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:
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.”
In contrast, there are far fewer signs of a bottom-up Romney organization in Virginia or a handful of other states with early primaries that will also be pivotal in the general election. Granted, the Romney campaign’s collection of roughly 16,000 signatures to qualify for the Virginia ballot took some organizing know-how. “That was obviously an exercise of campaign strength and organization, and we passed the test,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. Romney also boasts the support of the Republican political establishment that dominates the state, a sort of campaign-in-waiting that will be activated when and if he clinches the nomination. But while Obama has had four Virginia offices up and running, Romney’s campaign said it had only recently opened one—in Richmond. (The new office, however, isn’t listed on Romney’s website, and his campaign would not provide contact information for it.)
“There’s some e-mail traffic, but as far as meetings and signs, there’s nothing going on yet. There isn’t a lot of intensity out there,” Tom Davis, a former Republican House member from Northern Virginia, said of the level of grassroots activity in his home state. “There’s still plenty of time, but it would have been nice to start organizing early.”
Certainly, a lot could change on the ground between now and November. It’s not guaranteed that the Democratic grassroots advantage is built to last; once the GOP nominee is chosen, that campaign and party infrastructure are expected to band together to form a united front against a president viewed as taking the country in the wrong direction. In a modestly improving but still struggling economy, the incumbent will be put on the defensive.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Obama was forced to out-organize his rival literally state by state by deploying an unprecedented grassroots army. Romney hasn’t been pushed like that.
Romney’s failure to organize on the ground level at this stage of the election cycle is partly a function of the circumstances of the 2012 campaign, which has unfolded in strikingly different ways from the 2008 Democratic primary. Obama was pitted in an epic contest against the party’s establishment candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, which forced him to out-organize her literally on a state-by-state basis by deploying an unprecedented grassroots army. At this point four years ago, candidate Obama had 1 million donors. His robust primary effort was swiftly parlayed into a winning general-election strategy.
But Romney hasn’t faced a Clinton-like opponent; he hasn’t been pushed like Obama was. Instead, he’s been challenged by a procession of vastly underfunded rivals—with the exception of Rick Perry—who lacked Clinton’s staying power and quickly fizzled. The latest threat to Romney’s front-runner status comes from Santorum, who is running a seat-of-his-pants campaign and only recently opened a national headquarters (in Virginia). Romney has been, by far, the best-funded, best-equipped GOP candidate, but that hasn’t helped him seal the deal.
And unlike with Obama and Clinton in 2008, the 2012 Republican candidates have picked their battles to conserve resources. Santorum barely competed in Florida and Nevada. Romney skipped the Feb. 6 contest in Missouri—another swing state in November—though he plans to contest the state’s caucus next month. Whether that was a wise decision or a squandered moment depends on whether one takes the short-term or long-term view.
For Romney, it’s been this way since the beginning. He declined last summer to participate in Iowa’s famed straw poll in Ames, widely perceived to be a test of a campaign’s organizational strength in the state, and held back from actively competing in the caucuses until the final weeks before the vote. He finished second to Santorum in Iowa, which figures to be another electoral battleground in the general election—and perhaps another lost opportunity for Romney.
Romney went all-in in Iowa four years ago, spending millions, and finished second anyway. This time around, his campaign has tried to run a leaner, more efficient operation, which also may explain why his national network seems emaciated.
But there’s another reason why Romney’s ground game has been slow to develop—and it gets to the heart of the ills plaguing the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign: He doesn’t excite the conservative Christian base of the party. So far, according to exit polls, Romney has failed to win over the most-conservative voters in every state in which he’s competed, except Nevada. Moreover, Republican turnout has been down from 2008, suggesting limited enthusiasm for Romney and the rest of the field.
Over the last two decades, the two major political parties have taken turns leading the way on campaign organizing. In the 1990s, the increasing influence of the Religious Right and conservative lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association helped the Republican Party take over Congress. In 2000, labor unions and the advent of liberal advocacy groups like MoveOn.org tightened the gap between the parties by focusing on personal contact with voters. George W. Bush’s reelection bid in 2004 triumphed by mobilizing so-called “values voters” through churches; picking off small but significant percentages of support from traditionally Democratic-leaning blocs like Hispanics, Jews, and African-Americans; and utilizing intense voter outreach in the homestretch before Election Day.
Then came Obama, a former community organizer from the streets of Chicago, who rewrote the playbook by using social networking and aggressive online fundraising to galvanize infrequent voters and convert new ones.
“The parties tend to leapfrog over one another every few years in grassroots organizing. You take a look at what the other side does and figure out how to get a leg up,” said Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic consultant and former political director of the AFL-CIO who specializes in voter turnout. “Obama really took the mantle in 2008 and built, by far, the greatest voter-mobilization machine that anyone has ever seen.”
Obama laid the foundation of his general-election campaign during the 2008 primary. Both Obama and Clinton raised more than $100 million before the first primary votes were cast, allowing them to dispatch unprecedented numbers of staffers to far-flung parts of the country. Obama had 37 offices in Iowa, where the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus put him on the path to the nomination. He later carried the state in the general election.
Even in states he lost to Clinton, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, Obama registered thousands of new voters. Those efforts paid dividends by helping him win those states in November. Competitive primary contests that forced Obama to invest time and resources in traditionally Republican-leaning states like North Carolina, Indiana, and Colorado set him up to turn those states blue in the general election.
Obama doubled down in states such as Florida and Michigan, which he ignored during the primary because they held early contests that broke national-party rules. The campaign had 600 paid staffers in Florida, helping Obama become the first Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996 to win the state.
“You can’t do this work without paid staff. You can build up a huge volunteer base, but someone has to give them walk lists and phone lists,” Rosenthal said. “Television matters a lot, but when it comes down to it, presidential elections are won in battleground states where the margin of victory may depend on who has the better ground organization. Right now, I would put my money on the Obama campaign.”
Former McCain adviser Schmidt said that his candidate was outspent by $250 million in the 2008 general election, and with that financial advantage, Obama had the ability to build a far-reaching campaign organization that could not be matched.
“We were never in a position to compete at an organization level,” Schmidt said. “That advantage was a critical difference in the outcome of the election.”
A superior message can sometimes compensate for an inferior organization, Schmidt added, but McCain’s “Country First” slogan couldn’t overcome Obama’s “Hope and Change” mantra at a time when the electorate was looking for a fresh alternative.
SMALL DOLLARS, BIG RESULTS
Shortly after his election, Obama announced an offshoot of the national Democratic Party called Organizing for America that aimed to run a year-round campaign to support his policies and keep his supporters engaged. When Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, unveiled a list of national campaign cochairs last week, it included the familiar faces of current and former elected officials, but also a number of OFA volunteers—people such as Lynette Acosta, a mother of two from Florida; retired North Carolina teacher Ann Cherry; Nevada high school counselor Loretta Harper; Virginia Commonwealth University student Sai Iyer; and Ohio retiree Elaine Price.
“We’re building the kind of grassroots organization that no national campaign has ever seen before,” Messina said. “As we open field offices across the country, we will continue to focus on expanding our volunteer base, because we know that they are the backbone to this organization.”
One obvious sign of Obama’s grassroots strength is his fundraising success with donors who give $200 or less. His small-donor fundraising in 2011 surpassed that of all of his Republican competitors combined, according to an analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute. The think tank reported that 48 percent of Obama’s 2011 donations came from small donors, compared to only 9 percent of Romney’s. Those percentages held steady in fundraising reports for January.
Romney’s small-donor fundraising is weak not only in comparison with his Republican rivals and Obama but also by historical standards, said CFI President Michael Malbin.
“It’s not the only metric for measuring grassroots strength, but it tells you what kind of campaign they are running,” he said. “Governor Romney’s campaign is mostly funded by people who write large checks. He’s not mobilizing the base as he competes for the nomination, though on the day he becomes the presumptive nominee, the entire situation will change.”
In a possible sign of how the breakdown of small-donor giving could shift, the Republican National Committee touted that it received $5.9 million in donations under $200 in January, more than the Democratic Party’s $4.2 million or the Obama campaign’s $5.1 million. The RNC has roughly $8 million more cash-on-hand than its Democratic counterpart, money that will be used toward voter turnout once the nominee is chosen.
Romney’s competitors are having more success with small donors. CFI found that 48 percent of Santorum’s money, 46 percent of Gingrich’s money, and 39 percent of Ron Paul’s money has come from people who gave less than $200. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, has put causes that galvanize the conservative base, like abortion and gay marriage, at the center of his campaign.
“While the establishment has hedged their bets with big checks to Romney, thousands of grassroots activists are backing Santorum with small gifts from all over the country,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, which advocates conservative Christian values. “It’s their way of saying, ‘We are with you Rick!’ ”
Obama is using one of his trademark strategies from his last campaign, in which he asks people to donate a negligible amount of money. That’s followed by more financial appeals, solicitations to become a volunteer, and pleas to recruit new supporters—all aimed at building the contributor’s investment over time and allowing the campaign to continue to draw on an ever-increasing donor pool.
The latest offer invites a supporter to donate as little as $2 to be entered in a drawing to have dinner with the president and three other supporters. “You’d be crazy not to at least give this a shot,” says the e-mail from Obama’s national finance director.
The Romney campaign declined to discuss its fundraising strategy but said it expected to be outgunned by a sitting president and contended that it would have enough money to compete in the general election. By the end of January, Romney had raised $62.7 million and spent $55 million, leaving him with about $7.7 million. A super PAC bankrolled by his allies has an additional $16 million to spend on his behalf. All of that has left Romney in much better financial shape than McCain was at this point four years ago.
As for Romney’s grassroots network, campaign spokesman Williams said that although the campaign had closed its field offices in states that already voted, it was staying in contact with supporters there. The campaign collected tens of thousands of signatures to qualify for the ballot in a slew of states, including battlegrounds such as Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and of course, Virginia.
“We’re the only candidate running a true national campaign, competitive in all 50 states,” Williams said. “We feel that the time and effort we’re investing in these states during the Republican nominating process is laying a strong foundation for a formidable general election.”
Williams added that the campaign was encouraging volunteers to make calls on its behalf from home, “lessening the need for brick-and-mortar offices.” For example, he said, Romney opened 11 offices before the Florida primary in 2008, and only half as many this year.
“We realize the president is going to have a formidable political machine and raise a significant amount of money, but we’re confident that Governor Romney will have the organization to go toe-to-toe,” Williams said. “That’s why he’s the strongest candidate against the president.”
In Virginia, Republican activists backing Romney say they aren’t worried about being behind the curve. A marquee Senate race between former Sen. George Allen and former Gov. Tim Kaine is already stirring up the electorate. But the absence of the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns discourages Romney and Ron Paul from investing time and money in the state.
“In the broader sense, we are at a disadvantage because we still have interparty contests in other states,” said Linwood Cobb, chairman of the GOP committee in the 7th Congressional District in the Richmond area. “I think Romney can accomplish a primary victory without a lot of field offices. It’s a little bit early to pull the trigger.”
AS IOWA GOES …
Romney may not need a more formidable campaign apparatus to win, his supporters say. Consider Iowa, a state that Obama won by nearly 10 percentage points in 2008.
The Democratic edge in voter registration of more than 100,000 as of the 2008 election has dwindled to about 4,000. Iowa Republicans are optimistic about closing the gap under the leadership of the new state party chairman, A. J. Spiker, a leading Ron Paul supporter. The latest Des Moines Register poll shows Obama trailing all of the Republican contenders except for Gingrich. The president’s disapproval rating stands at 48 percent. And it’s one state where GOP voters have been motivated: Turnout in the Republican caucus on Jan. 3 was the largest in history.
A former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, Steve Grubbs, said that 1,600 new Republican voters registered for the caucus in his home county, the third largest in the state. The GOP’s not-so-secret weapon: the incumbent.
“There’s an underlying issue motivating people to participate in the process,” he said. “The way that President Obama motivates our base bodes well for the general election.”
Still, other Iowa Republicans are worried about the level of grassroots enthusiasm, especially among the most conservative activists, if Romney is the nominee. Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, frequently criticized Romney for investing little time in the state before the caucuses.
“He did everything but thumb his nose at the conservative wing of the party, and that’s where most of the volunteers will come from in the general election, I guarantee it,” he said. “They haven’t done their homework. But if Romney is the nominee, I will get in the position where I can get motivated. Another four years of Barack Obama is unthinkable.”
This article appears in the March 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.