How to Handicap a Campaign’s Ground Game in 2014

by Stuart Rothenberg April 17, 2014 · 9:40 AM EDT

This cycle, Democrats are counting heavily on registering new voters and turning out registered voters who otherwise don’t bother to vote during midterm elections. Republicans are also putting more emphasis on voter contact programs.

In an era of micro-targeting and sophisticated get-out-the-vote operations, how can a handicapper know exactly how an election outcome will be affected by a strong ground game?

For me, the answer has always been pretty obvious: I can’t.

It’s not that I dismiss or undervalue the importance of a campaign’s “field operation” or denigrate the impact of registration efforts or voter turnout strategies by one or both parties. It’s that I have never found a way to measure the impact of “ground game” operations during an election.

Earlier this year, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee disclosed that through its Bannock Street project, it would spend $60 million to put 4,000 paid staffers on the ground in its attempt to retain control of the Senate.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not been as explicit about its plans for the cycle. But committee operatives say the DCCC will “triple the size” of its 2010 field program and point out that as of the beginning of April, organizers were in place in 33 congressional districts.

Could Democrats register enough voters or turn out people who previously didn’t vote during midterms to flip a couple of House and Senate contests? Maybe. It certainly seems possible.

“According to Sasha Issenberg, the author of ‘The Victory Lab,’ a good ground operation can add a point or two to the vote,” reported veteran National Public Radio correspondent Mara Liasson in late March. (“Democrats Count On the Fine Art of Field Operations.”)

There usually are a handful of very close races, and if one side does a far better job than the other of getting voters to the polls, that certainly could matter.

But when evaluating a candidate’s chances of winning an election — or a party’s prospects across the country — the only way I know of including the results of field operations into my handicapping is through survey data showing enthusiasm and intensity of vote intention. And that certainly won’t show up now or, in all likelihood, for the next few months.

Of course, rising intensity doesn’t necessarily reflect a successful ground game. It could simply reflect the growing noise of a political campaign and the increasing combativeness of an approaching election.

When I asked one pollster about the best way to evaluate the impact of a party’s ground game, he told me to “wait until they count the votes.” At that point, it’s possible to compare election results to previous cycles and to consider what changes in turnout took place and how they may have been related to field operations.

The 2012 election demonstrated that Democrats have a muscular voter identification and turnout operation. Like most, I assumed that turnout among certain demographic groups, particularly younger voters, would drop from 2008 to 2012.

But that didn’t happen. In fact, younger voters constituted a larger percentage of the electorate in 2012 than they had four years earlier, according to the national exit poll. President Barack Obama’s campaign figured out how to reach those voters and to motivate them to show up at the polls. (For an interesting report on part of the strategy, see Michael Scherer’s Time piece here.)

But voter identification and turnout works only at the margins. Turning out a few hundred or even a few thousand voters in the West Virginia or South Dakota Senate races probably won’t change the eventual outcome of those contests.

In 2012, two states were so close that a field program could have affected the outcome: North Dakota and Nevada. Over on the House side, only five contests were decided by 2,000 votes or fewer.

Of course, the lower turnout in midterms means each additional voter can have a greater impact on the final result than each additional voter in a presidential electorate. So voter registration, identification and turnout efforts in 2014 should be more important than they were in 2010, when a Republican political wave overwhelmed the theoretical benefits of the Democrats’ field operations.

Democratic strategists have every reason to feel confident that their ground game will offset some of the expected drop-off in Democratic turnout and save the party a handful of House and Senate seats.

But for me, “field programs” aren’t a decisive part of my calculations until and unless they start to show up in the survey data or appear in turnout figures on election night.