Conventional wisdom surrounding the 2012 election goes like this: President Obama won -- at least in large part -- due to the superiority of his ground game. President Obama had the uber-effective Narwhal; Mitt Romney had the decidedly ineffective Orca. As a result, the Obama team were in far greater touch with their potential voters throughout the campaign -- a level of contact that translated into a superior turnout effort on Election Day.
Makes sense, right? Except that according to a new paper-- entitled "The Ground Game from the Voter's Perspective: 2012 and Before" -- by Ohio State's Paul Beck and Erik Heidemann, formerly of Kent State University, the ground games of Obama and Romney were virtually identical.
Here's the chart the duo built based on information gathered via a national survey conducted by the Comparative National Election Project (CNEP) detailing contacts made by the two parties during the 2012 election.
And here's that same chart focused on the 11 battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In the battlegrounds, the Romney campaign actually had more total contacts with voters than did the Obama campaign -- holding clear edges on direct mail and phone contacts. "These data challenge the claim of an Obama advantage in the ground game, especially one substantial enough to be credited with a victory built upon a virtual sweep of the battleground states," write Beck and Heidemann. "Instead, and especially in the battlegrounds, the Romney campaign and Republican party seemed to duel the Obama campaign and Democratic party to a draw."
There is an important caveat to all of the above. While Romney out-contacted Obama overall, the president's campaign held a lead in one critical place: In-person contacts.
Write Beck/Heidemann: "While the edge was based on contacts with only a small slice of the electorate, it probably was the most consequential of all the contacts....we project that the Obama campaign personally contacted about 7 million more voters than the Romney campaign in all states and about 3.6 million more in the battleground states, which Obama won by a total of 1.6 million votes."
The lesson? All campaign contacts are not created equal. Personal contacts matter far more. That is what the Obama campaign knew -- and what the Romney campaign didn't. And that is a big reason why Obama won a second term.