Spend a few days talking to voters and political candidates on their home turf and you're bound to learn something, or at least see the lessons and trends of modern American politics on vivid display.
During a five-day road trip from Pittsburgh to Cleveland last week, 2chambers drove more than 900 miles and spoke with 10 congressional candidates, their staffers and dozens of voters. Here are five takeaways:
1.) President Obama’s “ground game” appears stronger than Mitt Romney’s in Ohio and Pennsylvania. This is what a five-year head start on Romney buys you in two critical states: Supporters willing to pick up from where they left off four years ago, voter databases that only need some updates and a 2008 playbook that can be easily repeated.
“There’s really no need to mess with success,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern told Stephanie McCrummen and me for Monday’s Washington Post .
The Romney campaign said that Obama is merely replicating what George W. Bush did in Ohio in 2004, and while the GOP is building up similar operations across Ohio and Pennsylvania, the party is months, if not years behind Obama.
The clearest demonstration of the Obama support came Monday in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., where a group of seniors gathers each week to make phone calls. Several of the volunteers said they began working on Obama’s reelection shortly after Inauguration Day.
2chambers met nobody with similar long-term commitments to Romney in Ohio or Pennsylvania.
2.) Voters don’t like TV ads — but they remember the message. Cleveland and Columbus are top media markets this cycle for political advertising and voters in the Pittsburgh region are enduring a flood of TV ads for the competitive race in the 12th Congressional District.
In Canton, Ohio, Sherah Bennett, 47, said she tries to ignore the ads that air during her daytime soap operas. But she recalled an ad “about Romney and about how he caused that company to fail. That was pretty powerful.”
She couldn’t name “that company” or who paid for the ad — maybe the Obama campaign or Priorities USA Action — but Bennett’s recollection confirms recent polling data that suggest Obama attack ads are cementing negative perceptions of Romney.
Other voters in Ohio said they were enduring the ads, but also could recall some of the messages — especially any ad that mentioned China.
3.) Freshmen Republicans willing to throw leadership under the bus. Last week 2chambers spoke with four GOP freshmen House lawmakers running for reelection. Ask them about the partisan gridlock in Washington and some have a simple answer: Don’t blame me, blame leadership.
“I think the frustration is really at the leadership level,” Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) said. “It’s not so much with me — I’ve been negotiating with people all my life — you could not stay in business with what I do for a living if you didn’t know how to negotiate.”
“I’m not that high enough in the totem pole to talk about the two chambers not talking to each other,” Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) said in another interview. “The process is definitely broken. I served six years in the state assembly and two years in the state senate. I got here and this process here is just unbelievable.”
“I’ve been trying to work bipartisan,” Gibbs added. “What I like to say on this is that the guy in the White House has to show some leadership. When Harry Reid or John Boehner, whichever one, aren’t working together, the president’s got to bring them together.”
4.) Republicans appear willing to compromise. Conversations with GOP lawmakers on their home turf confirmed reporting by The Post’s Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane, who recently wrote that Republicans say they will be forced to retreat on taxes if Obama wins a second term.
In a conversation Thursday with Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) — who was campaigning in Ohio for Romney — both lawmakers said the GOP will need to compromise on ways to replace “sequestration” and the “fiscal cliff.”
“We need an agreement that resolves the issue, which means that everything is going to be on the table,” Upton said.
Everything? Even taxes?
“Yup, I mean, the November election will determine what that ‘everything’ is,” Upton said. “My sense is that we’re not going to get to the cliff and fall off. We’re going to get close to the cliff, but at the end of the day we’re going to have something that prevents us from going over.”
Johnson — locked in a close reelection fight — agreed with Upton.
“There’s a way to increase revenue without just arbitrarily saying take more from job creators,” he said, adding later that “I don’t get a sense that there’s anyone that I’ve talked to that wants to see the sequestration go forward as it is.”
5.) Campaigning for Congress is no easy, inexpensive task. Yes, this is a bit of a “no duh,” and yes, Congress is a wildly unpopular institution — and yes, most lawmakers are unlikely to earn any sympathy from voters — but 2chambers saw no evidence last week of candidates resting on their laurels.
To the south in Ohio’s 6th Congressional District, Democratic candidate Charlie Wilson said it takes him five hours to drive the length of his district, which stretches 335 miles north to south. He’s putting in 16-hour days, mostly behind the wheel on the district’s winding roads, to meet with voters.
2chambers also met two first-time candidates, both of them women, who said they’ve made significant adjustments in order to run their long-shot campaigns.
“I totally understand why women particularly are deterred by this work,” said Democrat Missa Eaton, who is running against Kelly in Pennsylvania’s 3rd Congressional District.
Eaton, who has grown children, said in an interview that “It can get pretty hairy when I leave home early and don’t get back until late at night.” She said the race has put strains on her marriage: “If you’re used to having a 50-50 marriage like we do, when you’re doing this, it can be really difficult.”
In Ohio, Democrat Joyce Healy-Abrams had to loan her campaign $120,000, a sum she said was necessary in order to challenge Gibbs seriously in Ohio’s 7th Congressional District.
“This is an environment where you have to be able to have a certain amount of fundraising,” Healy-Abrams said in an interview. “I have 10 counties, I have to be able to get on television in order to reach over 700,000 people.”
Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) is running his fourth campaign in the last two and a half years — it began with a special election in 2010, the 2010 general election, a primary last spring against Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and his current reelection race. What advice does he have for first-time candidates?
“A lot of people say they want to come in and do certain legislation and don’t think about the campaign side,” Critz said in an interview. “You have to think about all those pieces. This is a multifaceted job and you have to do them all to be successful.”
“You have to work every single facet, you have to work at it everyday,” Critz added. “Don’t be surprised that you’re going to be working seven days a week maybe weeks or months at a time. There’s a lot of things about this job that aren’t very glamorous.”
If you missed the stories from the road (shame on you!) here’s a recap:
MONDAY: Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District:
Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) thinks Mitt Romney “steps in it every chance he gets” while his GOP opponent Keith Rothfus strongly refutes Democratic attacks about his business record.
TUESDAY: Pennsylvania 3rd Congressional District:
Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) thinks Obama “has gotten more free passes than a 12-year old boy at a fair” while his Democratic challenger talks about her first-time run for office. Meanwhile, meet some senior citizens in Pennsylvania participating in “daytime for Obama.”
WEDNESDAY: Ohio 7th Congressional District:
THURSDAY: Ohio 6th Congressional District:
An interview with two Republican lawmakers about Mitt Romney’s chances in Ohio and a former lawmaker trying to get back to Congress admits his 2010 campaign “was not my best performance.”
FRIDAY: Ohio 16th Congressional District:
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