In the 2004 election, both sides knew Ohio would be the state in which the presidency was won or lost. Sen. John Kerry’s campaign spent months and millions trying to persuade voters in suburban counties. But as they canvassed, they were surprised by what they found—or rather what they didn’t find: volunteers for President George W. Bush’s campaign.
While Kerry’s campaign had tried to persuade key voters, Bush’s camp focused on turning out more of the Republican base in exurban and rural counties. That strategy paid off: Bush won an average of 61.5 percent of the vote in the 72 Ohio counties he won that year. Kerry won an average of 56.4 percent in the 16 counties he won. As Thomas Edsall and former Bush adviser (and National Journal contributor) Matthew Dowd have recounted, the focus on the base came from Dowd’s conclusion after the 2000 election that the middle—the vaunted undecided swing voters who are supposed to determine winners and losers—had disappeared.
The undecided middle is as small today as it was in 2004. And based on the way President Obama’s campaign is spending on polling, it appears Chicago has come to the same conclusion about 2012 that Bush’s team did eight years ago: This year’s electorate appears to be more of a mobilization election than a persuasion election, one in which determining the makeup of the electorate is a more valuable use of scarce resources than persuading undecided voters.
The Obama team’s mobilization strategy could pay dividends for Democrats down the ballot. In places like Columbus, Ohio; Orlando, Fla.; and St. Louis, Democratic strongholds in states that feature Senate contests, increased turnout will only help Democratic incumbents.
“The trend lines from 1992 to today [are] clear. When Bush ran and won in 2004, we spent a lot of time on persuasion in the suburbs. Bush didn’t. Bush simply went for his base and really got the most out of it,” said Tom Lindenfeld, a turnout specialist who worked Ohio for Kerry in 2004. “That’s the model for this year for both sides. This is not an election in which Obama needs to pull voters in who weren’t for him. This is where he’s trying to drive up the already-converted [turnout].”
Indeed, the numbers suggest there are far fewer undecided voters now. While more Americans are registering as independents, fewer are actually open to voting for either party. Analysis of recent Pew Research Center data by Brookings Institution scholar William Galston shows just 23 percent of Americans fall into the swing-voter category; by contrast, 31 percent of voters met that criteria in May 1992. State polls tell the same story. Quinnipiac University, which polls in several key swing states, hasn’t found either Obama or presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney ahead by more than the mid-single digits in Florida, Ohio, or Pennsylvania over the last year. In most battleground states, there are few examples of either leading by more than the margin of error in any public polling.
“Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama has turned out to be a polarizing president who has induced many voters to choose sides very early in the process,” Galston wrote recently. “So the enthusiasm of core supporters—their motivation to translate their preference into actual votes—will make a big difference.”
Not surprisingly, Obama’s campaign has spent heavily on the infrastructure required to boost turnout. Republicans have noted with barely concealed glee that Obama’s team has already blown through $172 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, with little to show for it—at least in terms of TV advertising or a polling bump.
Much of that money, though, has gone toward hiring staff and opening offices in key states. FEC records show the campaign employs nearly 600 staffers (at a cost of nearly $1.2 million in payroll taxes alone per month). And this week, at the same time as Romney’s campaign opened its first general-election office in Pennsylvania, Obama’s camp opened its 24th in the state. Press reports indicate Obama’s campaign has at least 15 field offices in Virginia and another 19 in Ohio.
Having staffers on the ground for a long period of time is a hallmark of the Obama campaign. During his 2008 primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s team routinely left staffers in states he had already won, theorizing that their relationships with the communities would come in handy in a general election. Those staffers were no small part of his wins in states like Indiana and North Carolina.
Whether they can repeat the same success this year is a very open question. But Chicago has a strategy—one that prioritizes relationships and turnout over big TV blitzes aimed at the middle. That’s because, as in 2004, half of America loves the incumbent and half hates him. Obama’s team will spend the next six months getting the former to the polls. After all, it worked for Bush.
This article appears in the May 17, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.