never to support a Republican again. The veto referendum won by the unions in 2011 served as a dry run to the presidential election in 2012. While it is impossible to say whether those vows lasted into 2012, President Obama did increase his take of the vote of households with union members by 4 points. In such a close election, those 4 points mattered.

There can be little doubt that when it came to the ground game, the Republican effort simply left too much to be desired.