07/05/2009 09:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

FiveThirtyEight.Com: More Than Just Numbers

From the beginning of the campaign, the people behind Barack Obama's bid for the presidency have been pretty adamant that one should expect big things from their ground game. They'd be up in all fifty states, socially networked, plugged in, and microtargeting their way to success. At about the same time, I started wondering, "Well, that's all well and good, but who's going to cover the story of the 'ground game?'" It's precisely the sort of story that flies underneath the typical campaign coverage. Besides, the press does a fine job cataloguing all manner of activity, but when it comes to analyzing achievement? Not so much.

A few articles in magazines, like the Atlantic, offered some clues. A conversation at the Democratic National Convention with Personal Democracy Forum founder Andrew Rasiej convinced me that the Obama effort had the potential to be game-changing, even as operatives - dying for some hard attacks from Obama - rolled their eyes at the thought of ground game making the difference. A friend of mine has been blogging about her own campaign work, attesting to a quality operation from the Obama team, but yielding very few comparative clues. One could easily imagine this story remaining elusive. Talk of the ground game would figure in the post-election analysis, mainly speculatively, but we'd end up not knowing much about the efforts that were made in the trenches by McCain and Obama to win this election.

As it turns out, if you're looking for this story, you could just go to the same place that thousands of political junkies are already going to get a little bit of scrutability from the endless march of competing polling data - FiveThirtyEight.com. See, while stats stud Nate Silver has been busy crunching numbers, his colleague Sean Quinn, along with photographer Brett Marty, have been in pursuit of the ground game, and they've been dropping by field offices for both candidates to take pictures and chronicle the activity. And if there's one thing that's been revealed, nearly consistently, in comparing the two operations, is that there seems to be no comparison:

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.

That's from a recent post called, "The Big Empty," and its accompanying photo essay could be the sorts of pictures that haunt the McCain campaign in a few days.

Of course, even with all this specific reporting, attesting to the fact that the balance of response, activity and enthusiasm appears to be on the Democratic side, the big unknown is whether it will all end up being remembered as a spirited, failed attempt or the ingredients of bona fide electoral success. Still, I'm terribly impressed by the way FiveThirtyEight.com is working this balance between raw data and anecdotal reportage, doing each as fully and as fairly as possible, and putting themselves out there by making predictions with conviction. Silver's taken the site to acclaim behind the strength of his statistical analysis, but the site deserves kudoes to their commitment to following the election on the road. Both on the balance sheet and on the trail, FiveThirtyEight has done a superlative job at making sense of this election, in ways that have far surpassed the traditional media.

The Big Empty [FiveThirtyEight.com]