As the presidential election heads into its final days, the most important decision strategists in both campaigns are making is where to send the candidate. There is no more precious resource: Every visit initiates a multilevel strategy to capture votes, voter information, and volunteers who can be squeezed for one more hour of effort.
In this final stretch, the size of crowds at rallies can reach into the tens of thousands. The candidate's pitch is more urgent: What voters choose to do with their ballots will change the course of the nation. But beneath that vast sweeping feeling of history is an intense and focused game of gathering and sifting. To most of us, the attendees at a rally look like an undifferentiated blanket of people, but to those working the political ground game, it is a pixelated assortment of uncollected cellphone numbers, hands to work the phone banks, and sturdy legs to walk neighborhoods. In states with early voting, the people a candidate draws to a rally are fresh meat to be cajoled onto a bus and taken to a polling place. "How about we get in our car, vote early, and bank our votes," said Sen. Rob Portman Thursday morning in Cincinnati, "so that on Election Day we can make sure other people get out and vote."
In this process, the candidate is the flypaper. Before Barack Obama or Mitt Romney visit a town, their campaigns email supporters and targeted undecided voters. At a minimum, their teams will obtain a piece of private information, perhaps a cellphone number, that can be used to encourage someone to vote. Even better is if they can score a commitment from someone to vote early. Best of all is if they can obtain a promise from that voter to volunteer for the campaign, thereby adding another foot soldier to the cause.
The ticket to see the candidate is the bait. Voters can get them at the local campaign office. Once inside, a volunteer takes down as much information as possible and tries to secure those commitments for future volunteering. Campaigns are consumed with the idea that individual voters are motivated by community contact. Neighbor-to-neighbor appeals work the best. A campaign outpost in the neighborhood is effective because a voter is handed a ticket by someone who looks like them or shares their experiences. That is why the number of offices in a state can matter. (In Ohio, the Obama team has more than 120; Romney has about 40.) They expand a campaign's ability to make neighborhood connections.