Election 2008: Ground Games

Alec MacGillis
Washington National Political Reporter
Monday, October 13, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post national political reporter Alec MacGillis was online Monday, Oct. 13 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his article comparing the field operations of the Obama and McCain campaigns, and what Obama's numerical edge could translate into on Election Day.

Obama Camp Relying Heavily on Ground Effort (Post, Oct. 12)

The transcript follows.


Kensington, Md.: I keep hearing about the huge advantage Obama has for getting out the vote in some states because he has so many more field offices there. While I hope that's true, I always thought that getting out the vote was done with phone-banking, which can be done from anywhere via the magic of volunteers' unlimited long distance plans on their cell phones? What good is having local offices?

Alec MacGillis: Hello everyone, thanks for joining us here today. I'm glad to take any of your campaign questions but am especially interested in any thoughts you have on the campaigns' ground organizations, which obviously are going to be a big decider in the home stretch, and which we wrote about in an article yesterday.

I'll start with this good question here, which really gets at one of the differences between the campaigns. Obama has spent a lot on offices -- more than 700 around the country, including 51 in Virginia, 56 in Florida and 71 in Ohio. The campaign had spent more than $1.4 million in rent as of August. You're right, this might seem odd given that phone-calling can be done from anywhere now, but here's why they do it -- they think the visibility helps them. One of the pillars of their ground game is that they want the campaign to be as easy as possible to access for potential volunteers. That means a top-flight Web site, but it also means having an actual office on as many Main Streets as possible so that people can just wander in.


paulhrice: I'm from a pretty important state, Florida, and I don't know anyone that has seen or heard from any of these workers and volunteers.

Alec MacGillis: Really? That's interesting. Where in Florida are you? What this may get at is that for all Obama's organizational manpower, the campaign actually has been pacing itself to some degree -- it spent most of the summer and even into September building up its ranks of volunteers, arranging them in "neighborhood teams" covering 8-10 precincts each, and also registering new voters. It's only now that it has moved more aggressively into traditional canvassing/voter persuasion in a lot of places.


Fairfax County, Va.: As a typical Obama volunteer in Northern Virginia, I was tickled again this past weekend to see references in several newspapers and TV shows to Obama volunteers as "college kids." Sometimes it is the McCain campaign being dismissive, but sometimes it's the journalists, too. Of course, the paid field staff consists largely of twentysomethings who still have the stamina to work 24-7, bless their hearts. But the amazing thing is that actual, local volunteers are more likely to be middle-aged, like me (I'm 46 -- one year younger than Barack).

We talk about it among ourselves all the time. There are still college kids, retirees and high-schoolers, but now the rest of us have shown up. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to be thought of as a college kid at my age, but where does this come from? It's so nearly universal and so inaccurate that I really am curious.

Alec MacGillis: You raise a very good point, and something I think a lot of people have been getting wrong about the Obama organization. No doubt, Obama is being helped by a probably unprecedented surge of youth/college support, but it's a mistake to assume that it's college students who are driving the ground game. Yes, the paid field organizers tend to be young, mostly in their 20s, and some are indeed college students who have taken a leave for the campaign -- but the vast majority of volunteers are older than that, so much so that it creates an interesting kind of reverse parent-child dynamic in the field offices, where you have 23-year-olds giving guidance to a lot of 45-year-old moms and dads.

Part of this misunderstanding, I think, comes from some wishful thinking from Republicans, who are hoping that the Obama ground effort will turn out to be as shallow as what Howard Dean mustered in Iowa four years ago, when he had a lot of young supporters coming in from out of state to go door-to-door, all of them identified by orange stocking caps. Results suggested that that didn't go over too well on caucus day. But Obama's volunteer ranks are simply a different animal than that.


New York: Can you explain why the McCain campaign has pulled out of Michigan, where polls show Obama with an eight-point lead, but is fighting hard in Wisconsin, where polls show Obama with an eight-point lead?

Alec MacGillis: This is a good question. A lot of us were surprised by the Michigan withdrawal because it seemed like a Kerry state where some local dynamics actually worked against Obama -- Gov. Granholm being blamed for the bad economy there, the Detroit mayor's sex and ethics scandal, the fact that Obama never campaigned there during the primaries. One theory is that the economic news in Michigan has been so extraordinarily bad (huge drops in car sales on top of the market collapse) that McCain figured that the economic dynamic he was fighting would be extra strong there. Also, Michiga is more expensive to advertise in than Wisconsin, so pulling out there saved more money. Wisconsin also was closer in '04 than Michigan was. And perhaps demographics played into it as well -- Michigan's African-American population is far bigger than Wisconsin's. But you're right, Wisconsin is tough territory as well -- Obama did well in the primary there, and it's got some of that same Upper-Midwest progressive/populist tendency that has helped Obama in Minnesota and Iowa.


Bainbridge Island, Wash.: The usual "state combined campaign" has now been co-opted by the Obama "campaign for change." We're still taking orders from the state party, but we see some efforts coming from Chicago. I don't really think is an entirely bad thing, but we know Obama is going to win the Evergreen State. The much tighter race is Gov. Gregoire's re-election bid. Is there normally a little bit of National-Local friction in these efforts?

Alec MacGillis: There definitely is always that kind of friction, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's a bit more of it this year, especially in places where Obama is well ahead but down-ticket races are closer, like Gregoire's. My sense is that the Obama campaign has been much more assertive in taking the lead in a lot of states, and more reluctant than past presidential campaigns to let itself be subsumed into a "coordinated" approach. In some states they weeks ago agreed at least in name to go the coordinated route, but in others they won't really be doing true coordination until the final get-out-the-vote push, when all Democratic canvassers will be working toward the same goal of getting their voters out.


Baltimore: Do you think how candidates organize campaigns is a good predictor of how they will perform as president? Hillary loved to claim she would be "ready from day one," but her campaign never seemed ready for primetime. Fair?

Alec MacGillis: That certainly was a knock against Hillary's claims to executive capability, just as Obama's partisans have cited his well-run campaign as proof that he would fare well in office. But one can always find a counter-example, right? Karl Rove ran a great turnout campaign for Bush in 2004, but a year later we had Katrina. There are, after all, some differences between campaigning and governing.


McLean, Va.: Wow, no mention of ACORN and voter fraud in the entire article. Do you think you are providing unbiased reporting? It seems that the Obama campaign's effort on the ground has created an atmosphere where Obama volunteers will do whatever they can to get voters, including voter fraud. Is this a risk?

Alec MacGillis: I've gotten several questions about ACORN, which is much in the news now. I think there is an important distinction to make here. Questions have indeed been raised in several states about ACORN workers submitting blatantly bogus registrations to state officials -- the names of pro football players, etc. But realize what this means -- this is voter registration fraud, but it is not proof of actual voter fraud until someone actually shows up at the polls trying to vote under one of these bogus names -- and there is no sign yet of that being attempted.

From all indications, these workers are defrauding ACORN itself -- they are submitting false names to get paid more for their work. Indeed, ACORN has cooperated on the investigation in Nevada. This is not to say that that organization or any other will not be bending any rules on Election Day -- and we'll be monitoring things closely on that score -- but what has been reported so far is simply another matter.


Bethesda, Md.: Although there is a bit of time left in this election, I do have to say that one underlying theme that keeps coming up: "A candidate is only as good as his or her campaign staff." This was true with Hillary's campaign and possibly for McCain's. Your thoughts?

Alec MacGillis: This kind of goes to a similar question we already had. It's true that both Hillary's and McCain's campaigns have experienced more dissension and less consistency in approach than has Obama's. But isn't it possible that this is in fact a reflection of the candidate? From all we know of Obama, his main mantra to his staff from the start of the campaign has been "no drama." It seems quite possible that he hired people who he thought would follow that edict, and the campaign's cohesion is just a matter of people heeding his order.


Dumb question: Is there any connection between the organizational skills that Obama brought to (or learned from) his work as a community organizer in Chicago, and the fact that his campaign is well-organized? Or are these different kinds of "organization"?

Alec MacGillis: This is something I was hoping to get into more in the article we ran yesterday, but lacked the space for it. No doubt, Obama's background as organizer -- and as someone who led a 150,000-person voter-registration drive in Chicago in 1992 -- has played a big role in the campaign's bottom-up approach. But what's interesting is that in some ways the campaign is doing things differently than what Obama did as an organizer, perhaps because of the lessons he drew from that experience, which his memoir makes clear was quite frustrating and far more fruitless than the way he now makes it out to be on the trail.

Obama's organizing was modeled on the theories of Saul Alinsky, the organizing guru who believed in trying to appeal to people's self-interest by finding some practical issue or need in their life to engage them on -- better housing, etc. This didn't get Obama very far on the South Side, and he eventually gave it up for law school. What the campaign is operating on now is a different school of thought put forward by Marshall Ganz, another organizing theorist, who worked with Cesar Chavez. Ganz argued for "values-based" organizing, getting people to rally around a whole set of shared values rather than specific issues. He argued that this was what the conservative movement had done to great effect in the past few decades, and it's what he has been training Obama organizers and volunteers in for the past two years. He thinks it's one reason why Obama has been successful, and thinks it could give Democrats a more sustained movement after this campaign if it catches on.


New York: Why would McCain campaign in Iowa, given that the conventional wisdom says the state is in Obama's column and McCain should focus his scant resources on shoring up his defenses in Ohio/Florida/Pennsylvania/Virginia, etc.? Is there another line of thinking on this?

Alec MacGillis: You're right, McCain's emphasis on Iowa has puzzled a lot of people given that Obama has such a base there thanks to the caucuses, that the state has been trending more Democratic in general, and that McCain has been staunchly anti-ethanol for so long. My best guess: The campaign may believe that Sarah Palin's popularity with evangelical Christians can make a difference in Iowa, which has a strong social conservative community.

It's worth noting in this context that McCain's director of evangelical outreach nationally is Marlys Popma, a legendary social conservative activist from Iowa, and she really may believe that Iowa can be turned by Palin. But it's also possible that McCain's experience in the caucuses -- when he saw Mike Huckabee surge out of nowhere largely thanks to evangelicals -- may have given him a slightly distorted view of the state.


Malvern, Pa.: An interesting article this morning about the possibility of the Republican National Committee moving all of its money into down-ballot races and cutting McCain loose. Do you think this is a real possibility? In retrospect, given where we are today with the economy and credit crisis, would McCain have been better off picking Portman or Romney?

Alec MacGillis: This is definitely something to keep an eye on -- we noted this morning that the RNC is pouring money into Maine to help Susan Collins, whose lead is shrinking. It seems, though, as if the party will want to wait at least a little while longer to see if McCain's self-described "comeback" push gets any traction. There is a flip side to this as well, of course -- at some point, will Obama feel pressure to try to help out Senate challengers in Georgia or Mississippi to try to get that filibuster-proof majority?

On vice presidents: There's no doubt that the pick might have been different had the markets crashed a couple of weeks earlier, but do not underestimate just how much distaste there is within the McCain campaign toward Mitt Romney following the primaries. That surely was a factor in passing him over.


Arlington, Va.: Is there are way to find out the number of people voting early in the various states that allow it? In Virginia the early voting started a couple weeks ago, and the demand appears to be high.

Alec MacGillis: There is, in some states, and we'll try to keep tabs on this. In Ohio, the results from the first week of early voting showed low participation, which Republicans took as a heartening sign that Obama's operation there wasn't as strong as touted. But it's possible that the campaign there was still focusing on registration, and waiting until the registration deadline had passed to focus on early voting.


Re: paulhrice: My mother lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. She's been working hard on registering, and now they're proceeding to canvassing and preparing for getting out the vote. Apparently she gets a better reception when she wears a Tampa Bay Rays jersey.

Alec MacGillis: Yes, that fits with the schedule they've been following. But wow, just a year ago, who'd have thought that a Rays jersey would be a sign of local pride. As a Sox fan, native to Western Massachusetts, I'll just have to let that pass for now.

And with that, I'm going to sign off for today. Thanks to all for the good questions, and see you back next time.


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