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Mitt Romney and President Obama count on ground game in final days

Betsy Adler (center) of Madiera, Ohio, talked with Mitt Romney campaign volunteers Deb Voss (left) and Karen Schreckenhofer, who were canvassing the Cincinnati suburb.
Betsy Adler (center) of Madiera, Ohio, talked with Mitt Romney campaign volunteers Deb Voss (left) and Karen Schreckenhofer, who were canvassing the Cincinnati suburb.Credit: Jim Callaway/The Boston Globe

BEDFORD, N.H. — After all the months of campaigning, advertising, and debating, the presidential campaign is coming down to scenes like this: Dianne Bzik and Betty HoSang, suburban moms who volunteered for President Obama, meander through neighborhoods and knock on doors, asking if residents need an absentee ballot or a ride to the polls or an answer to a last-minute question.

Hundreds of miles away in Ohio a nearly identical scene played out as Deb Voss and Karen Schreckenhofer canvassed a Cincinnati suburb for Mitt Romney. They too were carrying their cause door to door on an autumn afternoon.

Together, these campaign snapshots seemed like slices of American politics at its purest, a throwback to another, simpler time.

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But it is the fruit of an extraordinary and very modern calculus as well, one backed by millions of dollars of political science research — and one that could well determine who becomes president. The campaigns of Obama and Mitt Romney have deployed their forces in the pivotal “ground game,” relying on enormous databases that include everything from car ownership to church membership, providing clues about which houses the door-knockers should target.

Globe reporters followed the ground forces of both candidates in two battleground states, New Hampshire and Ohio. What became clear is that both campaigns view the efforts of just a few years ago as outdated.

What once seemed revolutionary — setting up countless phone banks to reach every potential voter, blitzing mailboxes with fliers and the airwaves with commercials — now is viewed as seriously flawed. The noise is so great, the telephone calls so often ignored, and the commercials so frequent, that no one can be sure the message is getting out, or sinking in.

So, at Romney campaign headquarters in Bedford, N.H., in the heart of crucial Hillsborough County, the decision was made to go back to the future. The campaign says it has knocked on six times as many doors in New Hampshire as the John McCain campaign did in 2008. In Ohio, Republicans say they are going even further, knocking on 21 times as many doors as four years ago.

New Hampshire and Ohio are considered key by both campaigns but are different in many ways, illustrating the lengths to which Obama and Romney are adjusting their strategies from state to state.

New Hampshire, on paper at least, may not look like fertile ground for Obama. The president’s strongest supporters include African-Americans and Hispanics, but blacks make up only 1.3 percent of the state’s population, compared with 13 percent nationally, and Hispanics account for 3 percent, compared with nearly 17 percent nationally. Romney has a summer home in Wolfeboro and easily won the Republican primary in January.

Yet a few weeks ago, Obama was up by 15 points in a University of New Hampshire poll. Then, after Obama’s poor showing in the first debate, the margin eroded. The Romney campaign, which had been heavily outspent on television commercials, began buying airtime. A University of New Hampshire poll released last week found that Obama’s lead had been cut to 8 points, while an American Research Group poll surprised many by finding Romney ahead by 2 points.

Such a surge might be too late to carry the day in states with heavy early voting, but New Hampshire does not have early voting.

Moreover, New Hampshire encourages voters to show up on Election Day by allowing registration at the polls, whereas many other states shut down registration weeks ahead of Nov. 6. As many as 100,000 voters are expected to take advantage of the law allowing last-minute registration, which would set a state record. The result is that the old-fashioned business of getting out voters on Election Day is vital in New Hampshire.

In Ohio, meanwhile, the rules and demographics are different. It has nearly nine times the population of New Hampshire, with a black population close to the national average and a Hispanic population of 3.2 percent.

New Hampshire is the second-least churchgoing state in the nation and is socially libertarian, while parts of Ohio are more socially and religiously conservative. Early voting is crucial in Ohio, where at least 35 percent of voters are expected to cast ballots before Election Day.

Yet in both states, as in every battleground, it is widely believed that the race will be won by the campaign that can get out its voters. That truism is buttressed by some national polls that have shown Obama leads Romney among registered voters but is statistically deadlocked among “likely voters.”

In 2008, Obama’s victory was all but assured by what was widely acknowledged to be his superior ground game, in which many new voters, particularly younger ones, padded his lead. Republicans said they have learned their lesson and have spent much of the last year trying to build the infrastructure for a record turnout. Democrats said they have redoubled their efforts.

And so, in the leafy neighborhoods and cities in New Hampshire and Ohio, the race is on to ferret out not just undecided or wavering voters, but those who might not follow through on their preferences and cast a ballot.

Focus on crucial counties

Of all the once-Republican counties that swung to support President Obama in 2008, perhaps none was more symbolic of the sweep of his victory than Ohio’s Hamilton County, long a fabled GOP stronghold.

“I was shellshocked’’ in 2008, said Deb Voss, 54, a homemaker who also runs a home decor business. She was knocking on doors in Madeira, a suburb of Cincinnati, last Wednesday, part of the GOP’s extensive get-out-the-vote effort to reclaim the county. Voss said she had never been involved with politics — until now.

The work is laborious. In two hours, Voss and Karen Schreckenhofer, 46, a homemaker who volunteers for the GOP four days a week, reached households with a total of only 17 voters. But the GOP says that as fewer people answer their phones, staffers have reemphasized face-to-face contact to reach voters.

The next day, a starkly different side of Hamilton County emerges, one that underscores Romney’s challenges. On an unseasonably hot afternoon downtown, voters fanned themselves with campaign fliers as they waited in lines for 45 minutes to an hour to cast ballots. Almost all were from Cincinnati rather than the GOP-leaning suburbs. Many of them were African-American. Virtually all of them were Obama supporters.

The Obama campaign has pushed voters to take advantage of in-person early voting, an option added after the state’s disastrous election in 2004, when hours-long lines at many precincts proved a national embarrassment. Yet for all the campaign’s efforts, many voters Thursday said they had come on their own.

“I heard about it at the bus stop, people were talking about it,” said Carsteige Ranford, 28, of Cincinnati, an Obama voter. “I figured if I waited until the election I might not have the chance,” he said.

A similar scene played out in Dayton, where a stream of early voters, about two-thirds of them African-American, flowed into the Montgomery County Administration Building from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, peaking at 350 an hour in late afternoon. They came with canes, with spouses, and with children.

The Obama campaign’s emphasis on early voting played a major role in its 2008 victory. Since Oct. 2, more than 812,000 residents have voted in Ohio, or about 14 percent of the 5.8 million votes recorded in 2008. A Time magazine poll released Wednesday showed Obama leading 60 percent to 30 percent among Ohio voters who already had cast ballots. However, the president and Romney were tied at 45 percent among people who said they intend to vote but had not yet done so.

Both campaigns are relying on surrogates in Ohio to deliver their message among union members and evangelical voters.

In 2008, 58 percent of union voters in Ohio voted for Obama, according to exit polls. But this year, the Obama campaign is hoping that the auto industry bailout, which benefited union members in Ohio, will lead to greater support.

Unions are being aided in canvassing by Working America, a national group with 3 million members, including 1 million in Ohio, who do not belong to organized labor but would like its benefits.

White evangelicals also have the potential to play a key role for Romney in Ohio, where they made up about 30 percent of the electorate in 2008 and broke 72 percent to 28 percent for John McCain. Throughout the state, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition is contacting Christian conservatives.

Microtargeting voters

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, so much rides on turnout that the two campaigns are relying heavily on their computer databases to identify every potential vote.

The databases are part of what is known as “microtargeting,” a collection of information from public records and consumer lists that is entered into spreadsheets.

The information is cross-tabulated with voter registration records to try to determine who is likely to vote, and whom they are likely to support.

Betty HoSang, who canvassed for Obama in Bedford, is deeply committed to her candidate, an intensity reinforced when Romney’s secretly recorded comment that 47 percent of Americans view themselves as “victims” was released. HoSang and her colleague, Dianne Bzik, approach voters as Bedford neighbors, and they often know the homeowner or have children who go to the same school.

Indeed, Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign’s national field director, said that the key difference between the two campaigns is that Obama has a database from four years ago filled with information supplied by voters. While microtargeting is important, he said, its value can be exaggerated.

“This is not a turnkey operation to put a phone bank in Manchester,” he said. “This is people ‘owning’ six precincts or two precincts, empowering them to own the neighborhood. They have been talking to these voters for years, and the information they know about these voters is the most powerful piece of information we have. That is the biggest difference between the Obama and Romney campaign” in the ground game.

Republicans acknowledged after 2008 that they had to improve their ground game, and said the efforts have paid off.

“Republicans over the last couple of presidential cycles were maybe slow to grasp the early vote process out there, but starting in 2008 they started to understand that this was the wave of the future,” said Rick Wiley, the Republican National Committee’s political director, who works on field organizing with the Romney campaign.

The basic act of door-knocking hasn’t changed for years, he said, but thanks to microtargeting “the thing that’s changed is obviously our ability to slice and dice universes [of voters] and switch, on the fly, what we’re doing out there.”

Indeed, Tom Rath, a senior Romney adviser, said the use of microtargeting innately appeals to the data-driven Romney. “If you are an organizational type like Mitt Romney, the idea that there is a process that can be measured and calibrated and tracked is very soothing,” Rath said.

The campaign, for example, hopes that support among hunters could be crucial. So, Romney campaign officials drove to Riley’s Gun Shop in Hooksett. The store’s owner, Ralph Demicco, hosted a press conference at which Romney supporters said their candidate is a stronger supporter of gun ownership than Obama.

The campaign put together a list of 350 people who are identified as Romney supporters primarily interested in the gun issue; those people, in turn, are expected to contact other people with similar interests.

A few hours later, a volunteer for the Romney campaign headed out for another round of door-knocking in Manchester.

Richard Christie, a retired federal employee, knocked on Michael Cote’s door. Cote, who said this was the first time someone from either campaign had talked to him, listened politely and revealed he is just the kind of voter who could decide the election.

A Teamster and UPS driver, Cote said he has been inundated with union literature urging him to vote for Obama. The Teamsters have their own microtargeting effort; the union president, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., who supports Obama, can be heard in a message on Cote’s answering machine.

Cote is sympathetic to concerns that union interests could be undermined by a Romney presidency but he is undecided because of the tough economy.

“The only thing that is preventing me from voting for Romney is the fact that I’m a Teamster,” he said. “I like Mitt Romney more than I like Obama but I’m still kind of torn.’’

Christie tried to close the sale, but Cote said he won’t decide until a day or two before Election Day, one of the last of the undecided. “I’ll be voting, trust me,” Cote said. “That’s a sacred right.”

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