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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

It was the ground war, stupid.

The talking is done and now it's over to the voters. Or, more accurately, it's over to the vote-delivering machines of the Obama and Romney campaigns.

If Obama does indeed win, it will be in large part because he won the 'ground war' (with an army of field operations and campaign volunteers) rather than the 'air war' (of heavy duty TV ads).

It's become almost trite to refer to Obama's superior voter mobilisation campaign of the 2008 election. But what is not trite is the incredible way in which his party has managed to maintain and build on what they achieved four years ago - despite the worst recession in decades overseen by a Democratic incumbent.

The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza wrote a typically insightful piece recently on how the campaign to start Obama's re-election began even before the new administration was installed in the White House. Jeremy Bird, former Ohio staffer and now national field director for the Obama campaign, studied what worked in 2008 and what hadn't. From rural voters to African-Americans, from older voters to Latinos, he conducted a postmortem that became the blueprint for the 2012 campaign.

The main conclusion was that the single most effective medium in reaching a potential Obama voter was not TV ads or glossy leaflets - it was contact from an enthusiastic human being.

Of course, the campaign has used micro-targeting, social media and whizzo technology to help canvassers. Data is hugely important. But the most important thing is having people to talk face-to-face. This, together with the advances in data-collection, is perhaps the key lesson our own political parties will take from the US elections.

The 'bible' used by the Obama campaign has been 'Get Out The Vote' by social scientists Donald P Green and Alan S Gerber. A study of ten election cycles, it found that leafleting, mass emails, automated phone calls all had neglible impact. Human contact - from volunteers who aren't reading from a script - worked better.

One key lesson of 2008 came from South Carolina when barbershops and beauty salons became hubs for organisers among African-American communities. The tactic has been used nationwide in 2012. One shop owner once told Bird: "You go to the church to get to the good, you go to the prison to get to the bad, and to the barbershop to get to the real".

As the American electorate has become more polarized, simply 'getting your own vote out' has become more important. That's not to say 'independents' are neglected, far from it, but the idea of persuading someone to change their allegiance now seems inefficient. The number of 'split ticket' voters who back both a Republican and a Democrat fell from 30% in 1972 to 19% in 2000 and is thought to be even lower now.

A lot of attention has focused on Ohio, naturally, in recent days. But it's in states like Nevada that Obama has been quietly building an incredible machine. Admittedly some of this is demographic change, with the number of Latino voters growing from 10% in 2004 to 15% in 2008. It has grown by a further 5% at least since then.

But it is the campaign stats that matter as much. In 2000, Republicans had a registration advantage over Democrats of 4,500 voters. By September this year, the Democrats had reversed that sign up over 115,000 more voters than their rivals. And that is in a state that has been devastated by the housing crash and has a 12% jobless rate. Obama has 26 field offices in Nevada; Romney has 12.

It's a good job that Obama had the advantage in the ground war, however, because his campaign manager Jim Messina bad a bad bet on the air war that could have backfired badly.

Messina told the New Yorker that earlier this year he had "decided to make a grand bet" that traditional October TV ads mattered less than hammering Romney with negative ads in the summer. So the Democrats spent a fortune undermining Romney early, expecting to do the 'shock and awe' damage to his reputation and leave no need for a big TV spend in the immediate weeks before the election. They also banked on the fact that many voters now cast their ballot early or by mail. But the first TV debate ruined all of that. Romney's turnaround left the Democrats scrambling to match the Republican ad spend in recent weeks.

Still, with his loyal troops mobilising the votes that mattered most - in areas that mattered most - Team Obama hoped their TV ad blunder was not fatal.

And if the Prez wins tonight, it will be the ground war wot won it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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