In the Midst of History: The Ground Game in Ohio
Adam Carrington, James Kresge
April 1, 2005
Adam Carrington and James Kresge, both Ashbrook Scholars, served as unpaid interns for the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign in Ohio during the summer of 2004. As their internships were coming to an end, the campaign asked them to stay on and become paid employees of the campaign through Election Day. What follows are their observations and experiences during their six months with the campaign:
We walked into the Bush/Cheney Headquarters in Columbus on May 10, 2004, to begin our summer internship, and the tension in the air was palpable. Ohio was projected as the swing state that would determine the election. The 13 paid staffers at Bush/Cheney Ohio were tasked with building the largest grassroots organization Ohio and the nation had ever seen. The countdown on the wall said there were 177 days until the election, but it seemed like not a day could be wasted — there was too much to do. Our first jobs included answering the phone and entering volunteer information into the databases. As time went on, we were promoted to taking lunch orders. We eventually received battlefield promotions to paid personnel, joining the dozens of staffers tasked with winning Ohio for the President. This was to be a campaign unlike any before it, and we stood at ground zero.
Those differences separating this campaign from all previous campaigns sprung from two main impetuses: the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform and the 2000 election. In 2000 and before, the Republicans’ strategy for capturing the White House was to compile an immense war chest of campaign funds. These funds would then be funneled into a blitz of television and radio commercials which then comprised the main effort of GOP campaigning. The result was near disaster for the GOP. Republicans were forced to helplessly watch their candidate’s supposed five to seven point lead not only evaporate, but morph into a 500,000 vote deficit.
The reason for such an amazing turn-around was that the Democrats and their allies had mounted an amazing and devastatingly effective get-out-the-vote effort. The GOP’s get-out-the-vote attempts were, by comparison, not even worth noting.
Republicans were now faced with the fact that the old strategy’s time had passed. Republicans would have to develop a ground game as effective, if not moreso, than those Democrats and their allies had so skillfully employed. Republicans had to get into the business of personalized politics.
With this in mind, the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign was built around the concept of personal contact. Everything was geared around one human being talking to another, be it by telephone or in person. Along the same lines, every facet of the campaign was almost singularly focused on organizing and developing the ground game. Nowhere was this more true than in Ohio.
The campaign itself seemed to have three distinct elements: there was the official Bush/Cheney campaign, which worked directly for the President, and there were two organizations which worked out of the Ohio Republican Party, known as the "72-Hour" and the "Victory" programs. All of these organizations worked together to re-elect the President. The "72 Hour" program was the direct answer to the GOP’s need to strengthen its get-out-the-vote efforts. The name originated from the three days leading up to the election, which many consider to be an election’s most crucial moments. The program was designed to work in this manner. First, supporters for a candidate needed to be identified beforehand. This was done through extensive phone banks and door-to-door efforts in the weeks and months leading up to the election. Once identified, efforts were concentrated on a blitz of phone calls and door-knocking beginning the Friday before the election and going non-stop until the polls closed. This was in essence what the entire ground game sought to do. In an election with so few undecided voters, this getting out the vote became the ultimate tiebreaker. The program had actually first been utilized on a small scale in the 2002 mid-term elections. However, the 2004 campaign would be the first time the program had been tested on a national scale. The Victory Program was run by the Ohio Republican Party and became the war chest of the Ohio campaign.
The campaign divided the state of Ohio into nine regions, each of which was assigned a "field representative" from the Bush/Cheney campaign as well as at least one if not multiple "72 Hour" coordinators. These were the individuals who actually organized and ran the ground game across the state. Below these representatives, each of the state’s 88 counties had a Bush/Cheney chairman who oversaw the ground game in his or her respective county. The ground game was organized even down to the precinct level. Ohio contains over 18,000 precincts. By the end of the summer, every precinct in the state had a chairperson. In 2000, no organized effort was made at the precinct level.
The precinct level organization required for the grassroots campaign needed a massive amount of logistical support work. This ranged from field representatives making hundreds of phone calls attempting to recruit precinct chairs to an 18,000 piece customized letter from the campaign to every precinct chair. This letter gave each individual precinct chair a vote goal, a registration goal, and a volunteer goal for their precinct. Every precinct had marching orders.
Within the nine regions, the campaign had designated 31 "targeted" counties. These counties were chosen in large part due to the hefty number of votes the President could receive from them. These, of course, included the counties containing major cities. Yet there were many rural counties included as well. These counties, though they did not have as many votes as their urban brethren, had voted by substantial margins for President Bush in 2000. It was in these "targeted" counties that the most concerted phone banking and door knocking occurred.
This process reveals another difference between this campaign and previous ones. Before, campaigns had focused mainly on those counties with large populations, paying little attention to the smaller, more rural areas. This time, each and every county was brought into the system and organized. We, in fact, met with considerable resistance from many of the rural counties. These areas were used to their own systems and were not at first inclined to change their methods. In addition, our campaign was very demanding and expected much to be accomplished. Despite this initial resistance, in the end it was these very counties that swung the state in our favor.
One of our first direct experiences with the ground game came at the beginning of June. The state campaign was organizing its first statewide ground effort, titled "Test Drive for W." This would be the first time the campaign made a concerted attempt at making phone calls and knocking on doors. Beginning Saturday across the state, volunteers would walk door-to-door, then spend the following Monday through Thursday making phone calls. Our first task was to recruit volunteers for these door-to-door and phone bank efforts. We used a database in which we had the phone numbers and addresses for the persons who had expressed interest in volunteering for the President. This information was compiled at campaign events as well as through the Internet. We both recall spending multiple evenings calling through pages and pages of volunteers, trying to recruit walkers and callers. The "Test Drive," based solely on numbers, was not much of a success. The two of us went to Greene County, close to Dayton, for the "Test Drive." Due to poor weather, less than a third of the people who had been scheduled to walk door-to-door actually came. The two of us eventually struck out on our own, armed with a list of addresses and a less-than-perfect map. We met all kinds of people, including an elderly gentleman who answered our survey while trying to get his weed-eater to start. At that point in the campaign, most people were more concerned with trimming weeds than picking a President. However, the "Test Drive" ended up being a success through failure because it revealed 5 months in advance the problems and challenges of running a statewide grassroots campaign. The "Test Drive" allowed us to make our mistakes in June instead of October.
The "Test Drive for W" effort began in earnest a five-month effort to both organize and strengthen the ground game in preparation for the last five days. It also began identifying supporters of the President. As was previously stated, the goal was not just to make person-to-person contact, but also to tailor the message to specific constituencies. We had scripts for social conservatives that touted President Bush’s opposition to partial-birth abortion and his defense of traditional marriage. These scripts were especially effective in socially conservative rural counties. There were scripts lauding the President for his tax cuts, others for his strong leadership in the War on Terror. These efforts proved to be very effective. By the beginning of the Republican National Convention, Ohio volunteers had made over two million phone calls and knocked on over 75,000 doors.
We also experienced great success with a series of "Parties for the President." These small, personal gatherings were a campaign trademark. People went online and signed up to host a party. They then were sent a packet of supplies for their party, including personal postcards which guests filled out and mailed to unregistered neighbors. The parties culminated with a conference call where all the parties across the country heard from a distinguished guest. Vice President Cheney spoke during the first party. Laura Bush spoke during the second party, and she was joined by a special, unplanned guest. Mrs. Bush was wrapping up the call when she said, "Oh, someone wants to say hi." The President then picked up the phone and spoke to thousands of parties across the nation urging them to get out and work in the grassroots organization. This moment epitomized the personal contact the campaign thrived on.
As was alluded to earlier, the emphasis on personal contact led to an unprecedented push in rural counties. Rural areas proved crucial because the President lost every single urban county in the state of Ohio except for the conservative stronghold of Cincinnati. Even there he only won by the relatively slim margin of 20,000 votes. How then did he manage to win the state by 118,000 votes? The answer goes to the heart of the 2004 election and the much-publicized Red State/Blue State divide. The overlooked rural areas of the state and new suburban counties came out en masse for the president. These people had a love of President Bush equal to or surpassing the hatred of him felt by urban liberals. We experienced this passionate love for the President first-hand at many of the rallies we worked across the state. One vivid memory is a rally we held in the little town of Cambridge in Guernsey County in rural Eastern Ohio. Ticket distribution was scheduled to start Wednesday evening. We pulled into the town square over an hour before tickets were supposed to be handed out, and a line leading to the ticket distribution center stretched around the block. The lines continued unabated for the next two days. Saturday turned out to be a miserable rainy day, yet at 7:00 A.M, hours before the doors were scheduled to open, people began to line up for admission. The line waiting to pass through security stretched on for over a mile. In the end, there were 13,500 soaking-wet people packed onto a soggy baseball field. The rain did not, however, dampen their spirits. After hours of waiting, the President pulled up in his campaign bus. When he took the podium, the crowd went crazy like fans at a championship game. Love is stronger than hate, and in the end, the love these people had for President Bush translated into the first organized grassroots campaign in many rural counties. The passion of the people of Guernsey County illustrates why on Election Day hundreds of thousands of rural people turned out to vote for President Bush.
As previously mentioned, efforts to organize and enhance the ground game permeated every facet of the campaign. Whenever the President, Vice-President, or First Lady made a campaign stop in Ohio, the event was used to build up the ground game. There were ample opportunities to do so as we witnessed the President draw massive crowds across the state. He packed Nationwide Arena in Columbus twice, drew a crowd of over 23,000 to the little Miami Valley town of Troy, and packed a field in the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester with 55,000 eager supporters. As people stood in line to get into the event, we had volunteers go up and down the lines, signing people up for "Parties for the President" and for the "72 Hour Program." Others, eager to get a better ticket, would do phone banks before the event. Before the President’s visit to West Chester, phone bankers made 7,000 phone calls. The rallies were designed to invigorate the Republican base in Ohio. People walked out of rallies chomping at the bit for a chance to help, translating into even more volunteers. For example, at the West Chester rally alone, 450 people signed up for the "72 Hour" program.
Our jobs as event coordinators placed us in the middle of all of these events, making us feel as though we were in the middle of a hurricane. Whenever the President, Vice-President, or First Lady came to campaign in Ohio, we were there. With Ohio being target number one, this meant a constant barrage of visits. On one occasion, I (Adam) was working an event in Canton, Ohio. It was late October, and the race was as tight as it could be. The President was to be there that afternoon and I was running around trying to organize volunteers and get speakers in place. My phone rang (as it seemed to never stop doing), but this call took my attention. It was a person from Karl Rove’s office. Mr. Rove was to do an interview after the President’s arrival and I was to staff him for that time period. Though excited by the opportunity, my attention was quickly diverted back to preparations for the event. After much work, the pre-program had been completed and the President had arrived. As I waited for him to take the stage, my phone rang for what seemed the thousandth time. I answered with my usual, "This is Adam." The reply came back, "Hi, Adam. This is Karl Rove. I understand you’ll be staffing me today."
At that moment I thought I would fall over. I stammered through a reply with as much composure as I could muster. I then made my way as quickly as possible backstage to meet him. My heart raced. Karl Rove was every bit as much of a myth as he was a man on the campaign. He was the Socrates, the Oracle at Delphi, the Architect; and I was about to be his right-hand man, if only for a few moments. What I met when I arrived backstage was not what I had expected. Far from a serious, brooding genius, Mr. Rove was backstage cracking jokes to the First Family and any Secret Service agent within ear-shot. The humor was pure slap-stick, akin to Jerry Lewis in his hey-day. Seeing Mr. Rove’s demeanor immediately calmed my nerves and slowed my racing pulse.
Later, on Election Day, President Bush visited our state campaign headquarters. Among his entourage was Mr. Rove. As he introduced himself to those in the office, he stopped when he came to me. "Hey, I remember you." I felt like I could touch the sky.
After months of preparation, at 5 p.m. on the Thursday before the election, the "72 Hour" program kicked into high gear. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and from 9 a.m. until the polls closed on Election Day, thousands of volunteers called voters and knocked on doors. At the Columbus office, 50 people showed up unscheduled to volunteer in addition to those with assigned shifts. Armies of 15-passenger vans carried volunteers to designated precincts to knock on doors. Having identified many supporters, minimal effort was wasted on persons who we knew would not vote for the President. Instead, the months of calls and knocking gave us an ample list of supporters and undecided voters upon whom we could concentrate. All of the planning and preparation paid off; the endeavor ran like a well-oiled machine.
The results of the grassroots campaign were truly incredible. In the last 72 hours, the Ohio campaign made 1.7 million personal phone calls, knocked on 761,000 doors, and marshaled an army of over 36,000 volunteers. During the campaign in Ohio, over 50,000 volunteers called 3.9 million people and knocked on 1.1 million doors. This compares to a paltry 600,000 phone calls during the entire 2000 campaign. The Republican ground game had come a long way.
The millions of phone calls and hundreds of thousands of door knocks would have been in vain if President Bush was not an effective campaigner himself. Fortunately, the President thrived on the personal connection with average citizens he was able to make at rallies. Among the President’s strengths are his superb people skills. He is able to make everyone he meets feel completely at ease, and he has an amazing ability to easily and quickly connect with people. We always saw these traits at rallies we worked. I (James) experienced this first hand at a rally in Findlay during the last week of the campaign. I was standing in the receiving tent as the President arrived. He jumped out of his armored Presidential Suburban and enthusiastically began shaking hands and chatting with the line of local politicians and campaign workers. I was standing off to the corner but as the President walked by he turned to look directly at me and gave me a smile and wink. It was a small gesture, but I was blown away that the President of the United States took the time to recognize me, a low-level staffer in his vast re-election campaign.
After the event, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the President by the White House lead for the event. The President thanked me for my hard work. As he was leaving I patted him on the back and said, "Don’t worry Mr. President. We’re going to win Ohio." He turned and smiled, and said, "I think so, too."
What was truly revolutionary about the 2004 Presidential Election was not the methods utilized, but the manner in which they were used. The difference, to be exact, was a matter of emphasis. The amount of time and resources placed into the ground game has rewritten the rulebook for American political races. Never again will a serious candidate for the nation’s highest office run on merely fundraising and television commercials. The "new normal" of the political landscape will force presidential candidates to engage in a ground war that is ever-more elongated and ever-more complex. With ever-improving technology, politics will become ever-more personalized. Ohio’s campaign will be looked to as the example, the standard by which future campaigns will be conducted.
Working on the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign was the experience of a lifetime. Those six months were a time that we will never forget. In the midst of our work, we found our passion, a passion for this country and the freedom for which it stands. In this campaign, we stopped being passive observers of history and became active participants. We stood in the midst of history and added our own, if small, chapter.
Adam Carrington is a sophomore Ashbrook Scholar from Wheelersburg, Ohio. James Kresge is a sophomore Ashbrook Scholar from Galena, Ohio.