The decision to finance a final advertising push is forcing McCain to curtail spending on Election Day ground forces to help usher his supporters to the polls, according to Republican consultants familiar with McCain's strategy.
The vaunted, 72-hour plan that President Bush used to mobilize voters in 2000 and 2004 has been scaled back for McCain. He has spent half as much as Obama on staffing and has opened far fewer field offices. This week, a number of veteran GOP operatives who orchestrate door-to-door efforts to get voters to the polls were told they should not expect to receive plane tickets, rental cars or hotel rooms from the campaign.
"The desire for parity on television comes at the expense of investment in paid boots on the ground," said one top Republican strategist who has been privy to McCain's plans. "The folks who will oversee the volunteer operation have been told to get out into the field on their own nickel."
The busiest McCain office we saw was in Arlington, at the national HQ, but tight security prevented us from getting any pictures. Ironically, that was our first full office, in our 11th battleground state.
Offices in Troy, Ohio were closed on Saturday October 11. With perfect coincidental timing, two elderly women dropped by to volunteer but found the office shut. At Republican state headquarters in Columbus later the same day, one lonely dialer sat in a sea of unoccupied chairs. In Des Moines on September 25, another empty office. In Santa Fe on September 17, one dialer made calls while six chatted amongst themselves about how they didn't like Obama. In Raleigh this past Saturday, ten days before the election with early voting already open, two women dialed and a male staffer watched the Georgia-LSU game. In Durango, Colorado on September 20, the Republican office was locked and closed. Indiana didn't have McCain Victory offices when we were there in early October.
When the offices are open, they have reduced hours. We can confidently plan to get evening good-light photographs of a town after we visit the local McCain office, because we know it will be closing by 5 pm, as the office in Wilmington, North Carolina was this past Sunday. The plan is, get to inevitably closed/closing McCain office, get an hour of photos near sunset, then visit the bustling local Obama office.
In Cortez, CO, we had Republican volunteers pose for action-shot photos. The same in Española, New Mexico. Posed. For some time at the outset, we were willing to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt. They convinced us they were really working, and that we had just had unfortunate timing. It wasn't until the pattern of "just missed it" started to sound like a drumbeat in our ears that we began to grow skeptical. We never "just missed" any of the Obama volunteer work, because it goes on nonstop, every day, in every office, in every corner of America.
We found scattered nuggets of activity. Colorado Springs, Colorado held eight dialers and two front office volunteers. Albemarle County, Virginia had a busy office of 15 volunteers, and we reported that. Last night in Tampa, nine phonebankers were busy dialing at the Republican Party of Florida Hillsborough County HQ when we arrived at 8:00 pm. Seven dialers sat in McCain's Hickory, North Carolina office this past Saturday afternoon.
Those offices seemed busy to us, naturally, because they were explosively full relative to other offices we've stopped in on. But even the Colorado Springs office was dwarfed by the Obama Colorado Springs operation.
These ground campaigns do not bear any relationship to one another. One side has something in the neighborhood of five million volunteers all assigned to very clear and specific pieces of the operation, and the other seems to have something like a thousand volunteers scattered throughout the country. Jon Tester's 2006 Senate race in Montana had more volunteers -- by a mile -- than John McCain's 2006 presidential campaign.
When Republican volunteers talk to us about how much enthusiasm and participation they notice in fellow volunteers, they mention how many people have come to pick up yard signs or bumper stickers. We haven't yet seen a single Republican canvasser. (The one in Cortez, CO was staged; she said canvassing is the kind of thing she would do, and we made a decision to do the picture because we were concerned with not presenting "balance." There is no balance in the facts.)
When we attempted to visit the Republican HQ in Maryland Heights, Missouri, we saw a couple volunteers populating the office, and we were subsequently denied the opportunity to even speak to volunteers specifically selected so as to be "on message." By contrast, Obama's volunteers own such a piece of the campaign (Respect-Empower-Include) that the problem is they often have too much information, and when the campaign allows me to talk with them on the record I can ask a too-precise series of questions that result in publishing details the campaign later realizes it didn't want published.
We read the published comments from McCain spokespeople that argue the dialing/canvassing numbers are ahead of where they were at the same time four years ago. Well, either the Bush ground game of 2004 was the Big Myth, or those spokespeople are flat lying to reporters, who have no context to challenge those claims because they haven't seen the empty offices the way we have.
When the final chapters are written in this election about the ground game, many thousands of words will recognize that the Obama campaign truly was this:
But the other story, the story on which we've had a running eight-week exclusive in 36 separate On the Road pieces and counting, is that John McCain's ground campaign is just not happening. It hasn't been happening, without Sarah Palin there might be four or five volunteers across the entire nation left, and now, per Mosk's piece at WaPo, it looks like it will be happening even less.
One dialer, Santa Fe:
One dialer, Albuquerque:
Closed, Grand Junction:
Des Moines, empty of volunteers:
Troy, Ohio, locked:
Columbus HQ, one dialer:
Toledo, two volunteers and one security guard:
Sterling, VA, closing at 5, one dialer:
Empty, Fredericksburg, VA:
Richmond, VA, one dialer:
Raleigh, NC HQ, two dialers:
Wilmington, NC, closing at 5 and yawny, empty: