Idle TV watchers like me love the flashy passes and cheer for the heroic Quarterbacks, but real aficionados will tell you that a pro game is won or lost in the "trenches," that tangle of bodies on either side of the line of scrimmage. Each year, when the draft for the pros takes place, high profile college Quarterbacks are routinely passed over for hulking no-name lineman who have been spotted by the Offensive or Defensive Coordinators as hot prospects for strengthening the ground game.
An analogous contrast can be seen in presidential contests. The stump speeches, the debates, the photo ops -- those are the aerial game of the campaign, very flashy, easy to watch, endlessly commented upon by the supposedly knowledgeable television pundits. But the election is often won or lost out of view of the television cameras, in local city and county headquarters, on the streets, in dingy rooms filled with phones -- in the ground game of politics.
All of us know this, of course, in some sense of "know," but unless we have actually spent time working at the local level in a presidential campaign, we are likely to have only the haziest notion of what actually goes on, and why. I have been a political junkie all my life, but until the 2008 campaign, during which I spent a good many hours walking the streets, sitting at tables, and entering data, I really had no clear understanding of how the ground game of a superbly run presidential campaign actually works. I have a suspicion that many of the regular readers of this blog are in the same condition I was in before the 2008 campaign, so I have decided to write a worm's eye view of the Obama campaign, to give all of you a sense of how such a campaign functions on the ground. I few words of general background before I begin.
What I am calling a ground game had its origin perhaps a hundred or a hundred and twenty-five years ago in the big Eastern and Midwestern cities, where highly organized political machines mobilized the newly arrived immigrant voters, ward by ward, precinct by precinct. The precinct workers provided invaluable services to the residents of the central cities, helping with an application for permission to put a sign in front of a saloon, arranging for a son [or less often a daughter] to get some measure of formal education, intervening helpfully when health inspectors or immigration officials came round. In return for these services, the citizens were expected to turn out reliably on election day, enabling the ward boss to "deliver" the vote for the machine candidate. In those days, the bread and butter of the machine was control of the local city government, from which contracts, grants, and plain old graft could be counted on to flow. During the big-time congressional or presidential elections, these local bosses were paid off to produce the vote for the state or national candidate.
The last hurrah of this system was the 1960 presidential election, in which the last of the old time city bosses, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, delivered Illinois to Kennedy in the wee hours of the morning, "finding" precincts whose votes had not yet been reported, and -- so it is said -- voting the graveyards when he had to.
What killed the old political machines was not reformist do-gooders but the suburbanization of America. As the upper middle class, and then the middle and lower middle class and the working class fled the inner city to the suburbs, the power and organization of the machines withered and dried up. The only machines that remained were the now all-Black or all-Hispanic inner city organizations, which took over City hall by default.
What first Karl Rove for the Republicans and then Barack Obama for the Democrats did was to reinvent the old political machine, but in an entirely new and quite different guise. With stable, small, local neighborhoods no longer the locus of reliable hordes of manageable voters, the problem became one of finding, identifying, and mobilizing one's supporters at election time. This turns out to be an extraordinarily challenging task, for reasons that may not be immediately obvious.
First of all, there is always the task of finding and recruiting new voters. Every four years, another cadre of young people who were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen or seventeen during the last election become eligible to vote. They must first be registered, then sounded out for their political leanings, perhaps persuaded, if they are not already committed, to support one's candidate, and finally somehow gotten to the polls either during early voting or on election day. It is easy enough to say this, but frustratingly difficult to accomplish. There are no reliable national or even local lists of newly eligible voters. Of course, colleges and universities are target-rich environments for the registration of new voters, and the Obama campaign last time around did a brilliant job of mobilizing them. But fewer than half of all newly eligible voters actually attend colleges or universities, so that leaves an enormous number of other young people who need to be found and roped into the political system.
The second problem is that Americans move around a great deal [every 3.5 years on average, if Google is to be believed]. Since there is nothing resembling a national, or even state by state, register of residences, this means that the only way to figure out who is in your district is to go door to door, saying hello, finding out whether the person on your list is the person answering the door, and then recording all of this on sheets of paper.
These time consuming and laborious efforts generate mounds of data, which folks like me then enter into a computer program that is accessible by the central office of the national campaign. To register someone to vote, you have him or her fill out and sign a one page form. The campaign then enters that data into a database before submitting the form to the local election board office [which, here in North Carolina, then mails out a notification to the person saying, essentially, You are now registered to vote, and here is where your voting location is.]
The campaign absorbs the data and then by computer sends out new, corrected lists of people to call, to visit in person, or to send mail to. Suppose Mary Williams is listed as living at 123 Smith Street with phone number 919-555-1234. A phone bank volunteer calls that number and someone answers, saying Mary Smith no longer lives there. The next round of lists for phone banking will eliminate her name and number. But if the sheet says "not home," then the next phone bank effort will include her. If she answers and says she supports Obama, that fact will be recorded, so that when the campaign gets to the point of getting out the vote, she will be on the list of people to be contacted. During early voting, those people known to be Obama supporters who vote will be eliminated from the lists, so that nobody wastes any time or effort trying to get to the polls someone who has already voted. If someone says "I hate that socialist Kenyan Muslim worse than I hate the Antichrist," an appropriate entry will guarantee that no further effort is made to contact him.
When it comes time to walk the streets knocking on doors, the central campaign sends out maps of local streets [generated by a Google Maps app, I assume] on which there are dots showing the location of people whose doors are to be knocked on. This is accompanied by pages listing the people corresponding to the dots, with places to enter information about whether the person is home, supports or does not support Obama, is registered, wants to volunteer, and so forth. At the end of each day, data entry folks like me put all of that information into a program. The next day [!!] new maps are sent electronically to the local office, removing the dots of people who have been successfully contacted, and adding new ones.
All of this is taking place simultaneously all over the United States. The central campaign honchos keep careful track of the data, and use it to make large strategic decisions about which states should get their scarce funding resources. In 2008, for example, at a certain point in the campaign, the central office decided there was a chance that Georgia, ordinarily a safe Republican state, might be put in play. Paid staffers were sent to Georgia to set up offices, and the whole process began down there. Some while later, it was concluded that although it might be possible to win Georgia, doing so would cost too much money that could more fruitfully be used in other states offering slightly better chances for electoral votes. So the offices were closed, and the staffers shifted elsewhere.
The election will be held on November 6th, which is just about seven and a half months from now. And yet here in North Carolina, and all across the rest of the country, Obama For America offices are open, paid staffers are in place, and volunteers are beginning to make phone calls and register new voters. That is the ground game. It is unglamorous, it is tedious, it is extremely labor-intensive, and it is expensive. And it is the way elections are won.