CINCINNATI, Ohio -- Stormy weather wasn't enough to prevent George Cullen from canvassing for Mitt Romney this week. Monday, while Ohio was hit by cold wind and rain, the Clermont County resident knocked on 25 doors -- but that's about half his average daily total, and Cullen has been knocking on doors in the suburbs of Cincinnati for the past five weeks.
While the conservatives he speaks to during his door-to-door visits are "energized," says Cullen, "A lot of them don't want to do early voting. They're traditionalists. They want to wait until Nov. 6."
Republicans are encouraging early-voting, but when Cullen tries to push this during his canvassing trips, he says, many of the conservatives tell him, "Don't worry. We will get there [on Election Day]."
A West Point graduate who served six years in the Army, Cullen is now one soldier in another army of grassroots volunteers who are determined to make a difference here in what all acknowledge as the crucial battleground of this presidential campaign. The question is whether supporters of Romney can match the vaunted Democrat "ground game" that helped President Obama carry Ohio by a quarter-million votes in 2008.
Cullen was at the Eastgate Holiday Inn here Tuesday for a pre-election event with Americans for Prosperity. Cullen's wife of 40 years, Rosemary, will be volunteering in AFP's Ohio phone-banking operation, part of a massive grassroots organizing effort by the free-market group, which has been closely allied with the Tea Party movement. While AFP's tax-exempt status prohibits them from engaging in what lawyers call "electioneering," they have mounted an intense campaign of "voter education."
The walls of AFP's Columbus office are festooned with maps showing a series of towns around Ohio's capital city: Gahanna, Hilliard, Westerville, Pickerington, Dublin and so on. Each map highlights clusters of home addresses targeted for contacts by AFP, which has been organizing for months in Ohio. Also in the office are stacks of boxes containing thousands of "door hangers," cards bearing the organization's message about the Senate campaign: "Has Brown worked for you? Sherrod Brown supported President Obama's $825 billion failed stimulus… hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on failed green energy experiments like the bankrupt Solyndra Corporation.… Sherrod Brown rubber stamps President Obama's job-killing agenda 95% of the time."
AFP boasts more than 100,000 activists in Ohio and, while not all of those grassroots activists are going door-to-door in the final week of the campaign, there are enough of them that the organization has reportedly ordered a half-million of the door-hanger cards. The maps on the wall at AFP's Columbus office are visual representations of data stored in a sophisticated digital system that guides activists as they make their rounds on voter-contact expeditions. In Ohio and other battleground states, volunteers carry computer tablets with lists of names and addresses of voters identified in AFP's databanks as leaning toward their message. The system evaluates voters on the basis of more than 200 different data points. "We've modeled what an AFP person looks like," says Seth Morgan, Ohio policy director for the group. "We're looking for people who agree with us on the issues, on economic freedom."
The differences between this kind of voter-education effort and a get-out-the-vote campaign are -- let's be honest -- strictly a matter of semantics, and AFP is not the only group making this kind of grassroots push that will have the practical effect of boosting Republican turnout in Ohio. While the impact of Hurricane Sandy forced Mitt Romney to cancel public campaign events Monday and Tuesday, the troops providing the "ground game" in Ohio continues marching, encouraged by polls indicating they are fighting on the winning side in this crucial battleground state. The latest Rasmussen poll of Ohio shows Romney moving ahead by two points here and, following on the heels of Sunday's Ohio newspaper poll showing a tie race, confirms a sense of momentum shared by many conservative activists in the Buckeye State.
"I see the shift moving in our direction," said Andrew Bair, the 25-year-old Ohio field director for National Right to Life. "The outpouring we've seen from the grassroots has been impressive. The grassroots are fired up."
Bair has been doing "boots on the ground" organizing in Ohio since August, working to turn out pro-life voters Nov. 6. "Our job is to make people understand how extreme Obama has been on abortion," Bair says, explaining that the administration's health-care mandates have helped push blue-collar Catholic voters toward the Republican column. National Right to Life and its state and local affiliates have distributed "hundreds of thousands of pieces of comparison literature" in Ohio, Bair says, and activists are "sharing information with their churches and through social media." Citing polls that indicate growing opposition to abortion, Bair says, "It's a pro-life country. We deserve a pro-life president."
With less than a week remaining until Election Day, Cullen says he still encounters undecided voters in his canvassing expeditions. But he delivers the pro-Romney message to them, and such wavering voters are unlikely to suddenly flip to Obama, who has already had four years to close the deal. With thousands of fired-up grassroots activists now crisscrossing the state, the volunteer army could make the decisive difference in this year's ultimate battleground.
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