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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

“The largest field operation in the history of American politics.”
- Boston Globe, July 19, 2008

As August begins, the Obama campaign is nearing completion of its final round field organizer hires. In our last update, we noted the eye-popping plans for Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Iowa. Since then, a patchwork of reports have trickled in about offices and numbers of paid staff expected in several other key states, including Wisconsin, Alaska, Montana, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Understandably, the campaign has been tight-lipped about its exact strategy, though federal campaign finance disclosure requirements will eventually reveal where salaries are going. Since final hires are only now being completed, we should have a good picture of the whole tableau sometime in September after the August filings.

In Alaska, Obama has four field offices open (Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Palmer) to McCain’s none. In Montana, Obama had six offices to McCain’s none in July, with reports that McCain would open five offices by August 1.

In Virginia, Obama has a 20-6 field office edge, with as many as 60 expected to be open in the near future. Via the widely-linked Boston Globe piece from whence the opening quote comes, each of Florida and Pennsylvania Obama is expected to have a minimum of 200 paid organizers.

In Wisconsin, Obama has 15 offices open now, with 24 expected to be open by mid-August. The staffers are directly paid by Obama’s “Campaign for Change” organization. By contrast, Republicans have five party offices open that handle both McCain field work as well as the state leg. races, which somewhat dilutes the effort.

This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s actually a story we’re keeping an eye on. Though our idea about the timetable of campaign ramp-ups has been distorted by this nearly two-year presidential ordeal, most local races and even most congressional races are only barely beginning to coordinate their own field efforts. In this respect, it is unclear on the Obama side how the traditional coordination between presidential race field staff and downballot candidates will be carried off. The traditional vehicle is the coordinated campaign which can be funded by the national committees not subject to the same strict caps on individual contributions. This story will probably ripen post-convention when most of the other local campaigns begin to kick into gear.

As for the Obama-McCain matchup, it’s clear the campaigns are playing a game of chicken. Republicans are confident that no amount of organizing will move states like North Dakota, Alaska and Montana into the Democratic presidential column and that if those states do flip, the issue of winning the national election will be moot anyway. Local articles discussing each campaign’s efforts in the given state tend to be full of quotes from Democrats that the state will be heavily contended and may well flip; Republican counterquotes discuss how “wasteful” (see the Virginia article) the mass field operation reveals the Obama campaign to be and express confidence that nothing will change the inevitable McCain win in the state.

Republicans are banking on the principle that undergirds the Tipping Point states concept – if McCain is losing any of Alaska, North Dakota or Montana, they are losing the overall election (you’ll note that as of today, none of these states are in our top 15 Tipping Point states). Thus, it is rational to not waste resources defending states that will only matter in the event of a McCain loss.

We will keep an eye on the tension between both presidential campaigns and their downballot compatriots. Both dynamics have the potential for tension and discontent, albeit for different reasons. Downballot Democrats may discover that their access to voter files is restricted by an all-Obama controlled organization (as of yet TBD whether this is true) and may have to trustfall that heavy Obama organizing energy is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Downballot Republicans in red states where McCain is playing chicken by not placing field staff may be distressed that they are left exposed to the Democratic energy and heavy registration of new Democratic voters.

Montana will be a very interesting place to watch this downballot contrast play out. As mentioned in the original Brian Schweitzer VP post, the Montana House in 2007 was 51-49 Republican (one Constitution Party member caucuses with Rs) and the state Senate held a 26-24 Democratic edge. Given the term limits kicking in this year, Dems were looking at an uphill battle to retain the split. If Obama’s paid organizers outnumber Republicans in Montana by one of these 10-1 ratios we’re seeing in states like Missouri, even if they don’t directly talk to voters about the local races, the increased number of Democratic voters may overcome the disadvantage it appeared Democrats would face in the state leg. races this cycle.

At the end of the day, this organizing story was why Obama was never, ever going to be vulnerable to superdelegates overturning his pledged delegate win. Red state Democrats have understood that the “focus on a few battleground states and ignore the rest” strategy leaves them in dire straits during national cycle years. Hillary Clinton would have inspired heaviest backlash turnout by the Republican base in precisely these red states, and Clinton’s campaign would not have followed the Obama 50-state strategy.

Though folks like Nate and I spent much energy during the primary explaining why proportional allocation locked in an Obama pledged delegate win by February, fewer observers grasped or were open to seeing the obvious truth that the red state superdelegates saw clearly – an Obama candidacy was going to approach organizing on their home turfs in a diametrically opposite and positive way than Hillary Clinton’s campaign would have. Even if the technical coordination between the Obama staffs and downballot candidates winds up being awkward, awkward big resource effort beats a resource vacuum. There was a 0.0000000% chance the supers would have overturned the pledged outcome for precisely this nuts-and-bolts reason: the largest field operation in the history of American politics was coming down the pike.

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