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State’s Obama and McCain campaigns launch intensive ‘ground game’ for final days

During a September campaign stop, Sen. John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin met with supporters in Blaine.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
During a September campaign stop, Sen. John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin met with supporters in Blaine.

Is that confidence in your voice?

Brian Sullivan, a big player in Republican politics in Minnesota, laughed.

“We’re focusing on the last 72 hours,” said Sullivan of these final days of the presidential campaign in Minnesota.

Some big rallies planned?

Probably not, said Sullivan. But he seemed to shrug off the meaningfulness of rallies.

“Obviously, big rallies are nice, but somebody pointed out that the biggest rallies we’ve seen until this year were in 1972 — for George McGovern,” Sullivan said. 

Oh yes. McGovern versus Richard Nixon. Big rallies for the peace candidate from South Dakota. A landslide victory for Nixon.

Barack Obama, of course, is no George McGovern. Nor is John McCain Richard Nixon. But Sullivan’s point is that you don’t always see what you get in politics.

GOP counting on ‘micro-targeting’ to get out its voters
Despite polls that favor Obama in Minnesota — in some cases, by a substantial margin — and despite the McCain campaign’s decision to cut back on its television advertising in the state, Republicans have faith in their micro-targeting, get-out-the-vote system that has served them well nationally in the last two presidential campaigns.

The Republican system of getting out its voters “can’t change a tsunami,” Sullivan said, “but it can change a close race. We can pick up voters on the margins.”

Go now to the dumpy Minnesota headquarters of the Obama campaign on St. Paul’s Raymond Avenue.

Jeff Blodgett
Photo by Terry Gydesen
Jeff Blodgett

Jeff Blodgett, the former Wellstone campaign manager and a student of grass-roots politics, runs Obama’s Minnesota campaign. He’s the general of an impressive, unprecedented state political army: 18,000 volunteers, 31 Obama offices across the state, “dozens” of paid staffers and a disciplined, high-tech system.

Blodgett reports to a regional director in Chicago. (“A lot of emails and phone calls every day,” said Blodgett. “Their job is to help us do our job.”)

The state field director, Jaclyn Urness, reports to Blodgett. Seven field directors around the state report to her. Scores of field organizers report to the directors. Super-volunteers and team captains, who also are volunteers, report to the directors.

Technology allows everyone to be connected. Text messages flow up and down the massive system.

State Obama forces overwhelmingly winning ‘ground war’
“This is an on-the-ground organization like never before,” said Blodgett. “We thought we did well with Paul [Wellstone]. This is way beyond that. But none of it would matter if people weren’t excited about the candidate. The candidate captures the imagination of the people supporting him. There’s real enthusiasm.”

According to Blodgett, this massive organization has made either person-to-person contact, or phone contact, with 3 million Minnesotans since the campaign opened its state office on July 1.

Republicans, almost proudly, acknowledge that they can’t match the Obama masses.

Ben Golnik
Courtesy of Ben Golnik
Ben Golnik

“It’s no secret they have far more resources,” said Ben Golnik, who heads Sen. John McCain’s campaign in Minnesota and five nearby states. (These days, Golnik’s spending all of his time in Minnesota, which Republicans still are calling a battleground state, despite the margin showing up in polls.) “They have more money, more offices, more paid, out-of-state staff. But we have Minnesotans who understand Minnesota.”

Golnik won’t divulge numbers, except for the number of state offices — 15, as opposed to Obama’s 31.

“I will tell you that we’ve got thousands of volunteers who will be knocking on tens of thousands of doors,” he said. “We will get our supporters to the polls. The key is that there are an inordinate number of independents. We’re going to be talking to them.”

But mostly, the sales portions of the campaigns are over for both Republicans and DFLers in Minnesota.

Campaigns this week switched to get-out-the-vote mode
This week, both campaigns went into get-out-the-vote mode. That means both campaigns are more focused now on getting their supporters to the polls than trying to win over new voters. If you’ve indicated support for one of the candidates, you almost certainly will be hearing from that candidate’s campaign at least once between now and Tuesday.

According to Carleton College political science professor Steve Schier, we are just now entering the most important phase of the campaign.

“The last four days of a campaign are the most important four days of any election,” he said. “… Races get tighter. People think one more time, and sometimes that means they change their minds. As the election gets closer, the eyes of a lot of voters get brighter. For the first time, they really start thinking about how they’ll vote.”

One other thing can happen in the last four days. A candidate can stumble.

“Remember that old drunk-driving charge that came out about George Bush in 2000?” said Schier. “A lot of Republicans will tell you that that cost him the popular vote. When that came out, there were evangelicals who said, ‘No!’ Had that come out earlier in the campaign, it wouldn’t have mattered. But it came right at the end. Obama is fortunate that his relationship with Jeremiah Wright came out a long time ago. Had that come out now, he would have been finished. Timing is everything in politics.”

In Minnesota this year, we’ve had a good look at what a last-minute blunder can do. When U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann did her recent “Hardball” television interview, she put both feet in her mouth and managed to instantly create a highly competitive race.

Schier expects that Obama will win handily in Minnesota. But he’s quick to say that doesn’t mean he will.

Pol sci prof not sure voting patterns likely to change
In fact, Schier thinks the media have spent far too much time musing about what might happen — that Obama will carry several so-called battleground states — and aren’t spending enough time with history. Voting patterns don’t tend to change, he said.

In Minnesota, and everywhere else, the media are assuming that there will be breaks from historical patterns in this election.

“Obama is counting on high turnout from segments of the populations that don’t normally turn out in high numbers,” Schier said. “He’s counting on the young and minorities.”

What’s that mean in Minnesota?

The Obama campaign is excited about the way it has organized campuses across the state, including community colleges.

Supporters of Sen. Barack Obama packed Xcel Energy Center and surrounding streets in early June to hear him declare victory in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
REUTERS/Jason Reed
Supporters of Sen. Barack Obama packed Xcel Energy Center and surrounding streets in early June to hear him declare victory in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“We even have a great organization at [the University of] St. Thomas, and that’s supposed to be a conservative school,” said Blodgett.

Meantime, Republicans admit they’re not spending much time on campuses.

“I would say campuses and college towns always favor the DFL,” said Golnik.

But, he added, it will be hard for Minnesota Democrats to improve their get-out-the-vote totals among young voters from four years ago.

“In 2004, there was a 69 percent turnout among young people (18 to 29) in Minnesota,” Golnik said. “That was the highest level in the country. It was a historically high level in Minnesota. There’s not much room to grow there. In other states, where you had 40 percent turnout in that age group, there’s plenty of room to grow. But it’s much harder here.”

GOP sees ‘room to grow’ in northern Minnesota
Meantime, Republicans believe they have room to grow in the reliably DFL, 8th Congressional District, specifically in the Iron Range and Duluth, where they say President Bush managed to pick up a paltry 33 percent of the vote four years ago. (Overall in the 8th District, which reaches all the way down to Cambridge and Princeton, Bush received 46 percent of the vote.)

“We think we can cut that margin by getting 40 to 45 percent,” Golnik said of the Range and Duluth.

The reason?

A war vet and those snowmobiling, moose-hunting Palins, Sarah and Todd.

“Obama is abysmal on gun and sportsman issues,” said Golnik. “Todd Palin had a huge impact on the 8th. He was saying how he was being greeted like his wife is greeted in other places in the country. I think it’s interesting that right after he was there, the Democrats had Hillary Clinton campaigning in Virginia. I don’t think that was a coincidence. The Obama campaign is spending tons of money in Duluth, running negative ads. That tells you they must be concerned.”

Blodgett claims confidence in the Iron Range and Duluth. Those who attended Todd Palin rallies, he said, likely never have voted for Democratic candidates.

While Republicans have scrounged the 8th District in search of votes, the Obama campaign has offices and large volunteer forces in traditionally Republican areas of the state in rural Minnesota, hoping to cut into Republican margins.

But those are macro efforts.

It’s the micro-targeting that has held the key in recent elections.

According to University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs, it’s been the Republicans who’ve held a decided advantage in political small ball.

“For years, it’s been the Democrats doing the trash talking,” said Jacobs. “The Republicans don’t do much talking publicly. Technologically, they have a phenomenal database on individuals. In the old days, they had information on the precinct level. Now, it’s on an individual level. They can do lit drops tailored to each house on a block.”

It’s called micro-targeting.

If you’re a pro-life DFLer, for example, Republicans will identify you and make sure you’ve received information based on your interest. And you WILL get another nudge — or two — from the Republicans in the last few days of the campaign.

“Fifteen years ago,” said Jacobs, “the Democrats had the advantage in the ground game because of the unions. They had foot power. They had people on the streets. But the Republicans have neutralized that in the Bush era.”

They neutralized it with data. Political parties always have been able to get some basic information about voters: name, address, party affiliation, voting history and, of course, race and gender. But through public and private sources, the Republican Party got the jump on knowing so much more: home ownership, hunting or fishing licenses, boat ownership, occupation, charitable donations, magazine subscriptions.

“Remember, in 2004,” Jacobs said, “Democrats met all their turnout projections. But Republicans blew away their projections on who they could turn out.”

Campaigns launching battle of the databases
Jacobs, however, suspects that Democrats have closed the information gap this cycle.

“It appears the Obama campaign has built a significant database,” Jacobs said. “One example, at their rallies they collect cell phone numbers, and those are entered and all of a sudden you have these hundreds of thousands of people receiving text messages from the campaign. That’s a first.”

And there are intangibles that might change traditional voting patterns, Jacobs said.

“This year’s phenomenal for the Democrats,” he said. “There’s tremendous excitement and enthusiasm for their candidate and outrage over Bush.”

Obama still could lose Minnesota, Jacobs said. But there’s a better chance that he’ll win so impressively that he’ll help carry along other Democrats, from Sen. Al Franken down through state legislative races.

An 80 percent turnout and a big win by Obama in Minnesota could mean a tight U.S. Senate victory for Al Franken, DFLers believe. (Minnesota led the nation in turnout four years ago, with 79 percent of eligible voters going to the polls. The national average was 64 percent.)

There does seem to be more all-for-one, one-for-all unity among DFLers than Republicans this year, although Golnik disputes that.

“One of the criticisms we had in 2004 was that President Bush’s campaign was running separately from the Republican campaign,” said Golnik. “We’re seamless now.”

Perhaps. But it seems that most Minnesota Republicans are not exactly tying their races to McCain.

Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty, so active for McCain prior to the Republican National Convention, has seemed less prominent on the presidential bandwagon since McCain selected Palin as his vice presidential choice.

Pawlenty did attend a McCain economic summit in Ohio last weekend and followed that by doing five national television interviews on McCain’s behalf.

But this week, he spent two days helping Sen. Norm Coleman on the campaign trail. Coleman seldom mentions the McCain-Palin ticket. As of Tuesday, the governor was not scheduled to do any McCain stumping in the state.

Pawlenty apparently has not received the memo that Republicans are supposed to put on an optimistic face. While campaigning Tuesday with Coleman, he was quoted as saying, “The polls are showing that Sen. Obama has a significant lead in Minnesota. We still are hopeful that Sen. McCain can make a comeback, but it looks like Sen. Obama has a pretty good advantage in Minnesota right now.”

(By the way, Pawlenty has fans in unusual places. The Australian, an online newspaper, has an article about how the Minnesota governor should have been the vice presidential pick all along and that McCain’s advisers did him wrong by encouraging him to take Palin.)

DFLers at all levels talk Obama whenever they can. The Franken campaign is thrilled that former President Bill Clinton is arriving in Minneapolis Thursday to offer Franken a political blessing.

Sullivan was asked if Clinton’s arrival means that Obama is concerned about Minnesota or if he’s just trying to give Franken a boost.

“It’s probably a two-fer,” said Sullivan, passing on the chance to say that Obama must be nervous about Minnesota. “At this point, things are going well for Obama, but he probably thinks this gives him a boost and at the same time, he may be thinking ahead about getting that 60th seat in the Senate [that would prevent a filibuster].”

Sullivan admits to some discouragement. In the last few days, he’s been trying to reach out to Republican supporters for more financial help.

“Everybody is saying they’re tapped out,” he said.

But he hasn’t given up.

“This thing isn’t over,” he said.

And Blodgett says those are the words that keep the Obama campaign in Minnesota “at the edge of our seats. … Complacency is a concern. But I think most of our supporters feel the sense of urgency we feel.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Alan Ingram on 10/29/2008 - 01:37 pm.

    Regarding the efficacy of the GOP “micro” intelligence on their base. I have been called at my home twice by the McCain/Palin team, urging me to contibute and to vote for them.

    My lawn is covered by campaign signs for DFL candidates. I do still subscribe to the Mpls StarTribune, however. Maybe that’s it?

  2. Submitted by David Erickson on 10/30/2008 - 01:23 pm.

    The McCain campaign is fighting the last war. Microtargeting is great, but Obama is doing that, plus.

    The Obama campaign has merged microtargeting with peer-to-peer word of mouth marketing and organization using social networking tools.

    Check out this Wired article if you really want to understand what they’ve done:

    The Obama campaign will be studied as a textbook unified marketing campaign for years to come.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/03/2008 - 09:26 pm.

    Palin cleared in Troopergate probe

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