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Linda Bergthold

Linda Bergthold

Posted: October 19, 2008 11:02 PM

It's All About the Ground Game -- Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust


The eye of the political storm is always calm. Never mind the ads, the national polls, the robocalls, the ugly stuff. It's all about the ground game. In the midst of the political turmoil, the ground game is what matters.

In football, focusing on the ground game generally means the running game not the passing game. Out where I live, in that Blue State California, the newspaper says that our 49ers will be welcomed by the Giants in NY and that they will have to stop the Giants' tough ground game. (But they didn't.) What this means is that you win by keeping control of the ball, not getting carried away by passing, and staying focused on the basics of moving the ball down the field and running out the clock. (Oh dear, my son's father in law Dick Tomey, the coach at San Jose State, will laugh when he reads me trying to make football analogies!).

Woody Hayes, the great football coach at Ohio State, emphasized running. He won football games by three yards and a cloud of dust -- Whether or not Obama fits that description is yet to be decided. You could argue that Obama actually has both the passing game (with his 100,000 crowds in Missouri) and the ground game (with his amazing number of staff and volunteers in every town in every battleground state) . But the brilliant strategy of the Obama campaign is that he can keep his running game going while exhausting the defense of the McCain campaign by tying them up in states they ought to consider safe.

Many polls suggests that Obama leads McCain not just nationally, but also in Ohio. But if Ohio really is a done deal, the Obama and McCain campaign schedule surely doesn't suggest it. Either that or Obama's campaign wants to keep McCain distracted with a Woody Hayes-style, cross-Ohio slog -- "three yards and a cloud of dust" -- while Obama has voters in the Rockies and Florida all to himself.

In politics, staying focused on the ground game means the following: 1) Being sure that you know your voters, your undecideds, where they live, what their concerns are, whether they plan to vote, and if they need help getting to vote 2) Having offices in all the major towns in a state you are competing in; 3) Relentlessly following up on every voter you have contact information for 4) Making sure that you get voters out to vote, no matter if it's absentee voting, early voting or voting on election day.

Obama has put together an awesome organization. The staff of www.fivethirtyeight.com have chronicled Obama's ground game in the battleground states over the past several weeks. They attempted to be nonpartisan but there were so many instances when the McCain offices were closed or where they wouldn't allow them to talk to them, that they have pretty much given up. But the stories of Obama's offices being open on weekends and evenings, crammed with volunteers and activity, make a stark contrast to the often nearly empty McCain offices.

In the State of Virginia, there are dueling ground games going on.

Ground operations -- the doughnut-fueled armies of volunteers who knock on doors and man the phone banks -- are the trench warfare of political campaigns. These are the people charged with finding and persuading voters who might support their candidate, and then making sure they actually show up at the polls. A good ground operation might mean just an additional percentage point or two on Election Day, but in a close race, that margin could easily be the difference between winning and losing. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe calls his ground operation the "field goal unit," and it was one of the big reasons the Illinois Senator bested Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

In the end, no matter how many hail mary passes McCain throws -- whether it be the selection of Sarah Palin, the so-called suspension of his campaign, and now the dirty tricks -- they will be no substitute for the energy, enthusiasm, and organization of Obama and his campaign's ground game.

I happen to believe it won't come down to just three yards and cloud of dust. I think there will be a lot of steady, moving the ball down the field via Obama's amazing campaign organization, and perhaps one final brilliant pass, perhaps like the revelation of Colin Powell's endorsement -- but in the end, it will be the ground game that wins this election for Obama and that is what we must trust.