11/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Camp Waging Ground War Under the Surface Out of Sight

Something strange has been going on here in North Carolina. In Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Pittsburgh, Johnstown -- and now here in Durham, Franklinton, Asheville -- the McCain ground game has gone missing. (In Arizona, Dawn Tao reports on the same.)

McCain organizers do not stand in the backs of rallies with clipboards to sign up canvassers and phone bankers. Campaign offices, when I can find them, are mostly empty of volunteers. In Johnstown, a piece of butcher paper listed the schedule for Super Saturday door knocking; two people had signed up, their names floating in all the white space.

I've been told there is great enthusiasm for the campaign, and that McCain "victory offices," as they're called, are beating back supporters. If that's true, they've beaten them, bound them, and thrown them out back, because there's scant evidence of them.

gen/43709/original.jpgTo be clear, this is not true of the rallies. The rallies are packed. (With white people, but that's a separate issue. Last night at the Palin rally, I counted zero black people. Zero. This is North Carolina, where the population is roughly 25% African-American. "The rally was open to everybody," a local reporter assured me. "You could print tickets off the Internet. If there aren't black people here, that's by choice.")

In Bethlehem, Pa., a few weeks ago a McCain-Palin rally filled a university gymnasium, and in Asheville, N.C., last night some supporters had camped overnight outside the Civic Center to see the governor. Across both Pa. and N.C., which the McCain campaign considers fully in play, McCain-Palin signs spring up in front yards and intersections like the state flower.

So it is not an apparent lack of enthusiasm -- what's striking is the lack of an obvious, structured organization to drive that enthusiasm to the polls. Especially in North Carolina, where polls are already open for early voting, a coordinated get-out-the-vote effort would seem to be a campaign priority. But this weekend in Durham, I saw only one GOP volunteer standing outside a polling place. Whereas Obama volunteers had been spelling each other off all week, passing out a Democratic slate and "I Just Voted" Obama stickers, this was the first day this man had been out on the street canvassing. And he was actually more of an independent than a Republican, he said, encouraging voters to vote their own minds.

Likewise, at the Palin rally last night, the candidate thought to mention early voting only at the end of her speech, when some of the audience had already drifted away. Of the half-dozen supporters with whom I spoke afterward, only one had already voted. The rest planned to wait until Election Day -- mostly for tradition's sake, they said.

That's fine -- I like Election Day, too, with its particular drama and focus. But I'm not trying to win a presidential campaign. If I were trying to win a presidential campaign, I might be buying public service announcements encouraging voters to get to the polls now so as to keep the lines shorter on Election Day. I'd have a paid link to early voting locations at the top of every election-related Google search page. I'd be opening campaign offices in, say, counties traditionally held by my opponent and pay a staff member to rally enough of my supporters' vote at least to staunch the bleeding and maybe eke out a victory in a close state.

Instead, one of the lead McCain volunteers in Asheville last night assured me that the campaign was "talking to people." It was unclear whether they were phone banking and canvassing, the usual get-out-the-vote efforts. Instead, the volunteer insisted that it's not how you go about talking to voters or how many people you have talking to voters, so much as who you have talking to voters that matters. "People will listen to someone they respect," he said.

The line might have seemed naive -- especially given that McCain is up against a well-reported organizing giant in Obama -- if I didn't think there was some profound truth beneath it. Whether by design or accident, the McCain campaign seems to be relying on its brand and an under-the-radar word-of-mouth operation to turn people out to vote.

"I want all of you here tonight to go home and send an email to everybody in your address book," said one of the warm-up speakers at the Palin rally. He encouraged the crowd to tell their friends, families, and co-workers why they supported the GOP ticket -- and ask them to email their networks in turn.

On the one hand, the virtual phone tree method of organizing seemed very...2004. But moments earlier, when I'd asked a media-distrusting McCain supporter where he got his information, he said, "Word-of-mouth, mostly. Friends. Email."

He, and others, quoted to me from emails I myself have received, many insinuating that Obama is somewhere between a Pakistani-funded terrorist and the anti-Christ. Given the amount of attention these emails receive among my own friends and family, I would say their "word-of-mouth" campaign is an effective -- and free -- tool. (For further confirmation, I just typed "Obama" into a Google toolbar. The auto-generated list turned up "obama birth certificate," "obama anti christ," "obama muslim" and "obama acorn.")

Furthermore, while the Obama campaign has legions of individual volunteers, McCain has benefited from an amorphous but effective Republican reputation of being against taxes and abortion. Asheville waved variations of "I Am Joe the Plumber" signs; in Johnstown, Pa., a giant banner saying "Vote Your Conscience" fluttered outside the Catholic church. Repeatedly, McCain supporters cited one of these two issues -- the war coming in a distant third -- as the primary reason they were planning to vote Republican.

If this were a normal election year, I'd say that McCain's haphazard GOTV was a sign of depleted resources and a dangerous lack of awareness of how to run a modern campaign. At its worst, he could follow Hillary Clinton's lead, as he has in other things, and fail to recognize that minute, county-by-county tactics can matter more than driving the base in a few major areas.

But so far, this hasn't been anything close to a normal election year. While across the state Obama volunteers were radically on message last night, appealing to voters one-by-one, 7500 un-managed, un-coordinated, un-organized (white) people were inside the Civic Center, cheering to Sarah Palin's promise that "This election isn't over yet."