- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2012

Convinced they were outclassed by the Obama campaign’s ground game four years ago, Republican Party officials say they are ringing more doorbells, making more personal phone calls and soliciting more early ballots this year to level the playing field for nominee Mitt Romney.

In Ohio, considered the most important state for Mr. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, Mr. Obama’s 2008 get-out-the-vote effort, backed by union and urban church volunteers, helped him to a 4-point win over Republican John McCain. The Democrats’ ground game also helped the party pick up two congressional seats long held by Republicans and wrested control of the Ohio House from the GOP for the first time in 14 years.

Republicans say they learned their lesson and, in some cases this year, have had their “victory committees” in swing states ready to start get-out-the-vote efforts even before the primaries ended.

In Ohio, thousands of Republican National Committee volunteers have knocked on 25 times as many voters’ doors as in 2008, said state Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett.

“The biggest single change in our Ohio ground game is changing from phones to doorknobs,” Mr. Bennett said. “People screen calls or the calls go into answering machines — not the same as talking to a voter.”

In Virginia, another key state Mr. Obama captured four years ago, volunteers have rapped on 11 times as many doors as they did in all of 2008, the RNC said.

Democrats sharply dispute any claim that they have lost the edge in the ground game, even if polls show lower levels of enthusiasm among key party constituencies compared with Mr. Obama’s history-making run four years ago. Although the figures are disputed by some GOP officials, Obama campaign National Field Director Jeremy Bird said in a memo Friday that in Ohio, the early voting tallies — which both parties try to bank to build a cushion before Election Day — “strongly favor” President Obama.

“A greater percentage of Democratic primary voters than Republican primary voters have requested a ballot, have returned a mail ballot and have voted in person” Mr. Bird wrote. “Altogether, 145,880 Democratic primary voters have cast ballots, 28,013 more than Republican primary voters.”

Mr. Bennett counters that Republicans have made early voting a priority.

“We’re concentrating on early voting, which in this state is the same as absentee balloting,” said Mr. Bennett, who already has voted along with his wife. “Our secretary of state has mailed absentee ballots to every voter.”

George Mason University associate professor Michael P. McDonald, one of the nation’s top specialists on voting registration and early voting patterns, said in an analysis published Friday that quirks in state election and registration laws make it easy for both parties to try to spin the ground game story, in Ohio and elsewhere.

“Few in either party question the Obama campaign’s sophisticated ground game and most expect Democrats to bank more votes [in Ohio] before Election Day,” he wrote in a filing for The Huffington Post, based on the most recent early voting statistics. “But Republicans have vastly improved their turnout effort in Ohio from the dog days of October 2008.”

Boosting Mr. Obama’s campaign are AFL-CIO officials, who said that organized-labor canvassers have registered more than 68,000 union voters in Ohio in the past 18 months and some 450,000 nationwide. An independent survey by the The Daily Caller website found the Obama campaign also was far ahead in the number of field offices in swing states: 122 to Mr. Romney’s 40 in Ohio, 102 to 48 in Florida, and 47 to 29 in Virginia.

Pushing ahead

But Republicans can point to a number of states where they have clearly stepped up their ground game.

In Iowa, a swing state that went for Mr. Obama four years ago, state party officials say RNC volunteers have knocked on 14 times as many doors as four years ago to chat with voters or to leave literature on doorknobs.

The Republican effort is even more impressive in another battleground state, North Carolina, where party officials boast that volunteers have knocked on 121 times more doors and made seven times as many personal phone calls to potential Romney-Ryan voters than was the case in 2008 for John McCain and Sarah Palin.

North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes, a textile mill owner, said he “had a business plan so that when the primaries were over, we were ready to send money to our victory committee.”

In Colorado, where the Romney campaign is beginning to move in major resources, state party officials claim three times the number of door knocks and twice the number of personal phone calls compared with all of 2008.

“We have a better emphasis on [get-out-the-vote and victory] programs than Bush had in 2000 and 2004 and than McCain in 2008,” said Ryan Call, the Colorado Republican Party chairman. “The focus is on sending people door to door as opposed to making phone calls.”

Mr. Call said that “even on phone calls, we put more emphasis than in previous years on actually talking with voters and doing it in a personal way.”

Early voting

Republicans also boast of putting far greater effort into getting their voters to cast ballots early, when the Obama forces dominated in the race to pile up early ballots and get absentee ballots to supporters who could not get to the polls on Election Day.

In Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada, Republicans say, their registered voters have requested more absentee ballots than Democrats.

In 2008, Mr. Obama won at least four swing states by piling up large majorities in the contest for absentee ballots. This time, Republicans say, they have the more muscular early balloting operation going. Republicans requested 656,813 absentee ballots in Colorado, compared with Democrats’ 627,064, according to records from the secretary of state, the memo said.

In North Carolina, more than 52 percent of all ballot requests have come from Republicans, 27 percent from Democrats and 21 percent from independents.

In Florida, Republicans say they have accounted for 43.4 percent of absentee ballot requests, while 39 percent were from Democrats. In returned absentee ballots, Republicans outnumber Democrats 45.5 percent to 38 percent.

By law, only the RNC’s victory centers may spend donors’ money to get out the vote. But when it comes to planning, managing professional staff and dispatching volunteers, the Romney campaign, the RNC and the GOP state chairmen say they have merged their efforts into what they claim is a harmonious whole.

On a recent Saturday alone, more than 30,000 RNC volunteers made 2.5 million voter contacts, an internal RNC memo claimed.

“Since the spring, nearly 98,000 individuals have volunteered their time to make phone calls or knock on doors. In total, they have made more than 35 million voter contacts, including 6.5 million door knocks,” the memo said.