When the video surfaced of Romney talking about 47 percent of Americans being dependent on government, feeling like victims and unwilling to take personal responsibility for their own lives, he was in trouble in Ohio. Public polls showed Obama with a near double-digit lead. Romney officials concede that in their own polling they were down, but by about half as much.
That brought an intervention by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was a finalist to be Romney’s vice-presidential running mate. Portman pressed senior officials in Romney’s campaign to take a more aggressive approach to its Ohio campaign. State director Scott Jennings echoed Portman’s concerns.
According to one Republican, Portman was “a pretty fierce advocate” for a new approach that included a significant increase in spending on television and more of Romney’s time in the state. At the time, Romney wasn’t even advertising in some of the secondary markets in Ohio. That has since changed dramatically. Romney is now almost at parity with Obama in spending.
“We were 18,000 gross ratings points in the hole in Youngstown before we ever got on the air,” Jennings said. (Gross ratings points measure the frequency of ads in individual markets.) “We were not on rural radio for months and they were.”
Demographically, the battle now is over the votes of white working-class Ohioans, particularly men — a group long resistant to Obama but one the Obama campaign hopes can be swayed over the auto bailout.
Women are also a focus for both campaigns — suburban women torn between concerns about debt and deficits and the social-issue positions of the Republican Party, and women without college degrees who are worried about the economy. Romney officials say their candidate will play better in suburban areas than McCain did four years ago.
The ground game
Victory in Ohio could depend on who has the most effective operation to mobilize supporters. Carol Mohr, an Obama neighborhood team leader in the Columbus area, was at Wanda Carter’s home Thursday night and outlined for other volunteers the voters they will focus on during the final days of the campaign.
“We really care about you if you vote every time, but we’re not going to come knock on your door during the get-out-the-vote period,” she said. “We care about you until we find out that you’re for Romney, and then we’ll never knock on your door again. We care about you if you’re undecided, and we’ll come back to you and talk to you several times until after this weekend. Then we don’t care about you if you’re undecided. If you haven’t made up your mind by Sunday night at 7 o’clock, we don’t care about you. After that, we only care about those people who are for Obama but sporadic voters.”
Obama’s team has 131 offices across the state, with nearly a thousand staging areas, where volunteers meet to fan into their neighborhoods. “If you want to win Ohio and run a ground game that will move votes, it has to be as close to the precinct level as possible and have the kind of leadership that can be centralized but still be quality all the way down to the very, very local level,” said Jeremy Bird, Obama’s national field director.
Obama has a huge paid staff in Ohio and other states — the campaign will not say how many — but the operation depends on volunteers. It sometimes seems upside down, with 20-something field coordinators paid by the campaign overseeing the work of volunteers twice or three times their age. Neighborhood team leaders, the top category of volunteers, are given considerable responsibility and autonomy but are also held accountable to meet the campaign’s goals.
The campaign’s research team has studied and tested what works and what doesn’t — the optimal number of contacts to get a voter to the polls, the likelihood that someone will volunteer based on their proximity to an Obama office or staging area — all designed with one thing in mind: making it as easy as possible for volunteers to persuade friends, neighbors and relatives to vote for the president.
“As much as I love our paid staff, I don’t always want paid staff talking to these people,” said Messina, the campaign manager. “We know that at some point people are going to pick the TV up and throw it as far as they can proverbially out of the window and look at their friends and family and neighbors and say, ‘What am I going to do in this election?’ And that’s the moment that Jeremy’s organization is going to interact with them in a quantifiably important way.”
Romney’s ground operation is different, run through “victory” offices of the state and county GOP. In Ohio, the Romney-GOP ground team has 40 local offices and 160 paid staffers. After the debates, said Chris Maloney, the campaign’s Ohio spokesman, “we saw a massive increase in volunteer participation across all 40 call centers in Ohio. Within 24 hours we had the bandwidth in place, we flew in more cellphones to complement our lines that are here on the ground. We printed extra walk packets.”
“By this time in ’08, there was a belief among Republicans that John McCain was not going to win. It was an enthusiasm gap,” Jennings said. “We don’t have that this year.”
Competition now is over early votes. The two campaigns have waged a war with statistics to show that each is besting the other. Both campaigns say their goal is to encourage Ohioans with a lower likelihood of voting to cast an early ballot rather than waiting until Election Day.
There also is competition over how to describe the state of play — in Ohio and nationally. Romney campaign advisers, publicly and privately, say they are on the move but stop a step short of claiming he has an outright lead.
“There is an unmistakable trajectory toward Romney,” Jennings said. “We were down a few months, but over the last month we’ve been steadily ticking up. We’ve gotten this thing into what is basically a dead heat, but with Romney having momentum.”
Obama officials contend that the race here is more stable and dispute that Romney truly has momentum here.
“I am very, very confident,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist. “Everybody’s entitled to their own interpretation of whatever they’re looking at, but I wouldn’t trade places with them for anything.”
Many Ohio voters are weary by now of all the campaigning — the ads, the spending, the calls, the door knocks, the mail, all of it. Only those who have recently moved and who don’t have land lines are likely to be spared from the get-out-the-vote contacts by the campaigns.
But along with that, there is also a sense here that Ohio is special, that it could well be the decider state in an election of great consequence. Donald Roberson, a member of the Republican Club at Ohio University, is one of those who takes pride in the huge role Ohio is playing this year.
“It feels,” he said, “like a great honor.”
Joel Achenbach and Alice Crites contributed to this report.