Four years ago, Barack Obama built the largest grassroots organization in the history of American politics. After the election, he never stopped building, and the current operation, six years in the making, makes 2008 look like "amateur ball," in the words of Obama's national field director Jeremy Bird. Republicans insist they, too, have come a long way in the last four years. But despite the GOP's spin to the contrary, there's little reason to believe Romney commands anything comparable to Obama's ground operation.
And this time, Obama may actually need it.
Though he trounced John McCain organizationally four years ago, the irony was that Obama didn't really need his sophisticated field organization. Riding a wave of voter enthusiasm and Bush fatigue, and crushing McCain with fundraising and TV ad spending, Obama almost certainly would have won the 2008 election anyway. The political operative's rule of thumb is that organization can increase your share of the vote by two percentage points; Obama won the national popular vote by seven points. One academic study looked at Obama's edge in field offices and concluded they probably put a couple of extra states in his column, but he would have won without them.
This year is different. The polls are so close that a lively partisan meta-fight has broken out over which side actually has the upper hand going into the final stretch, with Romney claiming momentum is on his side, while Obama clings to slim leads in enough swing states to take the Electoral College. In an election that's tied in the polls going down to the wire, Obama's ground game could be crucial.
In the closing days of the race, "we have two jobs," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Tuesday. "One, to persuade the undecideds, and two, to turn our voters out." The former is the job of the president and his TV and other media ads. As for the latter, "That's the grassroots operation we've been building for the last 18 months."
I've said all along that this election will come down to turnout, turnout, turnout. Molly Ball agrees. I'm putting my money on OFA making the difference in Ohio, Virginia and Colorado to get the win.