Some witty baseball manager (I know that doesn't narrow it down much, but I can't remember who it was) said that a manager is as smart as his closing pitcher is good. Or something like that. Anyway, it was one of those shrewd remarks that let a very big cat out of a very big bag. Baseball mangers, players, analysts and fans are informavores. They all crave information both for the uses it can supposedly be put to and for the sheer fun of following the game. A manager looks smart when he goes to a good closer and the closer keeps the lead and dumb when he fails to do so in time. But all we really know is what happened, not what would have happened if the manager had made another decision.
Political players and political junkies are much the same. Campaign strategists pour over maps and sheets of stats, trying to figure out how to spend money and time. In recent elections a lot of attention has been paid to the "ground game," the efforts of campaigns to get out every last vote for their side. In 2004, Karl Rove put a lot of resources into the ground game, or as it was sometimes called, the "base strategy." When Bush won, Rove looked pretty smart. I think his closing pitcher just enjoyed a better lead.
At best, a ground game might marginally increase a candidate's vote. That is if the number of people who are prodded and carted to the polls inspite of themselves is larger than the number of people who get sick enough of all the prodding to stay home or even vote the other way. Bush wins Ohio in 2004 by 118,601. I am skeptical that Rove's ground game produced anywhere near that large a net advantage.
That is not to say that campaigns can dispense with a ground game. In Florida in 2000 a ground game that had been more effective by less than a thousand votes could have decided the election. Neither campaign can afford not to play the game, if only because of how that would be interpreted by the press and the electorate. The ground game is an expression both of confidence and of respect for the electorate. I just think that a little skepticism is in order.
President Obama is the first President to cast his vote early, an expression, thinks Alana Goodman at Commentary, of enthusiasm for his campaigns early vote strategy. It's hard not to think that some people will vote early who might not have made it to the polls on Election Day. How many of those early voters would not have voted at all without the early voting push is much harder to tell; but if it comes down to a recount in Ohio, they might matter. Still, the ground game and the emphasis on turnout will matter only if the election comes down to 2000 level margins.
A lot of attention is being paid to which campaign is winning the early vote, and rightly so. Pew has this:
Currently, Romney holds a seven-point edge among early voters (50% to 43%); because of the small sample, this lead is not statistically significant. At this point four years ago, Obama led John McCain by 19 points (53% to 34%) among early voters.
Romney currently leads Obama 52% to 45% among voters who say they have already cast their ballots. However, that is comparable to Romney's 51% to 46% lead among all likely voters in Gallup's Oct. 22-28 tracking polling. At the same time, the race is tied at 49% among those who have not yet voted but still intend to vote early, suggesting these voters could cause the race to tighten. However, Romney leads 51% to 45% among the much larger group of voters who plan to vote on Election Day, Nov. 6.
As is the way of this campaign, these conclusions are disputed by other polls and are not in sync with key state polls. Either way, how the voters are breaking is all that matters.
I think that the ground game is over emphasized as a factor in the outcome, but then I think that campaigns are overemphasized for the same reason. To think that the outcome depends on what the candidates and their campaigns do gets it ass backwards. It's the voters who decide the outcome, whether they vote early, on Election Day, or not at all.
If Romney wins it won't be because he pulled the wool over the voter's eyes or because Obama was listless in the first debate. It will be because the voters decide that Romney looks like a better prospect than four more years of Obama. If Obama wins, it won't be because the Press was in the bag for him or because Romney didn't have enough field offices in Ohio. It will be because voters came to the opposite conclusion.