Getting Out the Ohio Vote, Campaigns Are a Study in Contrasts

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CINCINNATI -- Inside a peeling former nightclub here, Obama volunteers are perched on any seats they can find, trays of half-eaten sandwiches line an old mirrored bar and a hand-scrawled list of "office needs" includes toilet paper and Teddy Grahams.

But if this campaign office conveys a casual, ragtag feel, it belies a sprawling operation with an intricate chain of command, volunteers who have been here for years and a lexicon worthy of the military. Volunteer red, white and blue team captains bear particular duties for getting voters to the polls, not to mention "comfort captains," assigned to tend to coffee, meals and sore feet.

After extensive test runs the past few weekends for this Election Day get-out-the-vote machine, an Obama staff member held one final meeting with volunteers in a back room the other night, saying, "Next Tuesday, it's showtime!"

The Kenwood Romney Victory Center -- one of but three in this county around Cincinnati, five fewer than the Obama camp -- is 10 miles and a world away. Inside a suburban office building populated by insurance firms and walk-in medical clinics, there are no dry runs, no flowchart bureaucracy and fewer young faces; many of the 20 or so volunteers are north of middle age.

What there is, is passion.

As a marathon campaign in Ohio nears a conclusion that its weary residents surely yearn for, the contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney has devolved into political trench warfare. It is a close-quarters fight: Mr. Obama's operation, built over four years with more than a hundred offices around Ohio and hundreds more living rooms, office basements and even garages set aside as Election Day "staging locations," versus the raw anger, worry and drive of a more recent set of Romney organizers.

At age 62 still as earnest as a college student, Edward R. O'Donnell left his music production company in the hands of associates to walk neighborhoods for Mr. Romney, driven by a growing panic that government debt is dragging the nation into bankruptcy. Like many here, "I have never been involved in an election campaign before," he said. But, he added, "I committed months ago to doing anything and everything I can to try to change that direction."

The outcome rides largely on which campaign succeeds in getting its supporters to the polls by pestering, begging, calling, offering early-voting instructions or Election Day buses and then pestering some more. It is a competition that has played out here with paid workers and volunteers in a strange universe of sleep deprivation, interminable door-to-door marches through cold rains, borrowed guest rooms and donated junk food.

In Cincinnati, the signs of the showdown are everywhere -- not just from the campaigns, but also from a vast array of groups that have descended, knocking on the doors of residents so exhausted by all the knocks that one resident warded off more by posting an announcement on her front door that she had voted early and was, thank you very much, done.

The fight is bitter, with reports of yard signs stolen, run over and even set afire, political phone calls so endless that at least one man was answering his home telephone by barking "Romney" rather than hello, and tales of front-door confrontations ending in curse words or worse.

"There's nothing coming in this house that has the word 'Obama' on it," one man told Liz Ping, an Obama volunteer, when she appeared at a doorstep. After the two disagreed over who ought to be blamed for the nation's debt, Ms. Ping, who is 61 and retired, was chased from the porch and down the driveway, she recalled.

"We're the tip of the spear," she said.

One rejected Romney door knocker said, "I just tell them, 'You can run me out of here, but somebody will be back next week unless you vote.' "

Publicly, at least, strategists on both sides here claim the edge.

The Obama campaign's extensive infrastructure is intended to include as many volunteers as possible without forcing them to drive long distances to take part, a senior campaign adviser said.

"The whole goal is to allow for everyone who wants to help us to go communicate to voters who are likely to vote for the president in every corner of the state," said the adviser, Aaron Pickrell. "So that's the purpose -- it's not to have muscle and show that we have a bunch of offices."

The Romney campaign was dismissive. "There are places in the state where we don't have bricks and mortar," said Scott Jennings, a public relations executive from Louisville, Ky., who directs Romney field operations in Ohio. "But I didn't set out to build a campaign structure that had as its core function rent payments. I don't need to pay rent to somebody to achieve my door-knocking goals."

The President's People

The Obama campaign has been here so long that there has been time to decorate.

Offices are equipped with streamers, cheery multicolored posters, piles of charging campaign cellphones labeled "firing up" and even the occasional goofy riddle taped to a wall. Inside an office in Forest Park, north of Cincinnati, a "Let's Move Corner" provides jump ropes, Hula-Hoops and instructions for stretches ("Reach down to your grass roots") near a well-stocked snack table that on a recent morning included enough Krispy Kreme doughnuts that Michelle Obama, had she seen them, surely would have cringed.

By now, though, no one is jumping rope. Or eating much.

Any frivolity has been eclipsed in these final hours, overtaken by exhaustion, tension and an overriding focus on meeting this operation's carefully monitored numerical goals for volunteers signed up, doors knocked on, voters met. "Can I ask you to run a marathon for us in the last four days?" a young staff member in jeans earnestly beseeched a white-haired volunteer as he stepped into the Forest Park office.

The essential theory in Obamaland: In a world of cellphones and caller ID, a door knock from a neighbor who can say, for instance, what high school he went to around here will be far more effective at luring a voter to the polls than a call from a stranger in some faraway state.

And so, for months, neighborhood teams have canvassed at houses they have now grown thoroughly familiar with -- and some of which can expect three more inquiries on Tuesday alone, unless and until their occupants have voted.

Before then, these visits are intended, in part, to get Obama-leaning residents with histories as inconsistent voters to form a specific plan for voting this time, whether it by pondering aloud what time of day they might go on Tuesday or by remembering to mail in the absentee ballot that records show they have requested.

"When do you want to go ahead and do it?" Irvin Carney, a 24-year-old volunteer, asked a woman at her front door on a recent evening after she said she favored Mr. Obama. "Want to say you'll do it early next week? Monday? How're you going to get there?"

The Obama operation established itself here by 2008, winning Ohio and, to the shock of local leaders in the county that surrounds this city, Hamilton, which had long favored Republican presidential candidates. Then it never left. At least one staff organizer stayed put, keeping a desk for a while in the cluttered county Democratic office. Some in the old network of volunteers remained too, occasionally summoned to work phone banks for Mr. Obama's health care law or efforts to oppose Ohio legislation to limit early voting.

By October 2011, some among the 2008 "Neighborhood Team Leaders," top local volunteers like Michele Fisher, began holding monthly meetings for the re-election effort.

"It seemed early then, but we've been going ever since," said Ms. Fisher, 55, an owner of bagel shops in the area. On Election Day, she will serve as director of one of this county's scores of campaign staging locations -- the volunteered living rooms, alcoves and basements where team captains responsible for polling places (red), logistics (white) and canvassing (blue) will focus on getting people to vote.

If anything, the operation here looks similar to the one from 2008, just more established, more polished.

The technology has grown elaborate: rather than using only old-fashioned printouts of addresses and maps in manila folders, some volunteers use smartphones to be directed to homes the campaign wishes to target and then send back results of their stops electronically. Campaign officials will not say how many paid staff members have flooded into Ohio by now, though they seem to be everywhere, and volunteers in Ohio number in the thousands -- some from other states but mostly, volunteers here say, locals.

"We're kicking their tails!" Mayor Mark L. Mallory of Cincinnati, an Obama supporter, said of the comparative ground games after emerging from a last-minute meeting with a small group of Obama volunteers. One reason for Mr. Mallory's confidence about the Obama campaign's efforts: his own father, William L. Mallory Sr., a longtime former state lawmaker, got a call the other day from the campaign, which noted, accurately, that he had not yet voted early. It urged him to do so.

Still, imperfections have emerged. Some volunteers sign up to appear for door-knocking shifts but "flake" when a Saturday afternoon arrives cold and wet. From time to time, the campaign has shown flashes of arrogance, at least one local Democratic leader says, not always giving enough attention to its supporters and volunteers. And some addresses on what should by now be a carefully culled list turn out not to be homes at all, like a shuttered industrial building the other night.

"I don't feel like I've been overly effective," Skip Tate, 50, said a little gloomily after volunteering for a long afternoon of climbing steps in a steep-hilled neighborhood. So few people answered their doors that Mr. Tate finally accosted a passer-by just to have someone -- anyone -- he could urge to vote.

The entire task of building this largely volunteer operation has changed since four years ago as the novelty of Mr. Obama's first run has faded some. Caleb Faux, the executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said he had observed an increase among black volunteers, but a drop among some white liberals who helped Mr. Obama four years ago.

Among the pack of outside groups on both sides leading their own parallel campaigns here, unions say they have seen an increase in volunteers -- passions driven more now perhaps by fury over Republican state leaders' recent efforts to reduce early voting hours and to limit collective bargaining rights. "If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan get elected, woe be to us!" Robert H. Baker, a transit union leader, told a room full of union members who gulped coffee as they prepared to head out into drizzle on a recent morning to knock on labor's own list of doors.

For the Obama campaign itself, there is no shortage of volunteers now, people here insist, but the wild, rushing emotions of 2008 have been replaced for some with a sense of determination and seriousness.

"It was sort of like a giddy high school kind of thing," Ms. Fisher said of the first Obama election. "You were so excited. It was just something new, that you were really going to make a change. And we did. And we're going to keep it going. But I think a lot of people this time around, they definitely still want to see him stay, but their lives are a lot different now."

The Challenger's Effort

Mr. Romney's Kenwood Victory Center, like the five others in metropolitan Cincinnati, is the antithesis of funky, the inverse of cool.

Its phone bank workers often connect to empty houses when even advocacy groups let computers do the dialing, and find the actual humans their workers talk to. The neighborhood door-knockers record their successes and failures in pencil, when many others have long switched to smartphones tied wirelessly to databanks.

But neither advanced technology nor uber-organization nor a carpeting of campaign offices drive Mr. Romney's campaign. Rather, it is people like Henry and Donna Peters, a stream of volunteers that swelled to a flood after Mr. Romney's strong showing in last month's presidential debates.

"For a 67- and 65-year-old to get out of bed every Saturday morning -- and other mornings -- you have to feel very strongly about supporting a man who can make changes," Mr. Peters said.

He and Ms. Peters were driving to Blue Ash, a northeast Cincinnati suburb, to target likely Republican voters. She held a clipboard stuffed with campaign handouts and sheets of addresses to visit.

The Peterses are the ideal next-door neighbors, soft-spoken people so courteous that they assiduously avoided stepping on the lawns of the homes they visited. But they had intensity: political newcomers, they regularly trek from Kentucky, a safe Romney state, in hopes of tipping Ohio into the Republican column. And they are not alone.

"We focus on quality, not quantity," said Alex Triantafilou, the Hamilton County Republican chairman.

Mr. Triantafilou and campaign officials insist that Mr. Romney has overcome Republicans' early ambivalence to become his party's favorite, not just its nominee. "No one I'm talking to is complaining we've got the wrong guy," he said.

Maybe. In talks with grass-roots conservatives, Mr. Romney seems considerably less beloved than his opponent is despised. It is too late for conservatives to find a perfect candidate, George Brunemann, who is head of the Cincinnati Tea Party, said over a recent coffee. But "Obama can get people as different as white supremacists and Black Panthers to walk in the same direction," he added.

At Kenwood this particular Friday, a wall of sign-up sheets held names of nearly 300 volunteers, local residents and loyalists from afar. Lloyd Kelley, a 72-year-old retired administrative law judge, came to Kenwood from St. Louis, on the heels of workers from California and Tennessee and Louisiana. At the Westwood center in western Cincinnati, Nancy Pennell, a stay-at-home mother from Greenville, S.C., who came on impulse, was knocking on doors with volunteers from Kentucky and California.

And there are flashes of over-the-top ardor, the sort suggesting that a campaign feels it is gaining the edge.

At a long table, Luke and Moriah Swanger, ages 10 and 11, worked the phones after finishing their home-schooling. "They don't like what's going on with the economy," said their father, Kraig, "and I said, 'If you don't like it, then do something about it.' "

Mr. Triantafilou said he had seen internal surveys that give Mr. Romney's supporters a wide edge in enthusiasm over Mr. Obama's. "We didn't have it in '08. We didn't have it in '06; we got creamed," he said. "But we've got it back."

For both the Romney and Obama campaigns, this is the culmination of a long winnowing of the voter rolls, a political gold-panning of Hamilton County's 800,000 residents and 347,000 households that washes away the unconvertible until only the nuggets -- the persuadable and the committed -- remain.

Here, the harvest of new information from data-mining, polls, focus groups and telephone and door-to-door surveys culls those households where an appeal for support would be wasted.

"The point is to try to build yourself a get-out-the-vote list in which, if everyone on the list voted, you'd win the election," said Mr. Jennings, the Ohio field operations director.

Now, with the end in sight, the time for persuasion has passed. The volunteers' single goal is to ensure that every known Romney supporter votes.

Most join an army of foot soldiers who have slogged the northeast suburbs since early summer. By last Wednesday, the campaign had knocked on doors 151,887 times in Hamilton County -- an imposing figure, but deceptive, as many knocks went unanswered and many households were covered more than once.

Thousands more were to be blitzed before Election Day.

"This is the first time in many cycles that the Republican presidential campaign has emphasized door-knocking over phone banks," Mr. Jennings said. Across Ohio, he said, Mr. Romney's campaign is knocking on 19 times as many doors as Senator John McCain's campaign did four years ago.

In large part, of course, that is because Mr. McCain's Ohio campaign was starved for money. But it also reflects reality: land lines are being replaced by cellphones that canvassers cannot reach, and those landlines that remain are so overwhelmed that owners have become deadened to appeals.

"Look, everybody in Ohio with a phone and a pair of scissors is going to figure it out sooner or later," Mr. Jennings said. "They're being bombarded. Everyone in Ohio has a robo-dialer."

Indeed, as of six days before the election, Mr. Romney's telephone banks had made 397,741 calls in Hamilton County alone, albeit far fewer were successfully completed.

Consider a recent evening at the Kenwood center, where Mr. Kelley punched buttons on a telephone linked to a computer database of numbers of likely Republican voters.

"Is this Mr. Weaver?" he asked.

The person on the other end immediately hung up.

The second call went better: "I'm calling to remind you and your husband to vote in this election," Mr. Kelley said, then exclaimed "Great!" when his target pledged to back Mr. Romney.

The third call reached an answering machine. Nobody answered the fourth. The fifth, sixth and seventh reached more answering machines.

"This is the fifth phone bank I've worked on," he said later. "I'd say that out of 10 people, on average, four aren't at home, one is undecided, three are Romney and one's Obama."

The Targets

It is the most expensive and technically sophisticated campaign in American history. But in the end, after months of work, after hundreds of hours of commercials and hundreds of thousands of front-porch visits and millions of telephone calls -- after focus groups, fliers, yard signs and rallies -- Shelley and Dennis Russell are unmoved.

Days before the polls open they are still undecideds, targets in the cross hairs of a yearlong political cannonade who somehow, miraculously have yet to be persuaded by either side.

Yet on closer inspection, it is no miracle. To the contrary, they personify the angst that defines the dying days of this especially bitter contest, an emotion that the campaigns have longed to capitalize on, but have never captured.

The Russells live with their three children in a white clapboard house in Blue Ash, in middle-class east Cincinnati. She is a payroll supervisor; he works for a towing company. Their oldest son, 18, heads to boot camp next February because military service will pay for a college education that his family cannot afford.

Their pay is steady, but even low inflation has eaten away their income. They wonder openly whether the system is broken. They say they doubt either candidate can fix it.

Mr. Obama, they say, is honest and has good ideas, but no spine to carry them out. "Obama says he's going to put more out for education," said Mr. Russell, who wants to improve his skills but lacks money for more schooling. "But like his medical plan, I highly doubt that what comes out the other end is going to be what went in.

"If you're willing as a leader to say, I'll get 100 percent -- oh, I'll take 60 -- you're not accomplishing what you set out to do. Do you really believe he's going to do it in next four years?"

Mr. Romney might run the country better, they say, but he is clueless about the average person's needs. Witness, Ms. Russell said, his comments about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no taxes or depend on government handouts. "Me personally, I've never been on public assistance," she said. "But I definitely have friends who are single mothers who could not go to work without it.

"To me, it shows he's in a different wage bracket than the rest of us," she said.

Mr. Russell scoffed at Mr. Romney's suggestion that children should borrow from their parents to pay college tuition instead of seeking government loans. It is a notion, he said, that only someone with wealthy parents would propose.

Then again, Ms. Russell said: "I don't know that that will make him worse than Obama -- that he can do enough good that it will trickle down to us."

The Russells concede that their indecision is not for lack of information. Like virtually every family in Ohio, they have watched the debates, talked with friends and read the material hung on their doorknobs, although they have drawn the line at listening to robo-calls. In short, they have been drenched by a fire hose of creative persuasion of the quality and volume that only two billion-dollar campaigns could muster.

Still, Ms. Russell mused, it is not altogether clear what this monumental ground game has added up to.

"I think this is one of those races that could go either way," she said. "They both have enough money backing them.

"If they'd put some of that money to work instead, it'd be amazing."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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