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Ground Control

Barack Obama learned a lot from George W. Bush—not as president but as community organizer.

Outreach: Obama’s ground game is under way.(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

photo of Major Garrett
February 28, 2012

One of the best kept secrets of President Obama’s 2007-08 campaign was how much its structure and strategic focus was influenced by the Bush-Cheney reelection strategy. Obama wanted to create the same kind of voter databases and contact schemes. He marveled at the Bush operation’s ability to identify potential supporters, learn their likes and dislikes, and keep them motivated.

Obama’s team looked at the 2004 race with a mixture of revulsion and awe. Bush’s composite approval rating on Election Day was 48.9 percent (48 percent according to Gallup). The country was becoming more dubious about the Iraq war. Bush’s Supreme-Court-sanctified presidency looked to be in jeopardy.

Bush’s challenger, John Kerry, harnessed every available tool within the Democratic Party to build voter turnout. Labor unions and party activists abetted those efforts with the most expensive and far-flung get-out-the-vote effort ever. And it worked. Kerry expanded the Democratic vote by more than 8 million—from Al Gore’s 50,999,897 to his 59,028,444. The only two comparable cycle-to-cycle boosts in voter turnout were President Carter’s 11.6-million-vote gain over George McGovern’s lackluster 1972 campaign, and President Johnson’s 8.9-million-vote vault over President Kennedy’s 1960 total. But Kerry’s was more impressive. He took on a White House incumbent, built off Gore’s 2000 plurality of 48.4 percent, and found 8 million new votes.


And lost.

Because Bush was the better community organizer.

Bush increased his vote by 11.6 million, also without precedent in modern Republican Party presidential politics. In the key state of Ohio, the president upped his vote by more than 500,000. Bush also won two states that he had lost to Gore: Iowa and New Mexico. The Bush ground game increased its cycle-to-cycle vote in Iowa by more than 117,000 (18 percent) and in New Mexico by more than 110,000 (41 percent). Neither state, unlike Ohio, had a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage (which Democrats argue artificially increased that state’s GOP turnout). Bush became the first president to win reelection with a 48 percent approval rating—by organizing a bigger Bush-Cheney community.

Obama and his team went to work on Bush’s get-out-the-vote efforts and microtargeting—a new method of voter outreach that combined consumer preferences with polling data to sharpen voter appeals and increase the success of direct campaign contact with potential voters. Obama also built permanent grassroots organizations and harnessed enthusiasm for “change.”

The enthusiasm for Obama now is not like it was then. But ground operations are robust. In just about any big city, one can find Obama reelection events. Take Las Vegas. From Tuesday until March 31, the campaign has 156 (you read that right, 156) events planned—meet-ups, voter-registration drives, phone banks, neighborhood walks, house parties, and coffees. An outlier? The campaign has 63 events scheduled for the same period in Raleigh, N.C. Obama’s Chicago headquarters builds awareness and connectedness to these events and reelection messaging via Facebook (25.3 million likes), Twitter (12.7 million followers) and other social-media platforms.

“They have taken a majority of the voter-contact techniques that were the hallmark of the Bush-Cheney campaign and the [Republican National Committee and] taken it into the data arena with social media,” said former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie. “They are storing data and matching it up. They are very far ahead of the curve on this, and on the conservative/Republican side, we are dangerously behind. I don’t know why.”

Gillespie knows that Obama doesn’t need the turnout operation he had in 2008 to win. Obama won 52.9 percent of the vote four years ago, and he can slough off 2.5 percent and still prevail, even more if a third-party candidate is in the mix. “They know they won’t have as much organic turnout as they did in 2008,” Gillespie said. “So they are trying to offset it with manufactured turnout. I do admire it.”

Phillip Stutts, who ran the RNC’s ground operations in 2004, said that the number of organizing events Obama’s team is conducting now may, in the end, prove to be wasted effort. “Are they talking to independent voters or are they just talking to themselves?”

Still, Stutts concedes that Democrats “have overtaken” Republicans in terms of state-to-state organizing and voter mobilization. The RNC is trying to play catch-up. On Thursday, it will announce state directors in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, and will have directors in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico by the end of April. In 2008 John McCain’s presidential campaign didn’t deploy state directors until mid-June. Also, the RNC will, for the first time, deploy a Hispanic voter-outreach director in every battleground state.

If the election is close this year, Stutts said that the value of Obama’s grassroots organizing and social-media advocacy could turn the tide. “It’s going to give them a field goal; it’s not going to give them a touchdown,” he said of Obama’s ground game. “His social-media advantage, though, may give them an extra safety.”

That’s five points in football. That probably translates to a percentage or two nationwide.  And that could make all the difference for the current community organizer who doubles as president.

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