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With two weeks to go until the election, it seems safe to say that nobody knows who will win the presidential race at this point. Most polls show President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in a virtual dead heat, with no obvious moments for either candidate to break away before November 6. The race will now come down to the campaigns’ respective “ground games” — grassroots field organising that focuses on identifying voters, persuading them to vote for a candidate, and then making sure they cast their ballots on or before Election Day.
The conventional wisdom is that the Obama campaign holds a big lead in this realm of campaigning. Democratic turnout operations have traditionally been stronger than those of Republicans, due mostly to union organising efforts. The Obama campaign built up this advantage with its famously massive 2008 field organisation, and many of the field offices established four years ago just never closed.
In this race, the Obama campaign has an overwhelming advantage over Romney in the number of field offices the campaigns have opened, both nationally and in key swing states. In Ohio, for example, the Obama campaign has about 122 field offices across the state, while the Romney campaign has 40. In Florida, Obama has 102 local offices, compared to 48 for Romney.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina highlighted this ground game advantage on a conference call with reporters this morning, pointing to the president’s lead among earlier voters as evidence that he is winning the race where it counts.
Significantly, Messina noted that, in battleground states, the campaign is beating Republicans in turning out “sporadic voters” — a term he used to describe voters who are not likely to get themselves to the polls on Election Day:
“Early vote is not taking a final universe of voters and only changing the day they vote,” he explained. “If that were what we were doing, that would be concerning. What early vote does is help us get out low-propensity voters – voters called “sporadic” voters – which broadens our universe and freezes up more get-out-the-vote resources later and especially on Election Day. And let’s be very clear, more sporadic Obama voters are voting than sporadic Republicans in the battleground states, and that is both a sign of enthusiasm, but also organizational strength that is going to matter down here.”
It is virtually impossible to verify Messina’s claims. But if he is correct, then it stands to reason that public polls may not accurately reflect Obama’s standing in the race; sporadic voters — including those who end up voting on Election Day — would be passed over in the “likely voter” models of at least some polls.
Take, for example, the daily Gallup tracking poll, which has shown Romney with a significant lead since the poll began measuring “likely” voters at the beginning of October. Gallup’s likely voter model is known to be particularly selective, so it seems safe to assume that fickle voters are not included in the sample; among registered voters, however, Gallup has found the race in a virtual dead heat.
But Messina’s argument only stands if Republicans are not making a similarly successful effort to mobilize “sporadic” voters. The GOP has made significant strides in its voter turnout operations since 2008, and Republicans tell Business Insider that they are outperforming their voter registration numbers in early voting in key battleground states, and have increased their share of early voting from 2008. The Romney campaign also pointed out that its volunteers have made contact with 44.8 million voters, and knocked on over 9 million doors this election cycle (although Democrats claim these numbers are inflated because they include automated messages.)
Moreover, while the Romney campaign organisation does not approach the scale of the Obama network, the Republican National Committee has built up its ground organisation since 2008, as evidenced by the 2010 midterm elections and, to a lesser extent, the Wisconsin recall races of 2011 and 2012.
In addition, outside conservative groups, like the Tea Party-affiliated Freedomworks and Americans For Prosperity, have made significant strides in voter mobilization since 2009, as have social conservative groups like Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Still, it is impossible to predict the effectiveness of these disparate Republican turnout efforts, or how they will compare to the well-oiled Obama campaign.
“We know what we know and they know what they know,” Obama’s senior campaign strategist David Axelrod told reporters Tuesday. “We’ll know who is bluffing and who isn’t in two weeks.”
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