A month after a campaign shake-up that reshaped John McCain’s field operation, aides to the Republican nominee are touting organizational changes they say are bringing them closer to Barack Obama’s sprawling effort.
McCain staffers concede they’ll never match the depth and breadth of Obama. And given the head start the Arizona senator enjoyed upon winning the nomination in early March, these are improvements that should have been in place months ago instead of weeks before the GOP convention. Still, the McCain campaign is pointing to a series of metrics they say represent marked progress in an operation that many Republicans had grumbled about this spring.
McCain’s state-by-state effort was originally overseen by 11 Regional Campaign Managers in the field, each granted near-total autonomy over the efforts in their region.
But upon taking over day-to-day control of the campaign in early July, Steve Schmidt moved quickly to centralize authority by installing a political director and field director in the campaign’s national headquarters.
“I recognize that they will have more staff, more offices and more money,” said Mike DuHaime, the political director who was brought over from his advisory role with the Republican National Committee. “But we have staff and volunteers who are battle-tested.”
Since taking over the field operation, DuHaime has instituted strict accountability measures reminiscent of those demanded by the taskmasters at the helm of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.
Each Friday, the 11 regional directors file a detailed report to DuHaime with precise numbers such as how many voters were contacted in their states that week and how many county and precinct chairs were added. Then, on Saturday morning, DuHaime holds a conference call with the 11 as well as with top RNC aides and the state directors.
As a result, productivity has increased, DuHaime said.
A month ago, McCain’s campaign made a combined 20,000 phone calls and door-knocks. Last week, they made 324,000 – a sixteen-fold increase.
McCain also now boasts county chairs in 98% of targeted counties in targeted states and 94% of all counties in targeted states.
DuHaime listed 19 targeted states: Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
In these, targeted counties are those that are either population centers, historically competitive areas or locales that offer new opportunities because of McCain strengths or Obama weaknesses.
McCain’s political operation is also now building at the precinct-level. DuHaime said they have “a few thousand” precinct captains and would have “thousands more” soon.
After delays that frustrated many in the top levels of the party, the campaign is now quickly shoring up its infrastructure, as well.
DuHaime said that, along with the RNC’s Victory operation, they had 130 offices in their targeted states and 300 paid staffers in the field between the campaign and party committee.
Additionally, some states that are not top-tier targets have been given office facilities where volunteers can help make phone calls to more competitive states. In Boston, for example, there is an active group of phone-bankers that dial long-distance into the battleground states. The campaign will also open a Utah office as a hub for deploying volunteers to neighboring states likely to be in play. All told, there are now 189 offices open between the campaign and party.
As part of the increase in accountability, McCain’s campaign is taking advantage of technology that was not used in 2004.
They have 1,500 Voice-Over Internet Protocol-equipped (VOIP) phones in the field which allow them to track exactly how many calls are being made and, with touchtone technology, what exactly the results are.
With VOIP, voter contact is close to verifiable and, with the results plugged into a comprehensive voter file, the campaign can better microtarget its mail campaign.
If, for example, a voter is revealed to be a veteran or has a particular interest in an issue like abortion, that is logged into the system and the mail they receive this fall will be tailored to that preference.
On top of these efforts, DuHaime notes that his field operation has extensive get-out-the-vote experience.
In quadrenially-competitive Ohio, he notes, the top four aides on the ground from the campaign and RNC all have experience in the party’s vaunted 72-hour turnout program.
The increased centralization has come with a price, though.
The original purpose behind empowering the regional managers was to make for a more nimble and responsive campaign on the ground. Now there is less delegated responsibility, leading at least one GOP state chair to complain about the lack of latitude granted to staffers in the field.
In purely organizational terms, McCain still lags far behind Obama.
Told of McCain’s reported improvements and asked for their own metrics, a top Obama campaign aide demurred.
“We just don’t put those numbers out,” said Steve Hildebrand, the Democrat’s deputy campaign manager. “Frankly we don’t need to. They’re the ones that have to prove themselves.”
While McCain’s campaign lists a number of battleground states won by John Kerry in 2004 among their targets, Obama has a much more ambitious plan that includes competing in some Bush states that not so long ago would have unthinkable for a Democratic nominee."
In addition to the just-barely-red Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio and Nevada, Obama is playing hard in Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, Georgia and Alaska.
Thanks to a prolonged primary that reached all 50 states, Obama’s campaign structure is far more mature than McCain. Instead of using traditional precinct captains, they are relying upon “neighborhood team leaders.” These consist of between half-dozen to a dozen people over four-to-six precincts.
Hildebrand wouldn’t quantify how many they have in place, but said it was “already tens of thousands.” A primary focus of their summer organizational efforts, he said, is putting more of these volunteers in place.
He said they use similar voter contact technology as McCain and that results are plugged in and checked daily.
And instead of weekly reports, Hildebrand gets a spreadsheet at 7:30 each morning from his state directors tallying the previous day’s results on the number of voters registered and contacted.
Told of the combined 130 offices between McCain and the RNC, Hildebrand declined to share how many they had but allowed it was at least “three times” that.
The key question, Hildebrand said, is how are Republicans compensating for their diminished registration numbers.
He noted the increased number of Democrats, citing a net gain of 300,000 in Pennsylvania, a state McCain’s campaign is working hard to peel away from the Democrats.