It’s after dark at the Stanley Rowe Towers public housing project in Cincinnati’s West End, and Irvin Carney, a 24-year-old volunteer with President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, is at a resident’s doorstep, quizzing her about precisely when and how she’s going to cast her early ballot in Ohio.
“We’re trying to make sure everybody has a plan for how they’re going to go vote, so -- want to say Monday? You’ll go Monday morning?” asks Carney, who has trudged down weed-infested streets, past abandoned buildings and a dilapidated “HOPE” placard from Obama’s first campaign, and through a fluorescent-lit lobby with a uniformed security guard to knock on this door. Only after the voter assures him she has a ride to the board of elections does Carney move on to his next target.
Fifteen miles to the northeast, Kathy Wheeler, 51, a homemaker from Sharonville, and her 9-year-old daughter, Anne, are going door-to-door on a tidy, tree-lined street of mostly brick, one-story, single-family homes. She offers a softer sell for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in Madeira, a Cincinnati suburb that voted 62 percent for Arizona Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
“We hope we can count on your vote,” Wheeler tells Vicki Strauss, who says she is supporting the former Massachusetts governor. Asked whether she is interested in casting an early ballot, Strauss declines and Wheeler quickly moves on. “I never miss voting on Election Day,” Strauss says.
This is the grind-it-out reality for the Obama and Romney forces as Nov. 6 Election Day approaches in Hamilton County, the third-largest in the state. Former President George W. Bush carried the county by a little more than 20,000 votes in 2004 and Obama won in 2008 by just under 30,000 -- making it the epicenter of a state that may decide the presidential election. Both campaigns are grappling for advantage in turning out supporters and appealing to the sliver of voters who are still undecided and may hold the key to victory -- both here and in the national election.
While neither campaign will reveal the full picture of what it knows about these voters, it’s now possible to purchase databases of consumer information that guide political targeting in the most detailed ways. The statistics include where people shop and buy gas, and even what products, movies and books they enjoy. This adds to the information that campaigns have long collected about whether people are members of a gun- or abortion-rights group; attend church and how often; and whether, how often and for whom they have voted in past elections.
On Nov. 6, both campaigns will use technology-driven systems to track which of their target voters have already cast ballots and who still needs to be prodded to do so -- Romney’s is code-named “ORCA.”
If Obama wins Hamilton County, it will be in large part because of this data-fueled ground game. It melds old-fashioned grassroots organizing with sophisticated targeting, which has allowed his campaign to track, register, persuade and turn out more supporters than his rival.
“It’s a unique county and really a microcosm of the state,” Jeremy Bird, Obama’s national field director who directed the 2008 campaign’s successful Ohio operation, said in an interview at the campaign’s Chicago headquarters. As it did elsewhere across the country, Obama’s team invested early in Hamilton County in field organizers and volunteers on the ground, breaking out neighborhood groups with specific goals for contacting, persuading and getting voters to the polls.
There are eight Obama offices to the Romney campaign’s three. “A strong get-out-the-vote operation is a decentralized one,” said Mitch Stewart, the Obama campaign’s battleground state director. “This electorate is going to look much more like 2008 than it is like 2010, and we’re seeing that in the makeup of the early-vote electorate.”
Romney’s operation is working to match the Obama team’s organizational prowess, arguing that its secret weapon -- raw enthusiasm driven by broad disaffection with the president -- will overcome a structural deficit. Romney and the Republican Party have 40 state offices compared with Obama’s 131 grassroots outposts.
Hamilton County is “the crossroads,” said Romney campaign political director Rich Beeson, where a conservative band of surrounding counties in which the Republican nominee is poised to do well meets an independent population center.
“It is literally door-to-door, person-to-person at this point,” Beeson said. “We’ve got more and better data than we’ve ever had to be able to find these folks and be able to communicate with them on the issues they want to talk about.”
Both campaigns point to early-vote numbers as proof that they are ahead, even though results are difficult to track in a state like Ohio that doesn’t require party registration.
The Romney campaign says it’s cutting into Obama’s 2008 early-vote advantage based on an increased number of people who requested a Republican ballot in a previous primary and have cast early absentee ballots in the general election. Democrats counter that they’re outpacing their 2008 lead, based on the number of early ballots cast by Ohioans who voted in counties and precincts the president won four years ago.
While voters listed on the rolls as Republicans had cast more early absentee ballots than Democrats in Hamilton County through Oct. 31, of the 89,512 early ballots processed so far, 57 percent have come from “unaffiliated” voters, according to a county elections report. There have been almost 1,900 more early ballots cast in Hamilton County so far this year than at the same point in the 2008 election, records show.
Every bit counts in a county as ethnically and politically diverse as Hamilton. It includes a Democratic-leaning urban center, a population that is more than a quarter black, and a Latino population that more than doubled over the last decade; as well as predominantly white, affluent suburbs full of voters who lean Republican. After backing Obama by seven percentage points in 2008, the county broke for Republicans by 18 points in the 2010 midterm congressional elections.
Before Obama’s win four years ago, Hamilton County had been reliably Republican. The county -- home to companies including Procter & Gamble Co., the world’s largest consumer-products maker, and Kroger Co., the largest U.S. grocery chain -- had a 6.4 percent unemployment rate in September, lower than the 7 percent statewide and the 7.8 percent national level. It favored the Democratic nominee only four other times this century: in 1964, 1936, 1932 and 1912.
Republicans say they are trying to turn back the clock organizationally to the campaign they mounted in 2004, when Bush’s ground game was masterminded by Karl Rove, his top political adviser.
“This office was crawling with people with Palm Pilots back in 2004, flushing the vote” for Bush, while McCain had neither the money nor the organization to mount such an effort in 2008, Hamilton County Republican Chairman Alex Triantafilou said at his Cincinnati headquarters.
This year, Romney’s campaign and the Republican Party “tried to bridge that gap and created this better system, so we think ours -- although we had to play catch-up -- is up to speed with” that of the Democrats.
The way Triantafilou sees it, white women gave Obama his victory in Hamilton County in 2008, and Romney will be successful if he captures them this time. “This is your middle-class or upper-middle class, educated Caucasian female, mother, who went to Catholic school” yet may be quietly pro-abortion rights, he said. “That particular voter gave the president a try, and that voter is coming back to the Republican Party.”
The Romney campaign has knocked on 19 times more doors than the McCain campaign did in Ohio in 2008 and has made twice the calls, said Chris Maloney, a Romney spokesman. That includes 135,596 door-knocks and 106,146 calls from the three Hamilton County centers over the last month, he said.
“I don’t think on Election Day you’re going to have any Republicans staying home,” said Scott Jennings, Romney’s Ohio campaign director.
Team Obama doesn’t divulge such statistics, calling them unverifiable, yet points to early-vote results as a sign that its strategy of organizing hyper-local, community-based efforts to reach voters in all 88 Ohio counties is working.
“There are a ton of Democratic votes there, and we put the offices and the staff and the neighborhood teams in place in order to fight for those votes” in southwestern Ohio, said Aaron Pickrell, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign in the state. He said the effort would “continue to drive out every Democratic vote we can.”
Besides the centers run by the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee, the Ohio chapter of the limited-government group Americans for Prosperity -- funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who control the energy conglomerate Koch Industries Inc. -- and the socially conservative activist organization Citizens for Community Values also have rented offices in Hamilton County to stage voter calls and door knocks.
Phil Burress, of Citizens for Community Values, said the technology both campaigns and their supporting outside groups have at their disposal this year is “100 times better” than what he had to work with in 2004.
“I have a database of 8.4 million people in the state of Ohio and I know 300 things about all of them; the scary thing is that the Democrats know 600 things about all of them,” said Burress.
On the Democratic side, organized labor also is targeting both members and working people who don’t belong to unions, aiming to reach 2 million people through door-knocking, leaflets at worksites and phone banks.
“The union vote is probably going to be the thing that pushes this thing over the top” for Obama, says field organizer Charles Johnson, spearheading the effort in Cincinnati.
About 25 black churches in Hamilton County also have arranged buses and vans for a “souls to the polls” program this weekend to transport thousands of voters to ballot boxes, as they did in 2008, said Rousseau O’Neil, pastor of Rockdale Baptist Church in Cincinnati.
Romney’s forces are also encouraging people to vote early, if only to end the constant hounding by the campaign.
“The sooner they commit to vote, the sooner their phone is going to stop ringing and people like me are going to stop knocking on their doors,” Ed O’Donnell, a 64-year-old volunteer preparing to go canvassing from Romney’s Kenwood office, said he tells voters.
Still, holdouts like Mary Beth Sughrue, 51 -- who’s turned down invitations to go canvassing for Obama from one friend, and agonized over whether to don a pink “Romney Ryan” baseball hat given to her by another -- are biding their time.
“I’ve been disappointed in the president, and so I’m just not sure,” said Sughrue of Terrace Park, who works at an upscale boutique and backed Obama in 2008. “I’m not confident that he’ll do anything better the next four years, but when I look at Mitt Romney, I fear a return to the Bush policies.”
Sughrue said she’s screened dozens of Obama campaign phone-calls and hasn’t been contacted by Romney’s operation.
“I’ve listened to the debates, so I know he’s moving to the center, but I still don’t know, is he the more progressive person who was governor of Massachusetts, who I could have supported, or is he this Tea Party person that he has seemed to be more recently?” she said of the Republican. “If I voted for him, it would be a gamble -- it would be a leap of faith, and I don’t know if I’m ready to do that.”
She’ll decide on Election Day.