Say you’re a Democratic voter living in Virginia who likes President Obama.
Clicking on the state’s page at www.BarackObama.com two weeks ago, you would have found an offer for a free bumper sticker, a profile of the regional field director for northern Fairfax County, and a picture of about 20 “spring fellows,” a select group of volunteers who learned the ropes of grassroots campaigning on a recent Saturday in Richmond. On that Thursday, there was a “midday Mommies” phone bank in Woodbridge, voter-registration drives in Manassas and Vienna, and nearly 40 “Women for Obama” house parties across the state. First lady Michelle Obama even called in.
Now say you have a Republican friend who likes Mitt Romney.
On that same day, your friend clicking on the Virginia page at www.MittRomney.com would have found blurbs about endorsements from Gov. Bob McDonnell and former Gov. Jim Gilmore, and a reminder that the Republican primary will be held on March 6.
Offering to volunteer for the Romney campaign by inputting a name, e-mail, Virginia ZIP code, and phone number did not trigger a response from the campaign over a week’s time. (A few days later, an app was added to the website that allows volunteers to make calls from home on behalf of the campaign.) In contrast, inputting personal information on Obama’s website prompted five e-mails from the campaign over the same period.
What does this reveal about the president’s reelection bid and the front-runner for the GOP nomination? Blessed with the perks of incumbency, Obama is clearly taking advantage of the ongoing and unpredictable Republican primary to hit the ground running. In 2008, he was the first Democratic nominee to win Virginia since 1964, and the state is viewed as one of the most crucial battlegrounds of 2012. The president seems poised there and in other swing states to run an equally aggressive ground game that mobilizes potential foot soldiers early and often.
In contrast, Romney has lacked the time, incentive, money, and grassroots enthusiasm to start building a ground game that could compete with the president. In Virginia, for example, Ron Paul will be the only other name on the presidential ballot on Tuesday; Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum failed to collect enough signatures to qualify. And Romney’s campaign had other pressing concerns, with showdowns against Santorum in Arizona and Michigan taking priority over Virginia.
Watch Major Garrett discuss Obama's grassroots network:
Obama's Formidable Ground Game 3/6/12
The absence of a competitive primary in the Old Dominion has, in a sense, hurt Romney, becoming a missed opportunity to build an organization he could later leverage in the general election—should he get that far. Even Romney’s primary victories in places such as Florida and Nevada, states that will be crucial in the general election, were due more to strong debate performances and sustained attacks against opponents over the airwaves. And, if Romney suffers from an organizational deficit, Santorum, if he becomes the nominee, would have that problem 10 times over, basically starting from scratch in most states.
“There isn’t any [Republican] ground game. That doesn’t mean there won’t be, but Obama will unquestionably have a distinct advantage,” said GOP strategist Curt Anderson, who helped run the national party’s vaunted 72-hour Task Force in 2004, an intense get-out-the-vote effort focused on the last three days before Election Day. “If Romney is the nominee, the question is whether he will be able to excite and energize the more conservative parts of the party and make them part of a national organization. For Santorum, the question will be whether he can raise the money and build the apparatus fast enough.”
But assuming that Romney or Santorum emerges from the food fight that is the GOP primary to secure the nomination, will Obama’s organizational advantage be too much to overcome? Candidates can play catch-up, but there’s a limit—and much will depend on the closeness of the election, said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, a top adviser to John McCain in 2008. “It’s your insurance,” Schmidt said. “If a state comes down to a couple of percentage points, organization can make the difference.”
Heading into the March 6 Super Tuesday contests in 10 states, the Republican primary so far has largely resembled a traveling road show. Candidates hurriedly establish a presence in the state next to vote before packing up and moving to the following one, leaving the Obama campaign with the run of the place. Obama has eight campaign offices in Iowa, eight in New Hampshire, three in Nevada, and 12 in Florida. The campaign also has six sites in Wisconsin, a state the Republican candidates have thought little about because it doesn’t hold its primary until April 3.
“We are fired up and ready to go,” 67-year-old Democratic activist Pat Turner said, echoing Obama’s trademark rallying cry from 2008. Turner recently hosted 30 people at her Glen Allen, Va., home for tuna salad, sweet tea, and the speakerphoned pep talk from the first lady. “We cannot take anything for granted if we want to win.”
This article appears in the March 3, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.