The clash of the ground games



During the Democratic convention, which seems like 150 years ago, I stumbled upon a group of Democrats who were fretting about Barack Obama's electoral prospects (and this was pre-Sarah Palin). But Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is not part of the Obama inner circle, insisted that the candidate is actually in pretty good shape, because of what is happening under the media radar: an enthusiastic, meticulously organized grassroots get-out-the-vote operation which, in scope and ambition, is unprecedented in American politics. This operation, he said, would fundamentally reshape the electorate, adding 25 million new voters (most of whom, presumably, would be Obama voters). All told, Garin claimed, "The Obama campaign is building a ground-game organization that would make Karl Rove drool."

And it is true, as far as it goes, that the Obama camp has been boasting of its ground game to great statistical effect. Rarely a day goes by when I don't receive an email trumpeting the opening of 10 new field offices here or 20 new offices there - totaling around 350 field offices nationwide, which is roughly triple the number of John McCain outposts. The Obama people talk about a grassroots army of eight million volunteers. This weekend, they announced that Obama raised $66 million during August (with the aid of 500,000 first-time donors), a record one-month haul for any candidate, which presumably will help fund the nationwide field operation during the stretch drive.

The Obama camp says that its ground forces have been registering new, Obama-friendly voters (particularly those under age 35) at a rapid clip, particularly in battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa (those were all red states in '04), as well as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin ('04 blue states that need to be defended). Several key stats supposedly tell the tale: New Democratic registrants in Colorado outnumber new Republican registrants by roughly 5-1; and in Florida, by roughly 3-1. As for Pennsylvania, I've seen all kinds of numbers; depending on the time period, it appears that the Democrats this year have added several hundred thousand voters to the rolls, while the Republicans have netted virtually zero.

It's no surprise that Democrats are stressing the importance of a great ground game - and, psychologically, taking refuge in the belief that they now possess one - given the events of 2004. They woke up the day after the election to discover that John Kerry's good ground game (expanding the electorate with eight million new Democratic voters) was trumped by the excellent Bush-Rove ground game (which added 12 million new Republican voters). There had been some stories in the press about how the Bush forces were doing all kinds of sophisticated "micro-targeting" - zeroing in on GOP-friendly communities by studying consumer information and magazine subscription lists - but many Democrats were stunned and depressed by the results. Hence the determination to trump the GOP this time around.

Of course, we won't know until the votes are counted on Nov. 4 whether Obama is truly marshalling a victorious army of voters below the radar, an army supposedly impervious to the fluctuations of the daily news cycles and the daily tracking polls - most of which, lately, have favored McCain. An argument can certainly be made that the Obama ground game, matched with the underlying fundamentals of the national mood (a tanking economy, a disastrous Republican presidency), should be enough to withstand, although not without periodic crises of the spirit, the tactical pyrotechnics of the McCain campaign.

But I wouldn't be so sure about Obama's vaunted secret weapon - not so much that it will fail in its mission of expanding the electorate, but that its effectiveness might be successfully blunted by the GOP's energized ground game. The Republican National Committee, which is running McCain's ground operation, is well-schooled in the art of micro-targeting, because it has been practicing that grassroots tactic since the  '02 congressional races. Plus, the RNC has plenty of money to do it again. Plus, the conservative grassroots will be increasingly energized if McCain and Palin keep dominating the news cycles (thanks, in part, to the fact that many media outlets, particularly those on cable TV, are easily drawn to the faux trivilalities, such as "lipstick on a pig").

Plus, and perhaps most importantly, McCain's choice of Sarah Palin has galvanized the conservative grassroots in ways that McCain himself could never do. A great ground game operation is useless unless it is fueled by enthusiasm. Palin is the fuel.

The best way to measure this enthusiasm is to briefly review the conservative grassroots response to Palin's ABC News appearances with Charlie Gibson. She was, at least by any empirical measure, a national embarrassment, but Republican base voters either didn't notice, or made up reasons to explain it all away. They have pronounced themselves satisfied, even though, for instance, Palin couldn't even answer basic questions about the entitlement programs that are crucial to tens of millions of Americans. Consider this exchange, during the 20/20 segment on Friday night...

Gibson: "Is there money you can save in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid?"

Palin: "I am sure that there are efficiencies that are going to be found in all of these agencies. I am - I'm confident in that."

Gibson (forced again to play the role of Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle): "But agencies are not involved in entitlements. The basically discretionary spending is 18 percent of the budget."

Palin (note the Bush-style incoherence): "We have certainly seen excess in agencies, though. And in - when - when bureaucrats, when bureaucracy just gets kind of comfortable, going with the status quo and not being challenged to find deficiencies and spend other people's money wisely."

The Republican base had no problem with any of that. Nor was any concern voiced about her Bush-style aversion to factual reality. At another point, she told Gibson that Alaska "produces nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy," which comes as quite a surprise to the folks who work at the U.S. Energy Information Administration - and who say that Alaska actually produces 3.5 percent of all domestic energy. And if she meant to say "oil" instead of energy, she got that wrong, too, because Alaska produces 14 percent of the nation's oil output. All told, her inability to recite the most basic facts doesn't speak very well for McCain, who recently boasted on TV that his running mate "knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States."

No grassroots conservatives have emailed to acknowledge that perhaps Palin isn't fit for prime time. On the contrary, they have rallied to defend her worst interview moment. Last Thursday night, after she flunked the simple test of identifying the Bush doctrine, freezing like a clueless moose caught in the headlights, her fans sent me emails explaining that, actually, the Bush doctrine has gone through a number of permutations over the years, so naturally she should not have been expected to answer such an unfair question.

My rejoinder is twofold: (a) Gibson specifically asked her about the 2002 Bush doctrine, which is the most famous of the permutations, and she still couldn't say what it was, and (b) if she'd known anything at all about these permutations - as anyone prepared to be president should be expected to know - then her very first response to Gibson would surely have been: "Which version of the Bush doctrine are you asking me about, Charlie?" Instead, she could only hazard a wild guess about any of the doctrinal contents ("His world view?"), albeit with jut-jawed certitude.

But the grassroots conservatives love that certitude, and to heck with trifles such as empiricism. They're soldiers now in an energized McCain army, newly committed for the duration, and no Democrat should still assume that the vaunted Obama operation will dominate.