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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Ground Game

I have been hearing today from several people not to worry, that Obama has a much better "ground game" going than McCain, especially in rural America, and that's what will make the difference when the votes are tallied in November. Here's one point of view along these lines [update: see also "Obama's campaign manager says his ground operations will triumph over John McCain's attack ads"]:

I agree with Yepsen that rural and small-town voters are a critical swing bloc... I recommend ManfromMiddletown's piece explaining why "rural voters are the key to the kingdom." ...

Let's examine what Barack Obama and John McCain are doing to reach Americans who do not live in major metropolitan areas.

There is no plan for rural America on the issues page of John McCain's website. There is only a page labeled "agricultural policies," which contains nine paragraphs about farming, trade and food policies.

Obama's website includes a comprehensive Plan to Support Rural Communities. It addresses not only agricultural policies but also economic opportunities, small business development, environmental protection, renewable energy, communications and transportation infrastructure, attracting teachers and health care providers to rural areas, and dealing with the methamphetamine crisis.

But anyone can slap a plan on a website, right? What are the candidates doing to reach out to those small-town voters who feel ignored?

Let's look at each of the battleground states Yepsen mentions in his column. ...

Let's turn to Ohio, a state McCain must hold if he is to have any chance of winning 270 electoral votes. McCain has nine campaign offices in Ohio (although there's no phone or e-mail contact information for these offices on the McCain Ohio website). Obama will have 56 offices supporting his field operation in Ohio, and 44 of those offices are already open.  [similar stories in other battleground states...]...

I could go on... But you get my point. Not only does Obama have a plan for rural America, he has a campaign presence in dozens of small towns where McCain does not. His staff and volunteers are making contact with thousands of voters who will only hear from McCain through their television sets. ...

Obama ... certainly can't be accused of ignoring the concerns of voters who live in rural areas. ...

Again, many analysts are saying that while McCain was attacking, the Obama team was organizing on the ground and this will make a big difference come November, so much so that we can relax about the convention, it won't really matter in the end. Organization on the ground, whatever that means, will carry the day.

One thing I noticed during the primaries, perhaps because I grew up in a rural area, was the different routes Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama took through Oregon. The state is dominated politically by the large cities along Interstate 5, e.g. Portland to the north and here in Eugene where I live, and the I5 corridor is generally very liberal. But rural Oregon, e.g. the central and eastern parts, are very different and much more conservative in their general makeup.

Hillary's campaign route through Oregon was heavily populist in nature and focused on these cities. She (or Bill Clinton) held campaign events in many, many small or mid-size towns all over the state. They visited the biggest cities too, but the rural coverage was very broad and very evident. At the time, I thought they had the stronger organization on the ground. Obama mostly hit Eugene and Portland, though he did make one stop in Bend and perhaps places I missed or forgot. Yes, he drew a big crowd in Portland, it made the national news at the time because the crowd was so large, but if he needs to carry the rural areas, that's not the way to do it. Oregon is not in danger, and maybe they knew that and didn't bother with rural Oregon as it would be more costly, but at the time I thought his showing up in more of the smaller towns in Oregon would have made a big difference in the general perception of who he represents. There's a big division in the state, it's a division that exists in many states in the west where the rural areas feel ignored and dominated politically by the big cities, and any gesture at all toward the rural population matters.

It's great the Obama campaign has such a large organization in place, and I certainly hope that will matter come November, but the candidate himself needs to make it clear to these voters that he knows who they are, what their needs are, and that he is on their side ("His staff and volunteers are making contact with thousands of voters"). They need to know they won' be forgotten. Just showing up in the smaller and mid-size towns sends that message, whereas generating huge crowds in Portland does not. In fact, it probably does just the opposite. It sends the message that the division the rural residents feel, the lack of attention to their needs by the political process, is likely to continue - the candidate only seems to be able to see the big cities in the state, and they are as invisible as ever (this is partly what the "celebrity" label exploits, and one way to fight it is through visual imagery that identifies with rural America, see barbecues, ranch houses, duck hunting, etc., that the other side does so well - that's one reason why it's hard to tag, say, Reagan with the celebrity label even though that's exactly what he was).

The race was over by the time we voted here, so there's no way to truly assess the different strategies, and I don't know if rural America truly is the key to victory, but every little bit helps. The argument is that the battleground states all have large rural areas that could tip the scales either way. If rural America does matter, I do hope that the campaign realizes they need more than organization, they need to make a connection with people in rural areas on a personal level. That doesn't require putting on a hunting vest, swilling beer with the locals, or anything like that, though if you can pull it off I suppose it helps, it just requires that you make them feel they are visible, and give them confidence that their needs won't be forgotten.

    Posted by on Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 05:22 PM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (101)

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