GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo.—In a race that has left both President Obama and Mitt Romney with no margin for error, the result may turn on whether Barbara Burke or Paul Lopez, and thousands of people like them in every swing state, is more successful between now and Nov. 6.
Burke is a homemaker from the Denver suburb of Centennial. Once a Democrat, she migrated to the Republican Party after moving to Colorado from Massachusetts, largely behind the belief that Democrats offered “a handout, not a hand-up.” On a brilliant fall afternoon last week, Burke was one of more than three dozen volunteers who crowded along three long tables of phones in a Republican get-out-the-vote center here. Every few minutes, the steady low buzz of prospecting calls was broken by the trilling of a bell, which volunteers rang whenever they identified a new Romney supporter. “It’s really energized,” Burke said. “It’s crunch time now, so people are coming out in full force.”
The next afternoon, Lopez, an intense and energetic young Denver City Council member, joined a Latinos for Obama event that packed every available inch of a Mexican restaurant in the city. An audience of local activists that included the granddaughter of Cesar Chavez listened as Hispanic elected officials exhorted their community to turn out in big numbers. Lopez bristled at polls suggesting that Hispanics are less engaged than in 2008. With Obama moving to legalize the presence of young people brought here illegally as children, and Romney talking about “self-deportation,” he said, the Hispanic turnout will exceed expectations. “We have a clear choice,” Lopez said, eyes flashing. “Somebody who believes we should get the hell out of town versus somebody who believes we have a future here.”
In its final stretch, the presidential race is coming down to only a few states—and a handful of key dynamics. Romney is running largely the same campaign everywhere, with a message centered on arguments both ideological (government is too big and expensive) and pragmatic (the results of Obama’s past four years do not justify another term).
Obama’s closing argument is more bifurcated. In the Rust Belt, he’s banking primarily on a message of economic populism, centered on the portrayal of Romney as a soulless corporate raider, that is aimed at holding the working-class white voters who are supporting Obama in much larger numbers in Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin than nationally. (That elevated blue-collar support in these three critical states may be Obama’s last line of defense against Romney’s October surge.) In Sun Belt battlegrounds such as Colorado, Obama is stressing a message of cultural liberalism that targets white-collar women, centering on such issues as pay equity, abortion, and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. “The women’s health argument gets us more voters here than in Ohio,” said one senior Democratic strategist in Colorado, “and the anti-Bain argument gets us more votes in Ohio than here. The messaging is the same—it just has a different impact.”
But for each candidate, across both the Rust Belt and Sun Belt battlegrounds, the common thread is a get-out-the-vote effort of unprecedented extent and sophistication. While the incessant polls show momentary advantages for one or the other contender, they all point to the same conclusion: The election is close enough that the result will rest largely with people like Burke and Lopez, the activists each side is mobilizing to turn out their voters.
James Garcia, Romney’s Colorado state manager, says that the campaign has already contacted twice as many potential voters by phone, and three times as many at the door, as John McCain’s campaign had at the comparable point in 2008. In Colorado, about 1.9 million people have requested mail-in ballots, and the campaign expects to personally contact more than 1 million of them. In Colorado and other swing states, Obama has built an even more extensive operation—far larger than even his breakthrough organization in 2008.
President Bush’s 2004 victory over Democrat John Kerry proved that in a race that divides the country this closely, these efforts can prove decisive. Late polls that year showed Bush virtually tied with Kerry. But because of Bush’s massive turnout drive, Republicans unexpectedly equaled Democrats as a share of the vote on Election Day (for the first time in a presidential race during the era of modern polling), and the incumbent squeezed by.
This year, Obama’s team believes that its turnout machinery will produce an electorate with more minority and younger voters than most polls project. “It is going to be a different electorate ... than people are expecting,” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, says flatly. Conversely, Rich Beeson, Romney’s field director, believes that conservative and rural turnout will surge, as in 2010, which would tilt the electorate older and whiter. “We could exceed Bush in some of those rural counties,” he predicts. With voters starkly polarized across age, gender, educational, and, above all, racial lines, the winner next month may be the candidate who can most closely match Bush’s achievement—and produce an electorate that leans slightly more in his direction than pollsters expected.
This column originally appeared in print as "The Ground Game."
This article appears in the October 27, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.