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Obama Ground Game: State Parties Flush With Cash In Swing States

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OBAMA GROUND GAME
President Barack Obama watches as the crowd responds after he spoke the about choice facing women in the election during a campaign event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Friday, Oct. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) | AP

ARLINGTON, Va. -- On a warm Tuesday night in late October, the Organizing for America office in south Arlington, Va., is humming with activity. In a square, two-floor office space with a glass window facing a busy suburban street, more than a dozen Virginians are seated at fold-out tables, phoning voters and asking them to support President Barack Obama's bid for a second term.

Lakisha Jeffries, a volunteer neighborhood team leader, shows up at the Arlington office two to three nights a week to help turn out the strong base of support in the northern Virginia counties that went heavily for the president in 2008. That means getting them to the polls, putting an absentee ballot in their hands and reminding supporters -- over and over again -- that they need to show up and vote.

"Talking to people, getting them out, remind them, making sure they have a plan; because that's important," Jeffries said. "Sometimes people don't know what day the election is and when to vote. They let it pass them by because life's so busy and that's why I think it's really important for us to be knocking on their door."

Across the state of Virginia, where polls show a tight race between Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, there are dozens of these offices where Obama supporters can organize, make phone calls, collect materials and gather to go canvassing to get out the vote (GOTV) for the president. In a Wednesday conference call, Obama national field director Jeremy Bird touted the Virginia GOTV operation, "We've registered more voters than in 2008, knocked on more doors and talked to more people."

This is what the much discussed ground game looks like at the bottom floor. The operation might look inexpensive -- especially compared to the billion dollar television ad war waged by the campaigns and super PACs -- but it's not. The ground game requires paid staff to organize volunteers (the Arlington office boasts five, according to the Obama for America-Virginia web site), lots of cell phones, pamphlets, door-hangers, lawn signs, fuel for transportation, direct mail and -- as was evident at the Arlington office on Tuesday night -- pizza.

The majority of the funding for these efforts on the Democratic side isn't coming straight from the Obama campaign, nor is it coming directly from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Instead, the Democrats' effort in the various swing states is largely being funded by state party organizations flush with cash thanks to unprecedented transfers of money from both the DNC and the Obama campaign.

"Organizing for America is actually a project of the Democratic Party of Virginia," says Brian Coy, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, about the dozens of organizing offices across the state like the one in Arlington. "Those folks are actually on our payroll and most of that money comes from the DNC."

Overall, the top ten swing state Democratic parties entered October having raised a combined $101 million. This compares to $52 million for these same swing state Republican parties. The Democratic parties had spent $87 million compared to $44 million for the Republican parties at the end of September, and entered October with $15 million cash on hand compared to the Republicans' $9.6 million.

The vast majority of the Democratic state party money has come from transfers from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) -- $61 million transferred to state parties -- and the Obama campaign -- $11.8 million transferred from the Obama campaign and victory funds.

By comparison, the Republican National Committee had only transferred $15 million to swing state parties at the end of September. This was aided by another $12 million from the state parties in Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Vermont, connected to Romney's victory committee. Those four state parties were also sitting on an additional $19 million to be transferred into swing states at the end of September.

The Democratic Party has long funded its GOTV efforts this way, says Democratic campaign lawyer Neil Reiff. "It's a big part of the model of how the Democratic Party gets the vote out," he said.

While this model has existed for more than two decades, the amount of money transferred to the ten swing state parties during this election cycle is reaching levels not seen before. The Democratic swing state parties have raised $45 million more this year than they did over the same period of time in 2008, and have received $36 million more from the DNC. Republican swing state parties, on the other hand, have only received $14 million more in 2012 than in the previous election.

What this means is that the supposed cash shortfall at the DNC -- $8.7 million cash on hand at the end of September compared to $86 million for the RNC -- is buttressed by their heavy funding of the state parties. This provides a huge staff that winds up funded by the state parties, but under the control of the Obama campaign and not the DNC.

It has provided the Obama campaign a huge advantage in the number of offices in swing states and in the number of staff working specifically on federal election activity. A Huffington Post review of campaign expenses by the Democratic and Republican state parties in the top ten swing states found that, in September, these Democratic state parties paid 3,000 staff members for federal election activities, compared to just 601 for the state Republican parties.

The Atlantic's Molly Ball noted in a Wednesday article that Republicans eschew these statistics and instead focus on voter contacts, which they state are far ahead of where they were in 2008. The Obama campaign prefers to focus on data released to the public, as they did in Wednesday's conference call with field director Bird, including voter registrations and early voting statistics.

The Ohio Democratic Party, unsurprisingly, is the most well-financed of the swing state parties. The party raised $18 million through September, with $13 million coming in the form of transfers from the DNC and the Obama campaign. This has helped fund 499 staffers paid specifically for federal election activity, including working in Obama for America offices, as well as 122 state offices, at least 40 of which are coordinated with the Obama campaign.

"We are a strong partner to the president's reelection campaign and we regularly partner with groups like the Democratic National Committee and others to reelect our president and our senatorial candidates and our congressionals," Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Jerid Kurtz told The Huffington Post.

The Republican Party in Ohio, on the other hand, raised only $9 million through September -- half the amount raised by their Democratic counterpart -- with just $5 million coming from the RNC and committees linked to the Romney campaign. They have opened just 40 offices total and, according to their most recently filed finance report, had paid just 129 staffers for federal campaign activity.

These disparities exist in almost every key swing state. In Virginia, the Democratic state party raised more than double that of the Republican state organization. The largest margin came in Nevada, where Democrats raised $8.3 million compared to a paltry $729,487 for the state Republican Party.

The only state where the disparity is small is Florida, where Democrats had raised $15 million through September, and Republicans had raised $12 million.

Graeme Zielinski, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, explained in an email message to The Huffington Post why the national party runs get out the vote efforts through the state parties.

"This allows us to streamline our limited resources," he said, "so instead of recruiting three volunteers from three different campaigns to talk with the same voter, we can recruit one volunteer who can use a script that talks about all three candidates."

On a Tuesday conference call, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina touted the campaign's ground game, noting their success getting "sporadic voters" -- those who don't vote every two or four years -- to vote early. "What early vote does is help us get out low-propensity voters, voters called sporadic voters, which broadens our universe and frees up more get out the vote resources later and especially on Election Day," he said.

According to the Civitas Institute's Carolina Transparency website, that heavily funded ground game is potentially paying dividends in North Carolina. Already, there have been more early votes cast in the state than at the same time in 2008, with nearly twice as many Democrats voting early as Republicans, and 100,000 more women -- who lean towards Obama -- than men.

A Wednesday blog post by Obama campaign field director Jeremy Bird noted, "Across nine battleground states, Democrats have a 19.7 point advantage in ballots cast among non-midterm voters. More than half (51.5 percent) of non-midterm voters who have voted already are Democrats, while fewer than a third (just 31.8 percent) are Republicans."

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