Inside the Obama ‘Ground Game’

Barack Obama presidential campaign, 2008

Barack Obama presidential campaign, 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Buz Whelan

Much was made of the Obama campaign’s ‘ground game’ by analysts in the months leading up to election day. The vaunted machine was supposed to be a difference maker, yet Republicans paid little heed to the David Plouffe-designed system. On November 6th, they paid the price for that insouciance.

The system first came into being a year before the 2008 election. Obama operatives computerized donors, volunteers and likely voters. Their pollsters began compiling lists of democratic voters, especially those that identified themselves as favoring or leaning toward their candidate. By November 6, 2012 the data were extensive, providing detailed lists of voters expected to support the President’s reelection complete with ‘phone numbers, gender, age, polling location and even preferred time of day to vote. Volunteers were lined up to man call centers where they would call and urge their listed voters to get to the polls. Volunteers would also take voters who needed rides to the polls and back home. It was a precision operation, and judging by the election results versus the poll predictions, the Romney campaign and supposedly knowledgeable pundits were blind-sided. Few predicted an Obama win of such overwhelming proportions. And while this remained a close election by total votes counted, the electoral contest was a romp, 330 for Obama, 208 for Romney. It was a targeted drive that gave Obama 8 of the 9 ‘battleground’ states. Not a landslide, perhaps, but a convincing win for the Dems. How did this work?

During the period between July and October I had made several donations to the Democratic Governors’ Association and the Obama campaign. This is what probably triggered an email request that I volunteer to make calls for the campaign at a local site. I agreed and was assigned a time and place to report on Election Day. It turned out to be a private home in the Pocono Farms Country Club community.

I arrived at 9:15am and was given a 10-minute briefing by another volunteer. I was also given several call sheets with lists of names, ‘phone numbers, gender and age identification, polling location and the individual’s preferred time of voting, if known. There was also a large box of pre-paid cell phones. I took one and began making calls. After each call I would note the result; did the person answer, did they vote, who for, and any other information that might be useful. At any given time in my location there were approximately 25 volunteers working their phones. It made an interesting background cacophony, and the ability to block that out and compartmentalize one’s own situation was essential.

Everyone has voice mail these days, and I think most folks screen their calls. I only spoke to a person on a little more than one out of every ten attempts. Here’s a typical message that I would leave: “Hello, my name is Buz Whelan and I’m with the Obama campaign. I’m wondering if you’ve had a chance to vote yet. If you have, thank you so much. If you haven’t, may I remind you that your polling place is located in the Coolbaugh Township Fire Station where Echo Lake turns into Laurel Drive. The polls are open until 8pm, and you must be on line by then. If you haven’t voted, we’d appreciate you doing so because we need your support. Thank you so much and have a great day.” I left that message around 200 times or so. If a person answered, what transpired depended on what they said and what their attitude was. Most people were very receptive and even excited, especially those that had already voted. There were only two grouchy responses to all my calls, not surprising since this was a list of Democratic voters and they seemed genuinely pleased to be personally contacted by the campaign. One additional element was our efforts to assist when necessary. If a person or family couldn’t get to the polls for any reason (such as transportation problems, baby sitting issues, etc.) we offered assistance to alleviate the problem.

It’s difficult to say how big a role this ‘ground game’ had in affecting the election outcome. Many different elements came into play, including issues affecting certain voting populations (women, African-Americans, Latino/Latinas), perceptions of how the economy is recovering and even the weather. But as with any complex enterprise, success often depends on attention to detail, and this was one detail the Obama campaign did not overlook.

 

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Posted on November 13, 2012, in In the News and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. To correct my own numbers, the final tally was 332 for Obama and 206 for Romney. The story was writtent the morning after the election when I believed 2 votes from split states would go to Romney, and I was guessing Florida would go Obama. Wrong on the first guess, right on the second. I apologizefor the error.

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