From the moment the presidential race started taking shape, it was clear that along with being a contest between two candidates, the election would also be a contest between two different approaches to winning. Team Romney and its super PAC allies signaled that they would raise a ton of money to run a traditional campaign heavy on television advertising. Team Obama chose to build an elaborate ground operation — a big advantage in 2008 — that would rely heavily on technology to register and turn out the vote.
While the two campaigns began with different outlooks on the race — Romney framing it as a referendum on the president, Obama as a choice between the two candidates — this divergence was also driven by necessity. Romney had to spend his time and money securing the GOP nomination and lacked the resources to develop the kind of turnout operation that could match his opponent’s. Obama knew he was saddled with a weak recovery and a more formidable foe than last time, and would have to grind out an ugly victory unlikely to inspire as many voters. He’d have to find other ways of getting them to the polls.
Anyone who lives in a swing state — or near enough to one to catch the local network affiliates — can see for themselves what the Republicans’ approach has yielded. According to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks television ads, combined ad spending this election could reach $3.3 billion (eclipsing the 2008 total of $2.5 billion).
But gauging the Democrats’ turnout operation is much trickier at this stage and the strategy has not been very well understood. A year ago, one popular motif among pundits was to point out that the Obama campaign had a high “burn rate” — that is, it was spending as much money as it was bringing in. This was generally taken as a sign of an inefficient, possibly troubled campaign. What it really reflected was the premium that Obama’s brain trust placed on building, as early as possible, what its members call a “snowflake” model of organizing: It planned to seed swing states with paid field staffers, each of whom would recruit five unpaid “neighborhood team leaders” who in turn would recruit networks of 20 volunteers. (Each outward-extending network would resemble a snowflake.)
It would take time to organize these networks and then to persuade voters. So the Obama finance team leaned heavily on big donors to contribute the maximum $35,800 by the end of 2011 and also commit a similar sum for 2012 — money that was quickly spent on field organizers, hence the high burn rate.
The objective of this giant operation is to change the composition of the electorate in a way that favors Obama. But there’s no guarantee that it will. One reason for the sharp variance between Democratic and independent polls on the one hand, and Republican polls on the other, is that the two groups disagree about what the electorate ultimately will look like. If Obama’s ground game lives up to billing, the composition of voters should look something like it did in 2008.
If Republicans are correct in assuming that it won’t, then the electorate will look less like 2008 and more like it did in 2010, when Republicans swept to victory.
There are a couple of complicating factors. First, Obama did not wind up being outspent to nearly the degree his campaign predicted. In fact, the most recent New York Times tally shows that Obama, the Democratic National Committee, and the main liberal super PAC raised $934 million, while Romney, the Republican National Committee, and the main conservative super PAC raised $882 million. But Obama’s vaunted operation has not yet changed the composition of the electorate in a way that makes victory seem assured. That’s because in battleground states such as Virginia, Romney’s campaign is doing a better job of getting its supporters to vote early than John McCain’s did.
Whether Romney’s early vote strength will carry on through next Tuesday, or whether Obama’s operation will enable him to pull away, is the one great remaining unknown — and will probably decide the election.Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.