FINDLAY, Ohio -- Riding a bus south along I-75 Thursday, Jennifer Ridgely smiled as a passing truck driver honked his horn several times in greeting. "Isn't that awesome?" said Ridgely, a press coordinator with Americans for Prosperity.
AFP's custom bus is emblazoned with the slogan "Obama's Failing Agenda Tour" and eye-catching graphics. Each side displays quotes from the president -- "The private sector is doing fine" and "You didn't build that" -- as well as a listing: "The Failures Just Keep Piling Up -- $1.7 Trillion Health Care Takeover; More Than 42 Straight Months of Unemployment Above 8%; $16 Trillion National Debt; Billions Wasted on Solyndra & Green Energy Scams." As it travels across Ohio, this rolling billboard produces spontaneous reactions from passing motorists, and when yet another passing trucker honks his support, Ridgely smiles again. "It just never gets old for me."
AFP is a grassroots organization that claims 3 million members and has worked to help keep the Tea Party movement thriving. The bus traveling across Ohio this week is one of three buses simultaneously crisscrossing the country, focusing on key battleground states in the upcoming election. Launched a month ago, the "Failing Agenda" tour is the largest in AFP's history, and will have visited 380 cities in 25 states before November 6. Events range from meet-and-greets in small towns to rallies in larger cities, such as the "Hands of Our Health Care" rally yesterday on the square in downtown Findlay. One of the biggest dates on the tour will be Oct. 6 in Columbus, Ohio, with talk-radio hostess Laura Ingraham headlining an event at the Convention Center that is expected to draw at least 2,000 people.
Beyond holding rallies, AFP is working with activists to engage in door-to-door canvassing. Aboard the bus, Ridgely showed off a Samsung Galaxy computer tablet loaded with special software for their "Prosperity Knocks" program. The tablet features a canvassing questionnaire that activists use when interviewing voters, and the software immediately uploads the information to AFP's online database. "The goal is to build a long-term grassroots network," Ridgely explains. "It's not just about this election."
While AFP has its own long-term organizational goals, the intended near-term consequences of such grassroots activism are obvious enough. These efforts could have a major impact on the outcome of the election in Ohio and other key states. Several other conservative groups are making similar efforts in the weeks leading up to Election Day. On a table at Thursday's rally in Findlay, Tea Party activists could pick up a variety of flyers and handbills, one promoting the 60 Plus Association (a conservative group for senior citizens), another advertising a Friday event featuring U.S. Rep. Bob Latta sponsored by Citizens for Community Values, and a third urging attendance at a lecture next week by constitutional scholar KrisAnne Hall at the local American Legion hall. All of this is part of a large, multi-layered effort involving numerous organizations acting independently yet sharing the same basic goal: To energize conservatives and reach out to independents, to persuade, identify, and turn out enough votes to defeat Obama this November.
This is what political strategists call the "ground game" of campaigning, as opposed to the "air war" of advertising that permeates TV and radio during election season, especially in key states like Ohio. At some point in these battlegrounds, TV commercials reach such a saturation level that they cease doing much to influence voters' decisions. When both campaigns (as well as independent groups that now include so-called "super PACs") are filling the airwaves with attack ads, they effectively cancel each other out. Furthermore, as more people make up their minds and the number of undecided voters shrinks, the job of swaying mass opinion eventually becomes less important than the job of getting your supporters to vote.
The increased popularity of early voting -- now underway in Ohio and many other states -- means that the get-out-the-vote "ground game" also begins early. And whereas Obama's organizational effort in the 2008 campaign was a marvel of such astonishing efficiency as to overwhelm anything John McCain's campaign could produce, there are reasons to believe that Mitt Romney this year will benefit from a ground-game effort equal or superior to the Democrats' operation. Exhibit A in this case is the 2010 mid-term election when Republicans won a historic landslide, a result widely attributed to the energizing effects of the Tea Party movement, but also sparked by an outstanding "ground game" to push GOP turnout. Exhibit B is the Wisconsin recall election in June, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker easily survived an all-or-nothing effort by Democrats and their labor-union allies to drive him from office.
With polls currently showing Obama leading Romney by 10 points in Ohio, it is important to note that pollsters failed to predict the 7-point margin of Walker's victory in June. Conservatives have good reason to be skeptical toward the suggestion (implicit in the samples of several recent polls) that Democrats will enjoy a substantial turnout advantage November 6. Liberal writer Jonathan Chait has derided myself and other skeptics as "poll denialists," but the evident energy and enthusiasm of Republican voters here in Ohio cannot be safely ignored, no matter what the polls may say.
Several observers, including Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, have described Ohio as "ground zero" of this year's election. Americans for Prosperity was one of the organizations most active in helping defend Walker in the Wisconsin election. No one should be surprised if their current effort to educate Ohio voters about "Obama's Failing Agenda" produces similar success here.