Lauren Anderson, a senior at Miami of Ohio University, volunteers for the state Republican Party. Anderson prepares pamphlets for Sen. John McCain and local candidates before canvassing a street in Fairfield, Ohio.
Lauren Anderson, a senior at Miami of Ohio University, volunteers for the state Republican Party. Anderson prepares pamphlets for Sen. John McCain and local candidates before canvassing a street in Fairfield, Ohio. David Gilkey/NPR
Pat Palumbo, a registered Republican, aerates his yard in Fairfield, Ohio. Palumbo plans to vote the Republican ticket both nationally, for Sen. John McCain, and locally in Butler County, Ohio.
Pat Palumbo, a registered Republican, aerates his yard in Fairfield, Ohio. Palumbo plans to vote the Republican ticket both nationally, for Sen. John McCain, and locally in Butler County, Ohio. David Gilkey/NPR
Retired schoolteacher Mike Boulware, a neighborhood team leader, walks a northern Columbus neighborhood in support of the Democratic ticket. Boots on the ground is just one way Republicans and Democrats are getting their messages out to voters.
Retired schoolteacher Mike Boulware, a neighborhood team leader, walks a northern Columbus neighborhood in support of the Democratic ticket. Boots on the ground is just one way Republicans and Democrats are getting their messages out to voters. David Gilkey/NPR
With just over a week until the election, both the McCain and Obama campaigns are focused on organizing on the ground. Nowhere is this truer than in Ohio, a perennial swing state that helped decide the election in 2004.
No Republican has won the White House without Ohio. And this year, it's a pivotal red state that John McCain is fighting to hang on to.
But this weekend, football was more important than politics in Ohio. Everyone, it seemed, was obsessing about the Ohio State-Penn State game, which Ohio State lost. Either way, football was the backdrop to everything. Lauren Anderson, a McCain volunteer, said they watch every Buckeye game while in the campaign office, looking for the nail-biting moments.
"'Cause if we call people, then they start screaming into the phone, yelling at the teams," Anderson explained. Or yelling at the campaign worker for interrupting.
When it wasn't game time this weekend, Anderson, a 21-year-old college student, was with other volunteers. They were walking the streets of Butler County, an outer suburb of Cincinnati that has tended to vote conservative. Voters there turned out big for President Bush in 2004.
GOP's Battle-Tested Ground Game
At this late stage, most of these visits are about making sure people plan to vote. They may seem like casual conversations, but the doors to knock on and the questions to ask are carefully planned out in places like McCain's Ohio headquarters in Columbus.
In 2000 and 2004, even Democrats marveled at the GOP ground game. The party perfected the science of microtargeting voters. Paul Lindsay, a McCain official, said their technology has only gotten better and more efficient. He points to the headquarters' phones as an example. "These are VOIP phones — voice over Internet protocol," he says.
As gadgety as that sounds, these VOIP phones do a lot. They look like your average desktop phone, but they have a screen. The name of a voter pops up. A volunteer can read the questions to ask. Volunteers can take the answers and punch them directly into the phone.
"When these volunteers then go out on the weekends to do door-to-door and to do canvassing, they know what the response was on the phone," Lindsay says. "They know this person might be a teacher; she might think education is an important issue to her."
The McCain campaign is confident in its battle-tested technology. It also knows what it is up against.
Obama's Army Of Volunteers
Barack Obama was in Columbus a few weeks ago, telling a ballroom full of volunteers that the time had come to put his vast organization to the test. In Ohio, Obama has outspent McCain on organizing, and the Democrat has twice as many campaign offices.
The Obama campaign says that its greatest strength is the volunteers who have been working their own neighborhoods for months — people like Mike Boulware, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Columbus. Boulware said he is kicking himself for not organizing in 2004.
"Both my wife and I are active in the Obama campaign," he said. "If we could have done more in the last election, because it was such a close election, maybe the current president wouldn't be president."
Obama volunteers like Mike are going door to door, or calling and text messaging people. A new ABC News poll found that in eight tossup states, including Ohio, 42 percent of voters said they have been contacted by the Obama campaign; 29 percent said the McCain campaign has reached out.
Linda Paxton received a visit from Boulware and his team. She said her apartment complex, just on the outskirts of the city of Columbus, has been an epicenter of political activity.
"I haven't seen any Republicans come knocking on my door, though," she said.
Paxton didn't have much time to talk — Buckeyes football. "I'm getting ready to go to the game," she said, laughing.
Same with half the state of Ohio, it seemed. The campaigns are just hoping for that kind of enthusiasm on Election Day.