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Ground game key for candidates

Campaigns recognize value of face-to-face conversations

– On opposite sides of Mentor Boulevard, volunteers assembled in their windbreakers and walking shoes: Another day in the grueling, months-long effort to register, organize, motivate and otherwise cajole the voters who will decide the 2012 election was under way.

In a strip-mall campaign office that opened in April next to Ace Cash Loans, 12 Obama canvassers – mostly middle-aged and retired women – rehearsed door-knocking pitches on Saturday morning.

“Tell your own personal story … ,” a paid staffer from New Jersey was urging them. “It comes across if you’re speaking from the heart.”

A handwritten sign taped to a wall described their goal: 1,200 doors this weekend.

Across the boulevard, 10 Romney volunteers – mostly young or retired men – went over door-to-door scripts inside a GOP “victory center” that opened in July.

“You’ll see you ask this first question, ‘Can we count on your support?’ ” explained a campaign staffer. “If they say ‘yes,’ then you go into the next question about absentee ballots.”

Their weekend motto was scrawled on a whiteboard: “38 days until election day!”

Glenn Heffner, a retiree and top Romney door knocker in Ohio, got in his battered Lexus. Within shouting distance across the road, Sue Stromberg, who wore out a pair of shoes for Obama in 2008, had already cranked up her Saturn sedan.

At this moment in the campaign, their objectives were similar: With early voting kicking off in Ohio on Tuesday, they were both trying to convince voters leaning their way to start casting ballots.

By 10 a.m., they were heading out into the often-lonely suburban battlefield of craggy sidewalks, vinyl-sided split levels and barking dogs.

A day with Romney and Obama canvassers in this hotly-contested area of northeastern Ohio provides a snapshot of what both campaigns cast as the most critical piece of their White House bids: the volunteer-driven, pavement-pounding grind known as the ground game.

With millions of dollars being poured into TV advertising, social media and other high-tech strategies, both campaigns say that they are more convinced than ever that face-to-face conversations are by far the most effective form of contact with voters, and nowhere are those efforts more robust than in crucial swing states such as Ohio.

In the case of the Obama campaign, officials say they are mostly dusting off the 2008 playbook, turning into standard practice tactics considered revolutionary four year ago. They are rebuilding networks of “neighborhood leaders” who organize their ZIP codes, a system bolstered by vast voter databases.

“There’s really no need to mess with success,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern.

Their Ohio operation: nearly 120 brick-and-mortar offices across the state with at least 600 paid staffers working with thousands of volunteers who’ve been phone banking since late last year and door knocking since April, according to Redfern.

Their Mentor Boulevard operation is a long table strewn with hand sanitizer, spare reading glasses and 20 cellphones for phone banking. The walls are plastered with Obama posters and others outlining neighborhood team events and the organizing mantra: “empower, include, win.”

At the Romney campaign, officials say they are placing a much-stronger emphasis on door knocking than phone calling this time, an effort driven by what they describe as an unprecedented quantity and quality of data.

Rich Beeson, the campaign’s political director, said that the ground operation, in turn, is heavily focused at the moment on “low-propensity” voters – those identified as solid Republicans but who don’t always vote. The goal of door knockers is to encourage them to vote early – to mail in an absentee ballot or apply for one.

“Nationwide, we’ve already knocked on 2 million more doors than we knocked on in 2008,” Beeson said. “We consider door knocks the purest form of voter contact. Ohio week in and week out leads in the metrics we lay out and nationwide.”

The Ohio operation, with more than 40 offices deploying thousands of volunteers, hit 137,000 doors across the state last week alone, campaign officials said.

The Mentor Boulevard operation has 12 black phones set on four white folding tables, with two more phones being unpacked from cardboard boxes this morning. The walls are covered with uniform rows of “Romney-Believe” posters and others of state candidates.

“In all our polling, public and private, we are matching them in terms of the number of people who say they’ve heard from both campaigns,” Beeson said. “That tells me that the quality of our data and voter contact program is just as powerful as their offices and staff.”

Romney officials roll their eyes at the idea that the Obama team revolutionized grass-roots organizing.

“Don’t forget, in 2004 we had the largest ground operation in American history,” Beeson said, referring to George W. Bush’s successful re-election bid.

Obama campaign officials scoff at the notion that the GOP camp could possibly be matching them door for door. “I find it hard to believe that a party in disarray just a few months ago about who should be their leader is now knocking on 137,000 doors a week,” Redfern said.

Meanwhile, thousands of volunteers know the cold hard truth: They, on average, have to knock on 10 doors to reach just one or two voters.

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