So what do both campaigns care about now, what's getting the bulk of their time an attention? Four letters: GOTV. It's the standard abbreviation for the last, and arguably most important, phase of any campaign for anything in any democracy: Get Out The Vote. By now, both campaigns have long computerized lists that tell them, with remarkable precision, how almost every voter in America would vote if they actually showed up at the polls. They also know that roughly half of the people from both sides won't bother. So for the next nineteen days, the vast majority of the time, money, and energy in both campaigns is going to be spent on contacting everybody who's made up their mind who they'd vote for, but who hasn't made up their mind that it's worth walking or driving up to the polling place, spending time in line, verifying their identity with slow-moving volunteers, and then wrestling with a computerized paper form or an obnoxiously awkward voting machine just to make a point.
And let me tell you something: GOTV matters. From roughly 1930 to 1980, for fifty years, the main reason that Democrats were the "permanent majority" party was that in the pre-computer age, GOTV was largely a matter of benefiting from the power of neighborhood volunteer organizations. Fraternal clubs. Churches. Farm co-ops. Charities. Amateur sports leagues. But especially, over and above all of that, labor unions. And except for a handful of churches, those volunteer organizations leaned heavily Democratic. Your average Republican has never really believed in volunteer anything; to your average Republican, anything that isn't worth getting paid to do isn't worth doing. But by 1980, the GOTV game had changed completely, and a substantial chunk of the Republican's "Reagan coalition" of voters' success came from two facts. One is that volunteer organizations that lean Democratic have all, without exception, shrunk heavily in membership; they were a generational phenomenon. (See Putnam, Bowling Alone.) But all that did was shrink the Democratic pool of volunteers down to "only" slightly larger than the Republican pool of volunteers. No, what really made the final difference was one thing: vastly superior computerization.
From the earliest days of the "trust era" corporate monopolies back in the age of steam, the Republican Party has been the party of big business, specifically of big business owners and senior management. And there is nothing that an American corporation knows better than marketing. No, the tremendous insight of the 1980 class of Republican political organizers was that GOTV doesn't have to be a race to build up the biggest collection of volunteers with the biggest collection of personal friends among them. What they designed, developed, and implemented was the world's greatest direct mail plus telemarketing direct-to-consumer advertising campaign in history. The Republican Party pioneered the automation of GOTV. Databases designed by the best advertising people in the world, with the help of savvy political organizers, identify the voters who can reliably counted on to vote Republican who can most cost-effectively be persuaded to show up on election day, identify which techniques of (mostly legal) persuasion are statistically most likely to persuade each individual one of those voters to get down to the polls on the first Tuesday in November, and then spit out computerized work sheets for the few volunteers and few paid staffers they have.
I campaigned hard for Al Gore in 2000 (despite my personal distaste for the man). 20 years after the Republicans showed us how it was done, our GOTV software, which was developed by one guy who was a personal friend of the national party chairman as a hobby, stank on ice. I talked to an Obama campaign volunteer about this a couple of weeks ago, and some of the glaring problems of 28 years ago are still not fixed. The Democrats will probably never be anywhere near as good at precision-tuned computer-calculated mass-customized individual marketing as the Republicans already are, let alone as good as the Republicans may some day be. The people who are really, really good at this kind of thing won't work for us; they vote Republican.
So what are Howard Dean and Barack Obama doing about this that's working so well? Let me refer you to one particular subset of the articles over at my current favorite national political website, FiveThirtyEight.com, specifically their blog post series "On the Road." These bloggers raised the money from their readers to travel all over the country to examine the volunteer offices of both candidates in each of a long list of cities. And the thing that's been blowing them away is just how vast the contrast is. For the first time in a generation, Democratic offices are packed to the gunwales with people who are working their guts out for free, or even paying their own money out of pocket to be allowed to work. About half the Republican offices are closed and locked up, even during peak volunteer working hours, for lack of anybody showing up. The ones that are open? Well, as 538's Sean Quinn said after the truth sunk in, back on October 3rd after a visit to St. Louis, Missouri:
"We walk into McCain offices to find them closed, empty, one person, two people, sometimes three people making calls. Many times one person is calling while the other small clutch of volunteers are chatting amongst themselves. In one state, McCain’s state field director sat in one of these offices and, sotto voce, complained to us that only one man was making calls while the others were talking to each other about how much they didn't like Obama, which was true. But the field director made no effort to change this. This was the state field director. ... Up to this point, we’ve been giving McCain's ground campaign a lot of benefit of the doubt. We can’t stop convincing ourselves that there must – must – be a warehouse full of 1,000 McCain volunteers somewhere in a national, central location just dialing away. This can’t be all they’re doing. Because even in a place like Colorado Springs, McCain’s ground campaign is getting blown away by the Obama efforts. ... You could take every McCain volunteer we’ve seen doing actual work in the entire trip, over six states, and it would add up to the same as Obama’s single Thornton, CO office. Or his single Durango, CO office. These ground campaigns bear no relationship to each other."A whole story could be written on why the Republican volunteers are staying home. That story would probably have more to do with the fact that there is nobody in this generation of Republican leaders who can speak with once voice for all four of the major factions of the Republican Party (the country-club Republicans, the Religious Right, the pseudo-libertarians, and the anti-immigrant/isolationist "Nativist" faction). Without the specter of "global communism" to unite them, those four factions have discovered that they just don't like each other very much, and so far the War on Terror hasn't been quite the common bond that the Cold War was for them. Or maybe it's just a personality thing; maybe someone who can speak for, and unite, such disparate factions and convince them all that he's one of them is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
But whatever the reasons are for the mass Republican refusal to show up and make the calls, fill out the postcards, drop off the campaign fliers, and knock on the doors that the computers identify as the ones that need volunteer workers to get them to show up, it doesn't answer what has been all along for me, ever since the Iowa caucuses, the vastly more interesting question: where in the heck did Barack Obama get all of these volunteers? And how in the heck are he and Howard Dean getting all this work out of them? Once again, more recently, FiveThirtyEight.com provided me with the first genuinely valuable insight I've seen into this, in today's post from Marietta, Ohio:
"When local field organizer Christian Lund took the stage just prior to Joe Biden's appearance on Tuesday night in Marietta, he asked those in the attendant crowd of about 4,000 to look at the sheets in their hands. Each sheet held four names, and each name had a phone number and a bar code for later data scanning. Lund asked the people in the crowd to make four phone calls to this targeted group, and then he demonstrated. ... This is routine practice at every single event the campaign holds, even at Denver's Invesco Field acceptance night speech. The largely Democratic crowd is given concrete, practical and manageable field tasks to accomplish. ¶ The goal is gathering a larger and larger volunteer base. A whole night's shift of phone calls may seem intimidating to a lot of people, particularly introverts, but it's pretty hard to say no to four calls. Cleverly, Obama's campaign reasons that the most difficult part of volunteering is the first four calls or knocks. The first part is always the hardest, particularly for volunteers who've never worked for a campaign before. Once over the comfort threshold, a potential shift volunteer now feels invested in the work."Brilliant. Read the rest of FiveThirtyEight's "On the Road" series (linked above) if you have the time, see how politics in America is actually done.