Obama trumps McCain in people power, but to what gain?

His Nevada field organization outmans his rival’s. McCain, though, is making use of the GOP’s high-tech, well-tuned machine.

Foot soldier: Obama canvasser Shelly James from Vacaville, California, goes door to door to talk with voters at an apartment building in Las Vegas.

Barack Obama’s manpower advantage over John McCain in Nevada is flaunted at rallies, where volunteers are spread abundantly like bellhops at the Bellagio.

Senator Obama has 15 offices across the state; Senator McCain has 12 – counting Republican Party quarters. The Democratic camp says it has roughly 33 field organizers and 100 people on the campaign payroll; McCain’s side reports nine such operatives and an undisclosed total staff. Obama’s camp claims 4,000 trained volunteers in the Silver State; McCain’s people, “hundreds.”

It’s the same story in other battleground states: Obama’s much-touted grass-roots organization, credited for his success in the primary season, is on the march – knocking on doors, registering new voters, cramming rallies with live bodies. But so what? Does raw people power really match up against a Republican machine, finely honed during the 2000 and 2004 elections, that relies on data and technology and marketing savvy to root out likely McCain voters?

The answer won’t be known for 32 days. In the meantime, political oddsmakers are watching the two contrasting strategies play out in places like this sage-turned-stage state. For now, some suggest that old-school door-knocking could translate into a boost for Obama that’s not showing up in the polling.

Better mobilization “could be a two-point difference [in the vote], and it’s probably a couple of points that would not be picked up in the polls,” says Donald Green, Yale University professor and author of “Get Out the Vote!” “The people who are between voting and not voting would not pass the ‘likely voting’ screen and would not appear in a poll sampling.”

Obama edges ahead in Nevada polls

The average of polls taken since Sept. 17 show Obama up by 0.5 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics, a website that aggregates polling.

“I think Nevada is going to turn on it. In terms of getting people to the polls, ground game can make a big difference,” says Sean Quinn, a reporter with the political website fivethirtyeight.com. He’s been traveling to swing states to look under the hood of the campaigns.

“What you see in Nevada is what we’ve been seeing all across the country so far. [The Obama] campaign has an overwhelming number of volunteers and organizers on the ground,” he says.

The most tangible benefit for Obama so far in Nevada lies in the statewide registration tallies. Republicans have traditionally outnumbered Democrats in the Silver State, including by 7,000 in 2006. This year, Democrats have shot ahead with an advantage of 93,000 registered voters.

The highly competitive early caucus in Nevada certainly helped Democratic registration efforts here, whereas only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul spent much time here tussling in the tumbleweed. But there was also a simple mismatch in manpower: Republicans had to pay for some voter registration efforts, while Democrats could rely solely on volunteers.

McCain’s operations received a thunderbolt of energy with his choice of Sarah Palin for veep. At a recent Palin rally in Carson City, volunteer Joseph Dimitrov walked up and down the line of some 4,000 people asking for volunteers to make campaign calls while they waited.

“When I first heard McCain had picked Palin, I said, ‘who?’ But then I looked up information about her, and I thought, I love this woman!” says Mr. Dimitrov, a student at University of Nevada in Reno.

The Palin event drew 150 volunteers, which was more than the campaign could even use, says Rick Gorka, communications director for McCain’s Nevada campaign. “We always had a lot of volunteers, but when Palin was added it just exploded,” he says.

But the real ace in the hole from the McCain camp’s perspective is their high-tech, streamlined approach.

At a GOP office in Las Vegas, volunteer Kris Del Campo shows off the efficiency of the McCain phone banking operation. His landline phone has a large digital display with buttons to input the multiple-choice responses of voters.

The automated system allows Mr. Del Campo to move through a list of names at least twice as fast as callers over at the Obama offices, who generally use their own cellphones and make handwritten notes that later have to be manually keyed into a database. At one point, Del Campo was able to have three phones working at once.

The McCain camp also gives machine-readable forms to its door-to-door canvassers.

“We just do things more efficiently, and we do a really good job with microtargeting, which isn’t just about whether you are a Republican. It’s not where you live, it’s how you live,” says Jessica Patterson, head of McCain’s Nevada campaign.

Microtargeting takes consumer data such as magazine subscription lists and hones a campaign’s effort toward those voters most likely to be sympathetic. Neither campaign would detail their underlying database technology, but Bloomberg recently reported that Democrats are beginning to close the gap with new software called Catalist.

Some experts, however, consider micro-targeting to be mostly hooey.

“Most of the info you need to put together a microtargeting model for turnout purposes is going to be available right on the voter file itself,” says James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland. The most important piece of data is whether a person voted in the past, he says. Next is age, but that’s also on the voter files, which originate from the secretary of state’s office.

“To the extent that these campaigns have paid a lot of money to augment the voter file with all kinds of extraneous info, that’s foolish,” he says.

He does see the value in online efforts to rope in new volunteers through social-networking tools. Obama’s website is more exhaustive in that sense.
If the McCain campaign had a database advantage, it wasn’t on display on a recent weekend in Las Vegas. Six out of nearly 40 doors knocked on one McCain canvass turned out to be wrong, while an Obama canvasser just encountered one vacant home.

Nevada’s population moves a lot and votes little, making it hard to keep data fresh. Yet, the more lead time a campaign has, the more accurate data they will have in the weeks before an election, notes Mr. Quinn. “That’s one of the advantages to being on the ground early,” says Quinn, who has seen the Democrats open offices earlier in states like Colorado. “It’s little edges that can add up to a lot.”

The list of names and addresses given to McCain canvassers, though machine-readable, wasn’t terribly human-friendly. Addresses weren’t numerically ordered and volunteers spent lots of crucial time flipping through paperwork.

Shoe leather has its advantages

While even the best canvassing operation is time consuming and inefficient, it happens to be the best method for boosting a candidate’s vote totals. Research has found door-to-door contact to be the most effective, followed by well-trained phone callers, says Mr. Gimpel. Direct mail is a poor option, he adds, and robo-calls “have a perfect record of failure.”

“The older methods are the best. Those old dudes from the ’50s and ’60s that just went door to door, they were on to something,” says Gimpel. “The fact that we got away from those older contacting techniques may well have been responsible for the decline in turnout we experienced in the last 30 or 40 years.”

The power of canvassing could be seen on a recent weekend. Obama volunteer Shelly James had driven eight hours to Las Vegas from Vacaville, Calif., to go door to door for the first time.

Interviews with Obama volunteers revealed diversity – local students, a rural Nevadan, minorities, Spanish-speakers, as well as a contingent of Californians. The presence of out-of-state help was a detail the Obama campaign went to some lengths to mask. A campaign press official – who himself initially refused to divulge he was from California – cornered Mr. James before an interview in an effort to get him to play down his origins.

But no one who answered his knocks in Las Vegas seemed bothered by James’s California-ness. He got into an extended conversation with one voter, Leon Lyons, who had been leaning toward Obama until recently. Mr. Lyons had concerns on a number of issues that James then addressed. Another campaign worker offered to swing by later with a packet detailing Obama’s healthcare plan.

“I was very impressed,” says Lyons. “If I get the information and it’s actually sound, and not what I’ve been [hearing], I’ll definitely vote for him.”

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