Romney campaign trails in crucial ground game

September 22, 2012 - 12:35 PM
Presidential Campaign Ground Game

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2012, file photo President Barack Obama exits his limousine to board Air Force One as he leaves Las Vegas, Nevada, after campaigning. The Obama campaign's dominance of the ground game, the volunteer-driven nuts and bolts of electioneering that ranges from registration drives to door-to-door canvassing, contributed mightily to its 2008 victory in Nevada. Four years later the economy is floundering and the president's poll numbers are subpar, but his re-election campaign is banking on its advantage on the ground, assisted by a new array of digital innovations, to deliver victory once again. (AP Photo/John Gurzinski)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Richard and Jessi Constantine were alone recently as they wheeled their 1-year-old son in a stroller around a Las Vegas subdivision, knocking on doors to promote Mitt Romney's candidacy. Yet legions of volunteers working to re-elect President Barack Obama are a pervasive presence in the state.

In one office park on the eastern end of the metropolis, dozens of union members fanned out to canvass for Obama and Democratic campaigns. To the north, members of the 60,000-strong Culinary Workers Union emerged from their union hall for their daily door-knocks on the incumbent's behalf.

In Obama campaign offices to the northwest and north, throngs of workers and volunteers heard rousing speeches from San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to fire them up before they hit the streets to register new voters and argue the president's case to undecided ones.

The Obama campaign's dominance of the ground game — the volunteer-driven nuts and bolts of electioneering that ranges from registration drives to door-to-door canvassing — contributed mightily to his 2008 victory. His campaign is banking on its advantage on the ground, assisted by a new array of digital innovations, to deliver victory once again.

"Our massive grassroots organization will make the difference on Nov. 6," Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said.

Republicans are scrambling to narrow the gap and say they will improve greatly over what they acknowledge was a dismal performance in 2008. They contend that the Obama campaign's dominance on the ground is largely a public relations construct.

"We are just rocking it on the ground game out there," said Rick Wiley, the Republican National Committee's political director.

There are no independently verified numbers documenting how the campaigns are doing on the ground, but a discrepancy can be found in the internal data each side promotes.

The RNC released a memo last week boasting it has made 20 million voter contacts — phone calls and face-to-face conversations. At the Democratic National Convention this month, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told the crowd the re-election campaign had, to date, made 44 million phone calls alone.

The Democratic campaign boasts nearly three times as many offices in eight swing states.

In Colorado, the Obama campaign has 55 offices to the Romney organization's 14. In Iowa, it lists 65 compared with 14 for the Republican candidate. In Nevada, the margin is narrower, 25-11, with the Romney campaign scheduled to open a new office this weekend. Nonetheless, this state, where Democrats have dominated on the ground for eight years, sharply illustrates the imbalance.

Obama operatives launched their most recent voter registration drive here in April 2011. The Romney campaign at that time was fight for the Republican primary and didn't start its own drive until July. As a sign of the Obama campaign's lead, Democrats have a 61,000-voter edge over Republicans in registration, according to the Nevada secretary of state's office.

That is close to the edge that Democrats had in 2010, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid narrowly won re-election amid the Republican wave that swept many of his colleagues out of office, though not as large as in 2008, when Obama notched a 12-point victory in the state.

Romney's campaign notes that the contest looks very different this time, despite the Democrats' persistent registration edge. With Nevada boasting the highest unemployment rate in the nation, polls show the Republican candidate remains within striking distance.

"They have a head start, but I feel good about where we are," said Romney's Nevada state manager, Chris Carr. "They're trying to recreate what they had in '08, and they don't have it."

Republicans also are trying to eat into the Obama campaign's technological edge, but the Democrats appear to still have the lead.

The Obama campaign, which pioneered the use of social media in its 2008 campaign, released a smartphone app in July to allow volunteers and supporters to track events, see how the president's policies benefited their neighborhoods and find other voters to contact. The Romney campaign came out with an app just last week to let people find out about local campaign events.

Both sides agree that, in Nevada, Democrats have had the upper hand since 2004, when Reid's re-election campaign began to build a major campaign infrastructure in the state and the Nevada GOP melted down under infighting that persists to this day. This year, the national Republican Party put staffers in the same offices as the Romney campaign to essentially stand in for the absent state party. It is rushing additional staff members from Washington and neighboring, noncompetitive states for a final push..

Americans For Prosperity, a conservative group, watched in alarm as the Obama campaign and its allies in the labor and immigrants' rights movements continued to dominate in voter registration and canvassing. It hired 100 people through a private vendor to try to beef up conservative voter registration.

"They've had this going on since 2004," said Adam Stryker, AFP's Nevada director. "We're definitely up against a formidable foe."

Last weekend, the Romney campaign office was active, with volunteers swinging by to pick up a canvassing packet. Several others, like the Constantines, had grabbed their material Friday night and were already on the streets.

On Tuscan Sun Drive in the Mountain View subdivision, the Constantines, who just moved here from Minnesota, remained optimistic, even though they found no voters willing to listen after an hour of door-knocking. "The people we've run into who are going to vote for Romney are very excited," said Richard Constantine, 25.

Romney's staffers estimated they had about 100 people out knocking on doors. But the low-key push contrasted sharply with nearly a half-dozen organizing events the Obama campaign was holding, partly to capitalize on a parade celebrating Mexican Independence Day that would draw tens of thousands of Hispanics.

Even at the Obama supporters' locations, however, it was obvious that the contest would be close.

At a union office in the eastern suburb of Henderson, John Martinez, co-state political coordinator for the United Steelworkers, acknowledged that, despite the Democrats' numerical superiority on the ground, the vibe is different than in 2008.

"People haven't been into the ball game yet," he said. Still, he added, "things are picking up. That feeling is coming back."