If Barack Obama is re-elected president in November, Maryland will be one of the keys to his victory. I obviously am referring to more than the state’s 10 electoral votes, which most analysts already have penciled into his column.
In talking to campaign officials, it is clear that they do not take those electoral votes for granted, but are convinced that if they run the kind of campaign they did in 2008, things should work out just fine. Moreover, his Maryland campaign is working closely with Democratic candidates in some key state races. In particular, there’s a close relationship with the campaign of Sen. Ben Cardin, who was the first person President Obama endorsed for re-election this year.
To get a better appreciation of the national role that the Maryland Obama campaign is hoping to play, you have to start by looking back at 2008. During that campaign, Maryland volunteers made more than 2 million calls to states all over the country in support of Obama’s candidacy and sent groups of volunteers on a regular basis to the two neighboring swing states of Pennsylvania and Virginia. Both states ended up in the Democratic column that year.
Well before Sheldon Adelson started pouring money into Mitt Romney’s election coffers, well before the rise of the Super PACs, well before it became apparent that the Romney campaign would outspend Obama, the organization that was created in 2008 and never fully went away was focused on building a grass-roots effort with 20 local offices, large numbers of volunteers and a strategy that emphasizes direct contact with voters.
Obama campaign officials are making one key assumption about the rest of the campaign and are building a strategy that takes a different approach than in 2008 to trying to re-create a winning coalition.
First, the campaign is counting on voter fatigue setting in by early October in those swing states that are being saturated with political ads. They believe that the advantage in money that Romney will have in that last month will not translate into significant shifts in voting decisions.
Perhaps even more interesting is the conviction that the Obama campaign “is only going to win this thing person to person.” Given all that we hear about the importance of social media and technological innovations in campaigning, that perspective might surprise a lot of people. As one senior official described it to me, the campaign is “old-style politics in the 21st century.”
In 2008, Obama excited and inspired voters, many of whom had never participated in the electoral process. A lot of those voters sat out the 2010 election, which more than anything contributed to the big Republican wins of that year.
The challenge for the Obama campaign is to get those voters back to the polling booth in November. And unlike the broad-brush approach of inspiration that characterized the last campaign, this one is focused on micro-targeting.
That brings us back to the Maryland campaign that, at this point, is focusing all of its extra efforts on Virginia. Polling suggests a very tight race there, one that campaign officials believe the president has to win to get to 270 electoral votes.
Micro-targeting means those Maryland campaign volunteers are delivering a different message in their calls to prospective voters in the Tidewater area of Virginia than to those in Northern Virginia.
Rather than looking for new voters, the campaign is trying to mobilize voters who supported the president in 2008 but may have drifted away. Many of those are in their 20s and could be lifelong Democrats if they can be attracted back to this campaign.
Micro-targeting means that the campaign, rather than reaching out to all seniors, will focus on those with a profile that says they are likely to support the president. That category was described to me as “high information” individuals — those who are familiar with and understand key issues.
A recent Ohio poll demonstrates how important making that distinction can be. According to that poll, 15 percent of respondents believed that Mitt Romney was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden. Moreover, it doesn’t make much sense to mobilize people still deluding themselves into believing that Obama wasn’t born in this country or that he is a Muslim.
One additional challenge facing the campaign is how to deal with the efforts at voter suppression in the form of voter-identification card requirements. Both Pennsylvania and Virginia enacted new laws this year. Helping people meet the new requirements, even as court challenges proceed, is another of those intensely people-to-people efforts in which the campaign is engaged.
If James Carville became famous for coining the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” during the 1992 campaign, the counterpart for this year is, “It’s turnout, stupid.” Whether Marylanders working for the Obama campaign can significantly influence turnout in their two neighboring states will be one of the determinants of who wins the presidency in November.
Laslo Boyd does consulting in higher education, public policy and politics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.