There’s the air game — television and radio advertising. There’s the stage game — rallies with candidates and celebrities. And then there’s the ground game — phone calls and door-knocking. In a close election, the ground game is where an election is won.
With polls showing the race in Ohio narrowing to a dead heat between Democratic President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, both campaigns say they are now depending on their “ground games” to turn out the vote.
Small groups of volunteers armed with lists of targeted voters are marching through neighborhoods, not knocking on every door like a Halloween trick-or-treater, but going to those addresses where they know there’s a voter who might support their candidate, but who has not yet voted.
It can be a challenge.
Obama volunteer Crystal Bowersox — yes, that Crystal Bowersox — knocked on doors Saturday morning in a leafy Sylvania Township neighborhood near Laskey and Talmadge roads.
One woman answering the door excitedly recognized the 2010 American Idol runner-up from Ottawa County, but she wasn’t the voter Ms. Bowersox sought.
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At another door, 27-year-old Sunny Lange, a preschool teacher, went back in the house for a few minutes to brush her hair and then chatted with Ms. Bowersox for some time.
A third door was just as friendly to Ms. Bowersox, 27, but not in the political sense.
Roger Short, 64, a music teacher and trumpet player, said Ms. Bowersox was looking for his son who was away at school. He said he personally would “vote for Bozo the Clown” before he’d vote for President Obama.
“I didn't figure Crystal Bowersox would be coming to my door. It was very nice to meet her; she’s a talented musician,” Mr. Short said. He said he doesn’t like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which he claimed is full of hidden taxes.
Ms. Bowersox said later, “He seemed like a kind man, he shook my hand, greeted me kindly and warmly, and I appreciated that."
“I hope he reads up on the issues. I asked if he has a daughter because then he would think twice about the women’s issues,” said Ms. Bowersox, who now lives in the state of Oregon and who recently signed a new recording contract.
She said she offered her assistance to the Obama campaign because “it’s the right thing to do,” and was scheduled to meet with Obama volunteers in Port Clinton, Sandusky, Perryburg, and Bowling Green over the weekend.
Walking door-to-door along with her was Dennis Eble, 71, a retired schoolteacher from Sylvania Township. As a neighborhood team leader, he coordinates the ground game in eight precincts on the southern side of the township and has been knocking on doors since April.
“I do it because I believe in President Obama, his ideas, his vision, and his positions,” Mr. Eble said. He said the purpose of door-knocking now is to encourage supporters to get out and vote early.
“We also have some people on our list we still need to persuade,” Mr. Eble said.
Republicans were engaged in the same activity. While a roomful of people tried to reach Romney-friendly voters on the phone at the Romney Victory Center on Dussel Drive in Maumee, retired insurance agent Bob Henold, 71, of Toledo headed out to knock on the doors of targeted voters off Heatherdowns Boulevard. He hit pay dirt at his first house, and no persuasion was necessary.
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Mr. Henold asked Sonia Ross, 66, of Green Valley Road if Mr. Romney could count on her vote, the answer was, “absolutely.” She declined Mr. Henold’s suggestion that she vote early.
“I believe voting day is voting day,” said Mrs. Ross, a Lucas County employee. She said she saw Mr. Romney in the debates.
“He is so presidential, there is no question about it. If another country comes against us, he is going to stand right up to them,” Mrs. Ross said. “He’s so strong, and determined.”
Back at the Victory Center, husband-and-wife team Susan and Mark Figliomeni of Sylvania said they were putting in their second shift making phone calls to get Romney voters to vote early, either by mail or in person.
“We need a change. The economy is terrible. The debt is terrible. Libya is terrible,” said Mrs. Figliomeni, 58, a cafeteria worker in a Catholic school. “Today's been a very good day. I’m hearing the same thing on most of my calls, that we need a change, and that makes me feel good too.”
The two campaigns have slightly different organizational structures, but both have the same basic philosophies — answer the concerns of wavering supporters and try to get them to commit to get to the early vote center, or mail in their absentee voter ballot.
Phone calls are becoming increasingly more ineffective, as actual successful answer rates can dip to around 20 percent. Door knocks are more effective, political professionals say.
The Obama campaign, called Obama For America, runs its own campaign organization from top to bottom, but in close synergy with the Ohio Democratic Party. On the Republican side, the campaign offices, known as Victory Centers, are run by the state Republican Party, in collaboration with the Romney and other Republican campaigns.
State Republican Chairman Bob Bennett said the big difference this year over 2008 is technology and that the GOP has caught up with Democrats in that regard. Observers project that 35 to 40 percent of voters will cast a ballot before Election Day.
He said they get daily reports on who has cast early ballots, and they microtarget their voter lists.
“We probably have more information on voters than they care [for] us to have,” Mr. Bennett said.
He said the GOP has noticed that Obama campaign enthusiasm is down compared with 2008.
“I think they are ready for a change again,” he said, “and Mitt Romney offers that change.”
Republicans have 41 regional offices, while the Obama campaign has 125 field offices — the most recent opened last week in Wauseon.
Officials said Romney volunteers had knocked on 160,000 doors in Ohio last week as of Thursday night, and 247,000 doors the previous week.
Jon Stainbrook, the Lucas County Republican chairman, said he believes the Obama campaign is less energized than the year Mr. Obama defeated Republican Sen. John McCain.
“Obama’s ground game that they’re talking about, I’m not seeing it. [In 2008], you saw the remnants of their literature on people's front porch, sticking in their door handle. They’re not out there. We’re not seeing it like we did in 2008,” Mr. Stainbrook said.
Democratic Party leaders regard that as trash talk and say they are implementing a ground game that has been under construction since 2009 to find out as much as possible about the more than 5 million voters in Ohio and identify those most likely to support Mr. Obama.
“In any given weekend, we are talking to hundreds of thousands of people at their doors,” said Jessica Kershaw, press secretary for the Obama campaign.
“Every weekend we have two to three shifts, and that takes a massive amount of volunteers. That is what you can do with a massive ground operation,” Ms. Kershaw said.
“What it’s really facilitated by is all of the neighbor-to-neighbor conversations that we’ve been continuing to have. This revolutionary style of campaign is really community organization,” Ms. Kershaw said.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern dismissed Mr. Bennett’s narrative of a spent Obama force.
“It’s the largest organization of its kind in the country,” Mr. Redfern said, “and it’s the difference between winning and losing.”
Mr. Redfern said Democrats have developed a lot of information about voters based on where they live, their occupations, ages and genders, voting histories, and previous political activity, such as if they signed a petition to put an issue on the ballot.
He said the campaign is careful about crossing off the names of people they don’t need to bother anymore.
And by the way, the best way to stop the phone calls and visits is to go vote.
“I don’t want to call you if you voted today,” Mr. Redfern said. “That’s a waste.”
Contact Tom Troy at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6058.