MENTOR, Ohio — On opposite sides of Mentor Avenue, volunteers assembled in their windbreakers and walking shoes: Another day in the grueling, months-long effort to register, organize, motivate and otherwise cajole the voters who will decide the 2012 election was underway.
In a strip-mall campaign office that opened in April next to Ace Cash Loans, 12 canvassers for President Obama — mostly middle-aged and retired women — rehearsed door-knocking pitches Saturday morning.
“Tell your own personal story,” a paid staffer from New Jersey was urging them. “It comes across if you’re speaking from the heart.”
A handwritten sign taped to a wall described their goal: 1,200 doors this weekend.
Across the avenue, 10 volunteers for Mitt Romney — mostly young or retired men — went over door-to-door scripts inside a GOP “victory center” that opened in July.
“You’ll see you ask this first question, ‘Can we count on your support?’ ” explained a campaign staffer. “If they say ‘yes,’ then you go into the next question about absentee ballots.”
Their weekend motto was scrawled on a whiteboard: “38 days until election day!”
Glenn Heffner, a retiree and top Romney door knocker in Ohio, got into his battered Lexus. Within shouting distance across the road, Sue Stromberg, who wore out a pair of shoes for Obama in 2008, had already cranked up her Saturn sedan.
At this moment in the campaign, their objectives were similar: With early voting kicking off in Ohio on Tuesday, they were both trying to persuade voters leaning their way to start casting ballots.
By 10 a.m., they were heading out into the often-lonely suburban battlefield of craggy sidewalks, vinyl-sided split-levels and barking dogs.
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A day with Romney and Obama canvassers in this hotly contested area of northeastern Ohio provides a snapshot of what both campaigns cast as the most critical piece of their White House bids: the volunteer-driven, pavement-pounding grind known as the ground game.
With millions of dollars being poured into TV advertising, social media and other high-tech strategies, both campaigns say they are more convinced than ever that face-to-face conversations are by far the most effective form of contact with voters, and those efforts are robust than Ohio and the other swing states.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests the importance of all that attention. While the survey found the race to be close nationally — with 49 percent of likely voters siding with Obama and 47 percent with Romney — the disparity is much wider in swing states, with 52 percent siding with Obama and 41 percent with Romney.
Roughly a third of all voters in “tossup” states say they’ve heard from each side.
In the case of the Obama campaign, officials say they are mostly dusting off the 2008 playbook, turning into standard practice tactics considered revolutionary four year ago. They are rebuilding networks of “neighborhood leaders” who organize their Zip codes, a system bolstered by vast voter databases.
“There’s really no need to mess with success,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern.
Their Ohio operation: nearly 120 bricks-and-mortar offices across the state with at least 600 paid staffers working with thousands of volunteers who have been phone-banking since late last year and door-knocking since April, according to Redfern.
Their Mentor Avenue operation is a long table strewn with hand sanitizer, spare reading glasses and 20 cellphones for phone-banking. The walls are plastered with Obama posters and others outlining neighborhood team events and the organizing mantra “empower, include, win.”
Romney campaign officials say they are placing a much stronger emphasis on door-knocking than phone-calling this time, an effort driven by what they describe as an unprecedented quantity and quality of data.
Rich Beeson, the campaign’s political director, said the ground operation, in turn, is heavily focused at the moment on “low-propensity” voters — those who are identified as solid Republicans but who don’t always vote. The goal of door-knockers is to encourage them to vote early — to mail in an absentee ballot or apply for one.
“Nationwide, we’ve already knocked on 2 million more doors than we knocked on in 2008,” Beeson said. “We consider door knocks the purest form of voter contact. Ohio week in and week out leads in the metrics we lay out and nationwide.”
The Ohio operation, with more than 40 offices deploying thousands of volunteers, hit 137,000 doors across the state last week alone, campaign officials said.
The Mentor Avenue operation has 12 black phones set on four white folding tables, with two more phones being unpacked from cardboard boxes this morning. The walls are covered with uniform rows of “Romney-Believe” posters and others of state candidates.
“In all our polling, public and private, we are matching them in terms of the number of people who say they’ve heard from both campaigns,” Beeson said. “That tells me that the quality of our data and voter contact program is just as powerful as their offices and staff.”
If the volunteers don’t trash-talk one another, their bosses do.
Romney officials roll their eyes at the idea that the Obama team revolutionized grass-roots organizing. “Don’t forget, in 2004 we had the largest ground operation in American history,” Beeson said, referring to George W. Bush’s successful reelection bid.
Obama campaign officials scoff at the notion that the GOP camp could possibly be matching them door for door. “I find it hard to believe that a party in disarray just a few months ago about who should be their leader is now knocking on 137,000 doors a week,” Redfern said.
Meanwhile, thousands of volunteers know the cold, hard truth: They, on average, have to knock on 10 doors to reach just one or two voters.
And so Stromberg and Heffner, arriving in similar neighborhoods just a few miles apart, faced their first doors of the day.
Just after 10 a.m., Stromberg knocked. Not home.
About 10 minutes from the office, she and her canvassing partner, Mary Gavin-Wagner, a 30-year resident of Mentor, had arrived at Brooks Boulevard, a quiet street of green lawns dotted with plastic Halloween pumpkins. Stromberg took the odd-numbered addresses, Gavin-Wagner the evens.
Both had been trained to deploy what the campaign calls “life-stage specific” talking points: Voters over 65 should be reminded that Obama wants to preserve Medicare; voters 26 to 44 might be reminded that the 2010 health-care law provides free preventive health care, including birth-control coverage.
Both carried clipboards with maps and targeted addresses, the result of months of phone calls and personal outreach to identify the people to pitch: persuadable, lukewarm and strong Obama voters, a task that has been more difficult than if was four years ago.
“I just think that the level of enthusiasm has mellowed just a bit,” said Gavin-Wagner, who housed out-of-state volunteers in 2008. She hit her first door at 10:19. Not home.
“People must be out doing their Saturday-morning errands already,” she said.
Two doors down, a contact. She introduced herself to a woman rushing out to her grandson’s soccer game. There was no time for the age-specific pitch.
“I may not vote,” the woman said, explaining that she did not like the choices this time.
Two more knocks: No answer, no answer. A few doors down, success: A man said he and his wife planned to vote for Obama and wanted to vote early. Gavin-Wagner handed him two postcards to fill out that included a calendar listing the early-voting dates, which the campaign office would send back to the couple later in the week to remind them of their early-vote pledge.
Across the street, Stromberg had found John and Cindy Langelier, strong Obama supporters who had an Obama campaign sign on the front lawn and planned to phone-bank later this week.
After nearly two hours, they returned to the office to report their progress: 61 doors, 18 contacts, a typical weekend haul. The data would be processed by volunteers overseen by two paid staffers from New Jersey and Wisconsin.
“I am tired, I am hungry, and I need some caffeine,” Stromberg said, sipping on some warm tea and undoing a ponytail of long gray hair.
The Romney campaign’s Heffner has been knocking on doors almost every day since August. He averaged about 75 a day, except on the afternoon he almost fainted with low blood sugar. And here he was again, arriving on Dearborn Drive, clipboard under his arm, Romney-Ryan brochures in hand.
His job on this day was not to convince undecideds but to contact Republican-leaning voters and encourage them to mail in absentee ballots or vote early.
“Promising,” said Heffner, a Vietnam War veteran with close-cropped red hair and wire-rim glasses.
He described himself as a fiscal conservative with little patience for “Glenn Beck kooks” or social issues. With three kids in college, Heffner had a simple motivation. “My kids may not have a job if this goes on,” he said, crossing a gravel driveway and ringing his first doorbell.
“Interesting doorbell,” he said of its odd sound, ringing it again before deciding to wedge some brochures in the screen door and heading to the next door.
He knocked. No answer. There was the sound of a lawn mower in the distance.
“This is what you see,” Heffner said. “Maybe you’ll hit one out of five houses.”
A few houses down, a man answered.
“Hello, are you James?” Heffner asked. “I’m Glenn Heffner with the Romney campaign, and I — ”
“I’m done with politics today — I’m just done,” said James, starting to shut the door.
“Well, we’d appreciate if you’d consider the literature!” Heffner said, handing him some and then walking on to four more doors where no one answered.
Even on tough days — and this was one — Heffner said he remains optimistic. The Mentor Avenue office has been getting busier. And if he is flagging, he manages to pep himself up.
“Okay,” Heffner said to himself, walking under the shade of a pin oak. “Keep trying, keep trying.”
He walked across a slightly overgrown lawn and up to a door with blue lace curtains. He knocked. At last, an answer, a woman named Catherine. Heffner made it through the introduction to Question 1: “Can Romney and Ryan count on your support?”
“I haven’t decided,” Catherine said. “I’m leaning towards Romney.”
Heffner launched into Question 2: Had she received her absentee ballot? She had. He encouraged her to send it in and followed the script’s instructions to move on to the closing.
“It’s an important election,” Heffner said. “We’d appreciate your consideration.”
For four more hours he walked the streets — Frederick Drive, Galaxie Drive — across lawns with overturned basketball hoops and yapping dogs.
Between a run of empty houses, he met Linda, who asked for a Romney yard sign, which he promised to deliver. Around door-knock No. 25, he came upon Dennis, who said “Yes!” to Question 1, and about 10 knocks later, there was William, who said of Obama, “We gotta get this guy out of there.”
“All it takes is work, right?” Heffner said, and by 3 p.m. he was finally finished with his.
“How’d it go out there?” a staffer asked as Heffner handed in his final tally: 45 doors, five personal contacts.
“I have more lists,” Heffner told the young man, “but I’ll do those on Monday.”