Years of hard work, billions of dollars' worth of spending, and an incalculable amount of rhetorical grandstanding will face the ultimate political test tomorrow, when millions of Americans head to the polls to select the future president of the United States. The race, however, is far from over: In the final hours of the 2012 campaign, both sides continue to furiously pound the pavement in battleground states across the country, aggressively pursuing the sliver of unpersuaded, unenthusiastic, or otherwise available voters who could decide the outcome of the presidency.
This year, as every election, both campaigns will deploy thousands of volunteers on Election Day and the 72 hours prior to get in touch with voters and try to convince them to turn out on November 6. But for both President Obama's campaign and the Republican National Committee, which is helming Mitt Romney's ground game, the get out the vote effort will have started far before then.
The impact of the early vote
In 2008, the Obama campaign dominated early voting to such an extent that in some critical battleground states - including Florida and North Carolina - he was able to clinch a victory despite Republican John McCain outpolling him among those who voted on Election Day. This time around, Republicans are determined not to let that happen again: The RNC is touting an aggressive early voting program that they say parallels that of the famously well-organized Obama campaign. As a result, both sides have effectively been working their get out the vote efforts for a month.
"People used to call it the final 72 hours. Now that early voting is so prevalent, it's become a much longer get-out-the-vote effort," said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokesperson for the RNC. "In some states, it's been going on for several weeks."
Adds an Obama campaign official: "Every day has been get-out-the-vote for us in those states that allow in-person early voting. We're basically under the operating assumption that every day that we can undertake as robust a get-out-the-vote as possible, we're going to do that."
The benefit of strong early voting numbers is that it essentially extends the timeline of a campaign's get-out-the-vote effort, and allows campaigns to cross known early voters off their list of targets and zero in on those they have yet to reach. That means that, if they've done a good job, by Election Day they'll have a smaller and more focused group of voters to contact.
"Early voting is a boon to campaigns not because it represents in and of itself a way to increase turnout, but because it allows campaigns to allocate their resources more efficiently," said Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University who specializes in voting behavior. "If a substantial number of people vote early, those people need not be targeted with resources thereafter. The potential list of targets will be shorter."
Not only that, but targeting certain groups for pre-Election Day voting enables campaigns to concentrate their day-of efforts geographically as well. This may be particularly true for Democrats, many of whom are geographically clustered in urban areas, according to Green.
"If you can get more affluent people, who are more geographically dispersed, to mail in ballots earlier, then you can focus your more geographically concentrated efforts on low-income and minority populations," he said.
The GOP ups its game
Regardless of how early voting may help campaigns streamline their efforts on Election Day and the hours immediately beforehand, there's no question that day-of get out the vote efforts remain as critical as ever - particularly in an election that's being billed as nail-bitingly close.
As with early voting, Republicans this year were dead-set on improving their turnout numbers from 2008, when President Obama swept even traditionally Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina.
"We started the ground game before we even had a nominee," said Kukowski. "We said, this is something that we're going to do. We're not going to make this mistake again; we're going tot have a ground game in place very early."
In order to get a head-start on the process, she said, the RNC opened up "victory offices" in battleground states in the spring, and the Romney campaign "moved in with us" once he was officially nominated.
According to Kukowski, these last few days of the GOP get-out-the-vote effort is the final leg of a process that's been in the works for months. In the summer, the campaign was in what it called its "identification phase," where it culled the list of targeted voters. Then they moved on to the early voting stage of get-out-the-vote, which involved "super Saturdays" aimed at reaching ever-increasing voter contact goals. All of that, she said, got the party into "fighting shape" for right now, when they'll be aggressively targeting the "low-propensity" voters they've been contacting for months.
"These people have heard from us, and they're going to hear from us several more times over the next few days. Between knocking on their door and making phone calls, you're recirculating them into the universe and you're contacting them again and again."
Kukowski says that between door knocks and phone calls, the campaign had made over 51 million voter contacts as of Friday. Between Saturday and the end of Election Day, they would have made four million phone calls, knocked on two million doors, and deployed 150,000 volunteers. The RNC is particularly confident in its presence in critical states like Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, as well as Wisconsin, where a strong ground game recently helped Governor Scott Walker defeat a recall election.
"On Election Day alone we estimate about two million contacts," Kukowski said. "When we're talking to the voters... they know that if they need a ride that we will provide. There is a process in place to get anybody that needs to get to the polls to the polls."
"A ground game unlike anything American politics has ever seen"?
Despite any gains in the Republican ground game, Democrats flat-out reject the notion that the RNC-Romney efforts could anywhere mirror the organization and infrastructure they say they've been building for years. In a conference call on Saturday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said that, as of the weekend, the campaign had begun to execute "the final phase of a ground game unlike anything American politics has ever seen."
If both campaigns are touting accurate contact numbers, the Obama campaign is indeed leading the Romney camp by a hefty margin on that count: Messina said that as of this weekend, Obama campaign volunteers have made personal contact with more than 125 million voters. (The RNC told Politico that includes unsuccessful contact attempts, such as unanswered phone calls and door knocks, in its voter contact estimate; the Obama campaign does not.)
But the Obama team stresses that, for all its impressive voter outreach stats, it's the quality, not the quantity, of contact that matters. For that reason, according to campaign officials, they've implemented a hyper-localized system in battleground states wherein volunteers work out of "staging locations," which are meant to be like smaller, super-localized field offices. The idea is that volunteers work in or near their own neighborhoods, in familiar communities, and know not only who is an undecided voter, but what issue he or she cares about most. According to the campaign, there are more than 5,000 staging locations across the battleground states, and volunteers have signed up for nearly 700,000 shifts of get out the vote efforts.
"Of course we're offering rides to the polls... of course we're making phone calls throughout the day and crossing names off our list," said the Obama campaign official. "But the advantage that we have is that hyper local approach. We know the people who will need that extra push."
The Obama campaign also touts individualized digital advertising - among which include the handful of quirky celebrity endorsements it's released on the web, most recently that of comedian Will Ferrell - smart advertising, and targeted follow-ups.
"We've built our get out the vote effort for years and it's running at full-speed today," said Jeremy Bird, on the weekend conference call. "It's the reason that President Obama will be re-elected."
The big question mark is the extent to which both campaigns are being realistic about their achievements. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a series of flawed but seemingly routine get out the vote efforts by both campaigns, and some of the Obama campaign's newest methodology has yet to be tested in a presidential election.
The RNC, for one, was particularly suspicious of the Obama campaign's assertions.
"Color us skeptical," said Kukowski, in an email blast addressing the Obama campaign's claims that it had personally contacted 125 million voters.
Ultimately, says Green, whichever party is bluffing will be revealed on election night - and not before.
"It's always unclear how much enthusiasm there actually is," he said. Nevertheless, the victorious party will almost certainly guide how all campaigns shape their efforts going forward.
"It's not just a fad to get out the vote that nobody knows how to do. It's actually a relatively well-established cause and effect relationship," he said. "There's a science to it."