Mixed Messages on the McCain Ground Game

Everyone knows that Barack Obama has built an unprecedented Democratic field organization this election cycle. But the big question as Nov. 4 approaches is how well McCain--who trails by massive margins in the money race and has invested far fewer resources in field offices and get-out-the-vote efforts--will be able to mobilize his voters. The answer could potentially decide the contest.

That's why I found today's papers so intriguing--and confusing. Scanning the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, I stumbled upon a pair of seemingly contradictory reports on the state of McCain's ground game. First the WSJ's Laura Meckler covered the sunny side of the street:

One key to Mr. Bush's re-election was the Republican party's nationwide get-out-the vote effort in the final 72 hours before election day... Heading into the crucial final weekend, Republicans say their operation is even stronger and running ahead of where they were four years ago at this time. They say their targeting is more efficient, their workers more experienced and their technology better. The McCain campaign, using an operation funded by the Republican National Committee, has already made 19.6 million phone calls this year nationwide. That's more than 2004, says Mike DuHaime, Sen. McCain's political director. And 2004, he says, "was the gold standard for turnout." Officials expect to make more than 15 million contacts, including phone calls and door knocks, just in these final days.

Then the Post's Matthew Mosk noticed some storm clouds on the horizon:

The decision to finance a final advertising push is forcing McCain to curtail spending on Election Day ground forces to help usher his supporters to the polls, according to Republican consultants familiar with McCain's strategy. The vaunted, 72-hour plan that President Bush used to mobilize voters in 2000 and 2004 has been scaled back for McCain. He has spent half as much as Obama on staffing and has opened far fewer field offices. This week, a number of veteran GOP operatives who orchestrate door-to-door efforts to get voters to the polls were told they should not expect to receive plane tickets, rental cars or hotel rooms from the campaign.

Of course, this year's version of the "vaunted" "72-Hour Project" can't be "stronger... than four years ago" AND "scaled back for McCain." So what's going on here? My reading is actually pretty simple."Heading into the crucial final weekend," the RNC's phone-banking operation had outpaced 2004. But that was before McCain decided to "finance a final advertising push." As a result, the actual "door-to-door efforts to get voters to the polls"--efforts planned for the weekend--have been "scaled back." DuHaime's calling will likely to continue to set RNC records. But there won't be as many "veteran GOP operatives" on the ground in key swing states as there were "in 2000 and 2004."

Strip away the spin, and it seems that McCain has decided shift the GOP's emphasis from targeting voters in person to targeting them from a distance, via phone calls and TV ads. Whether that's the best way to compete with Obama's massive, in-person army of volunteers and field staffers remains to be seen.