Friday, April 6, 2012

Romney's Ground Game

There's an interesting piece by Zeke Miller of Buzzfeed out today pointing out the way in which a small number of Romney staffers have gone from state to state helping Romney win key primaries. The downside, according to Miller, is that when the primary ends, the staffers leave little behind and so the Romney campaign will effectively be starting from scratch in terms of their ground operation in many states.

Jon Keller and I have had a long-running argument about the importance of the ground game. To put it in the simplest terms, I have argued that the ground game is meaningful in primaries and caucuses, particularly early contests like Iowa, but it is far less important in the general election. I don't argue it is totally irrelevant. In a very tight contest, like say Indiana in 2008, where one campaign (Obama) has a very strong field operation and the other campaign (McCain) has a very poor field operation, the ground game can be the difference. It probably was in Indiana in 2008 and perhaps also in North Carolina. But beyond those somewhat rare situations, the ground game doesn't matter because 1) almost all voters have clear impressions and opinions about the candidates and are going to vote (or not) on that basis and 2) the benefits of the ground game of national level campaigns cancel one another out to a large degree.

The article by Miller is essentially disputing point #2 and Keller would argue I'm at least underestimating the role ground operations can play in shaping voter's opinions and that I'm underestimating the importance of GOTV efforts like the effort of the Bush campaign in Ohio in 2004.

If I'm wrong, Miller's article is certainly bad news for Romney and it is absolutely the case that the Obama campaign has the advantage of a stronger operation at the grassroots generally that has remained in place from 2008 and has been building strength in recent months.

One flaw in my side of the ongoing argument with Keller is that, while I acknowledge the importance of the ground game in a state that is close, we don't know ahead of time which states will be so close as to allow the ground game to make a difference. North Carolina seems a good bet. Ohio and Florida are possibilities. But will Obama have a big enough ground game advantage in these particular states by the Fall to make that difference? I doubt it.

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