Ohio is a frenzy of politics this week, assaulting every human sense. People can see billboards, hear radio commercials and touch the hands of tens of thousands of canvassers from both parties showing up on doorsteps.
Some places, one can even smell this election: In southern Ohio, a masked man unleashed a live skunk at a county Bush-Cheney headquarters, spraying GOP activists.
All the raucous activity of these closing hours is the culmination of strategic judgments made in quietude and secrecy earlier this year.
There are three major players running the ground game in this state, which has fulfilled to the end its early promise to be the most important pivot in this presidential election. Joining the campaigns of President Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry is the independent liberal group America Coming Together, whose lavishly funded registration and turnout operation remains an important wild card — will it work as projected — in Tuesday's balloting.
In all three cases, operatives months ago pored over tables of historical election trends, voter files, maps and polling data. From this information immersion came a series of strategic bets — about which people to target, and where — that will pay out or go bust on Election Day, said operatives who in recent days detailed these plans.
Breaking the formula
In years past, there were tried-and-true formulas in both parties — longtime operatives could confidently predict the parties' vote percentages for the state's 88 counties — but all the old certitudes about capturing Ohio's critical 20 electoral votes have been scrambled. Millions have been spent toward maximizing the vote in expected and unlikely places, as technology allows operatives to reach voters with vastly greater precision.
In ACT's case, state director Steve Bouchard, 36, a longtime Democratic field organizer, came in April to a state he had never worked and soon wrote a strategic plan. A $15 million effort in the state was organized around two numbers. The first was 166,735 — the number of votes by which George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000. The second was 2.6 million — that was Bouchard's estimate of the number of Democratic votes that would be needed for Kerry to stand a chance in the election. Notably, that number was 500,000 votes higher than Gore's total — reflecting the reality that Republicans were certain to increase their vote totals. As it happened, activity in Ohio was so intense that Bouchard later increased his estimate to 2.8 million votes to carry a majority.
From Bouchard's vantage points, the fattest target was also the most obvious one. Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, had for decades been the most important engine of Democratic votes. Gore had won it overwhelmingly — with 62 percent — but Bouchard and his field staff believed the Democrat had not shaken the tree for all it was worth. Many blacks did not vote. A registration effort, Bouchard advised his bosses in Washington, could dramatically increase voter rolls in the black community. But these gains would come with a caveat. Any increase in registration would require a months-long effort to remain in contact with people to make sure they voted, as many new registrants often do not vote.
While Bouchard's strategy aimed to maximize performance among a reliable Democratic group, it also contemplated winning back a group that had drifted from the party. Gore had not done as well as he should have among white lower-income workers in northern Ohio's steel and manufacturing plants, whose Democratic allegiance had weakened in part because of their cultural conservatism. Bouchard sketched a plan in which ACT's paid field canvassers would penetrate these neighborhoods with a message emphasizing Ohio's job losses during the Bush years.
'Data mining' for votes
While ACT and its partner groups in a coalition called America Votes are operating intensely statewide — using sophisticated "data mining" techniques that allow canvassers to identify Democratic families house by house — the core of ACT's efforts remains the voters identified this spring. The America Votes coalition will have 20,000 paid and volunteer canvassers on Ohio streets on Tuesday to remind supporters to vote.
On the other side, Bush's Ohio campaign manager, Bob Paduchik, made similar judgments in identifying places where his party needed to improve its 2000 performance. Paduchik, 38, an Ohio native who also took his job in April, said he was disappointed when Bush did not win two counties that victorious Republicans usually do: Franklin County, home of Columbus, the geographic and political center of Ohio, and Montgomery County, home of Dayton.
Analysis of demographic trends, Paduchik said, made clear the reason. In both counties, GOP voters were increasingly moving out to new jobs and houses farther in the suburbs. So in the GOP's strategy document this spring, the "collar counties" around Columbus and Dayton drew special emphasis as a targets for intensive organizing with phone banks, registration and volunteer recruitment.
Paduchik's exurban targets are places such as Delaware County, north of Columbus, where volunteers were making several thousand calls a day, and knocking on an equivalent number of doors.
One door knocker was Tom McGinnis, 53, who says he does not have the temperament for phone banks. He feels so strongly about Bush he would just argue with dissenters. He became actively involved after 2000, when, he said, "sleazy lawyers" in Florida tried to steal the election for Gore.
Another target was the largely rural counties of southwest Ohio, where the economy and cultural values blend almost seamlessly into neighboring West Virginia. While votes here were not large in absolute numbers, the percentages were so overwhelming for Bush that they greatly contributed to his margin of victory. Kerry, Paduchik believes, stood no chance of winning these former swing voters. They join Cincinnati and suburban Cleveland as a core part of the GOP coalition.
Registration gains add uncertainty
A sharp increase in voter registration — which a Columbus Dispatch analysis Monday showed has come heavily in Democratic-leaning precincts — has some Republicans in Ohio worried about Bush's prospects for holding on to this state, especially since he has been running even or slightly behind in most polls. Ohio has backed every presidential winner since 1964. But Paduchik said he shares none of the pessimism. "You can see my demeanor," he said Sunday, smiling and relaxed in his Columbus office. "I'm not weeping behind my desk. ... We've never had a ground game like this in Ohio."
On this point, if on no others, Paduchik agrees with Jim DeMay, who is running a coordinated campaign focused on turnout for the Democratic National Committee and Kerry in Ohio. DeMay, 40, a Minnesota native, has a paid staff of 280.
DeMay, who spoke between hacking coughs of fatigue-induced bronchitis, said he has never seen a field operation on the scale of this one in Ohio or elsewhere. He also said has never found himself in such an enviable position: Ohio is so important to Kerry that he has virtually a no-questions-asked budget. If he wants it, he gets it.
If Paduchik and Bouchard focused their strategies heavily on geographic opportunities, DeMay quickly seized on a demographic one when he arrived from Minneapolis this summer. Polling, he said, showed that undecided women were the campaign's biggest opportunity. The campaign set a goal of bringing 600,000 undecided or Democratic-leaning women into Kerry's fold though mailing, phone calls and doorstep recruitment.
There were other targets in the polls, but none so promising. In DeMay's view, winning campaigns are about playing to strength. "There's always a temptation to go off the path," he said. "A little bit of a good thing is not a good thing. You need a lot of a good thing, and you can't hit everyone no matter what anyone tells you. You make decisions."
Only later this fall, he said, did another opportunity clearly evidence itself as worth pursuing. Single men younger than 30, a group DeMay said he never expected to be leaning toward Kerry.
Details, details ...
If campaigns in the spring and summer are about big decisions, in the closing days they are overwhelmingly about details. As it became clear days ago that rain is likely Tuesday — often a killer of Democratic turnout — Bouchard and DeMay separately made rush orders for tens of thousands of ponchos — 60,000 of them in Kerry's case. DeMay said he is spending $15,000 a week in security for offices and personnel, fearful that Republicans will try to sow chaos with late dirty tricks.
Bouchard, likewise, is giddy and apprehensive. In a visit to regional offices crowded with volunteers Friday, he prodded staff members at every turn with mock menacing orders to not screw up and, with a favorite black minister colleague in Cleveland, broke into a version of "Amazing Grace."
Back in his car, he confessed darker suspicions about Tuesday. Republicans were seeking to challenge voters to combat what they say is a growth in voter-registration fraud caused by ACT's registration drive. Courts have since blocked the effort to challenge, but Bouchard said he believes merely creating the fear of widespread chaos on Election Day was what the GOP was aiming for, causing some Democrats to stay away.
"Everything we are doing is focused on the idea that voting is going to be easy," he said. "If people turn out, we win, because there are more of us than there are of them."