SEMINOLE, Fla. — The 11,000 people on a soccer field at St. Petersburg College had come to hear President Obama speak. But first Max Jay-Dixon had something important to say.
The 23-year-old supporter spoke passionately about his mother’s battle with cancer and Obama’s signature accomplishment. “I wanted to step up and do my part to support the president’s healthcare law,” he said.
And then he issued an extremely specific call to action.
“Everybody pull out your cellphone right now! And text 6-2-2-6-2,” he instructed, calling out the number that spells “Obama.” “You can get a bumper sticker! And instant updates on your phone, if you download the Obama for America app.”
With that, the Obama campaign collected hundreds, perhaps thousands, more contacts. As Jay-Dixon talked, organizers with clipboards relentlessly worked the crowd in subtle and friendly ways, seeking to register supporters and sign up volunteers in a voter-outreach operation the president’s team designed five years ago and has dramatically expanded in the last two years.
The first Obama presidential campaign built an unprecedented operation to mobilize its supporters. This election, the campaign boasts it has created the “largest and most innovative grass-roots campaign in American political history,” as campaign manager Jim Messina puts it, out-registering Republicans in a handful of battleground states for the last three months.
But the success of its get-out-the-vote drive is now much more crucial. At this point in 2008, less than four weeks out, polls showed Democrats were far more enthusiastic than Republicans. Now, in Ohio and Florida, two of the most pivotal states, polls find little difference in excitement between Republicans and Democrats. And Gallup reported this month that Mitt Romney voters are more likely to have thought a lot about the election, definitely plan to vote and know where to cast their ballots.
Obama and Romney are statistically tied in many swing-state polls, underscoring the importance of the unseen mechanics of identifying supporters, registering them and making sure they vote.
The president’s top advisors see their ground campaign as a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, friend-list-by-friend-list contest that tries to reach voters through people who know them or who are from similar places or backgrounds.
“People are going to be seeing 50 commercials in a row. Eventually, they’re going to want to open a window, pick up the television and throw it as far as it will go,” Messina said. “After that, they’re going to get a door knock. It’ll be a neighbor, someone they’ve known for a long time, saying, ‘Let me talk to you about this campaign.’ And that’s the moment that’s going to matter.”
By the numbers, Obama would appear to have an advantage. He has more than double the paid staffers on the ground as Romney, and many are veterans of his earlier operation. In Ohio, which is seen as a must-win state for Romney, the Obama operation has opened 120 outposts, 45 more than it had in the state in 2008. Romney has 40.
Romney’s operation has been, by necessity, frugal and strategic, keeping costs down in the extended Republican primary season by moving its get-out-the-vote team from state to state. The approach was successful, but didn’t leave an apparatus in place.
“They’re the reigning champs,” Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, said of the Obama team. “But for them to think they’re operating in a vacuum — they’re whistling past the graveyard. We have an organization out there I will put up against anybody.”
The Romney campaign insists it is reaching roughly as many voters as its Democratic counterpart, and polling in Ohio and Virginia bears that out. After Romney’s first solid debate performance, his campaign said volunteer hours increased 63%, which, in Ohio, translated into 237,000 visits to voters in the week of the debate, versus 162,000 the week earlier.
But by two key measures — registering voters and getting them to cast early ballots — the Obama team appears to be ahead.
In Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Nevada and Pennsylvania over the last three months, the Obama campaign says 114,540 more Democrats than Republicans have registered. In Florida, the Democratic Party has turned in more than 300,000 voter registration applications this year, while the GOP has submitted about 47,000.
And in states such as Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and New Hampshire, where voters are already casting ballots, the Obama operation has switched into get-out-the-vote mode. One recent poll found that 36% of Ohio’s voters have been contacted by the Obama campaign, compared with 29% by Romney’s campaign. A poll released last week found that 18% of the state’s likely voters had already voted and almost two out of three of them have sided with Obama.
Iowa, where the president first built his Obama for America organization in 2008, provides a window into the architecture of the ground organization. The campaign kept a presence in the state since his first win and now has 67 offices.
The Des Moines headquarters is an old Blockbuster video store used by the Romney campaign for a month this year before the caucuses. The Romney signs have been replaced with mementos of the Obama victory here four years ago. As an Andy Warhol-esque painting of Obama looks on, phone banks drive the campaign message and work to recruit volunteers.
In the view of Obama’s Iowa operatives, election day is more than a month long. It started when absentee balloting opened Sept. 27 and lasts through Nov. 6. Three weeks before election day, 129,384 Democrats had already voted, either in person or by mail, compared with 75,935 Republicans and 50,139 unaffiliated voters, according to the Iowa secretary of state.
Republicans, by contrast, have a far slimmer operation in Iowa. After the caucuses, the Romney campaign decamped. It was not until late spring that it began to build a field operation in earnest. The campaign now has 13 offices in the state.
Beeson said Romney’s campaign had the money to open more offices, but didn’t need them. “That’s the only metric we’ve heard from [the Obama campaign], is how many staff, how many offices they have,” he said. “We use a little bit different method. We use the quality of the contacts and the effectiveness of those contacts.”
Parsons reported from Seminole and Mehta reported from Des Moines.