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Mitt Romney Looks to Close Ground-Game Gap

As Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney moves to capitalize on his October surge in the polls, his campaign is relying on ground-game and social-media strategies that aides believe have been underestimated.

Romney aides and GOP strategists familiar with the campaign’s social media outreach and voter turnout operation said they expect President Barack Obama’s effort on each front to be every bit as technologically advanced and effective as it was in 2008. The difference, Republicans contend, is the Romney campaign has built competitive get-out-the-vote and social media programs, eliminating 2008’s strategic deficit the GOP faced against Obama.  

“We’re doing things that have never been done before. This is the kind of operation the [former Massachusetts] governor wanted to put together. He wanted to put together an innovative operation,” Romney campaign political director Rich Beeson told Roll Call during a recent telephone interview.

Obama’s first presidential campaign pioneered the use of social media to reach, organize, motivate and turn out voters on a broad scale. The then-Senator’s team also refined the science of voter targeting and modernized the conventional ground game that relied on turning out voters on Election Day. In particular, Obama swamped Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican nominee, in the crucial battle for Americans who vote early or absentee. 

The Obama campaign has said its 2008 GOTV and social media efforts were “prehistoric” compared to now and emphasizes that it never shut down after the 2008 race ended, maintaining staff and volunteers in battleground states. 

But the Romney campaign is confident it can compete against what it expects is an Obama re-election effort better equipped than the president’s 2008 bid. Factoring into the Romney team’s confidence is what it contends is a superior rate of engagement by its supporters via social media — Facebook and Twitter — and accurate voter microtargeting that was battle-tested during June’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election.

“We have digital field staff in every target state, with regional digital directors for every part of the country,” Romney campaign digital director Zac Moffatt said in an interview.

The Romney campaign trails the Obama campaign significantly in Facebook “likes,” 30.6 million to 8.8 million. However, it boasts a higher percentage of followers that discuss the presidential campaign, with 2.64 million, or 30 percent, versus 3.2 million, or 10 percent, of Obama followers. The Romney campaign said its engagement rate has fluctuated from 30 percent to 40 percent during the past two months, compared with 5 percent to 10 percent for Obama.

The Romney campaign said it has seen similar engagement advantages on Twitter at different points in the campaign, despite Obama’s massive lead in followers. Romney’s Internet advertising is less ubiquitous than Obama’s, but the former Massachusetts governor’s team claims higher efficiency through more expensive, targeted buys, as opposed to the “echo chamber” purchases it says are employed by the president’s campaign.

Romney’s social media outreach has also been integrated with the campaign’s ground game, which is run in concert with the Republican National Committee. 

Campaign aides for Romney and the RNC are excited because they believe their ability to locate demographic and issue blocs of sympathetic voters and turn them out — without accidentally pitching and turning out voters inclined to support Obama — has been refined to the point where it’s close to error-free. Beeson likened the campaign’s microtargeting to being able to isolate grains of sand, saying they have “never had the level of granularity we have now.”

Conceding that Romney is fielding a more effective turnout operation than McCain, the Obama campaign said there’s no way Republicans could replicate the president’s effort, given that they built theirs in less than a year. Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said Chicago spent the several months Romney and the RNC were ramping up keeping a “conversation going with undecided voters,” and he said that would make a difference Nov. 6.

“It’s one thing for the Romney campaign to build a turnkey turnout operation in the states, especially compared to the minimal field organization Republicans mustered in 2008, but they missed the biggest window for persuading undecided voters and will now be playing catch-up,” Fetcher said Wednesday.

Fetcher declined to comment on the Romney campaign’s claims that its Facebook and Twitter followers are more engaged than Obama’s. But some digital strategists questioned Boston’s argument that higher engagement rates compensate for having fewer followers. Additionally, not all digital consultants approved of the Romney campaign’s Internet advertising strategy, saying Obama’s broader online presence could pay dividends.

The Obama campaign dismissed figures on voter contacts that are regularly released by the RNC, suggesting that the numbers are manipulated and that in any event, a contact doesn’t equal a vote. The RNC’s latest numbers claim 35 million voter contacts, including nearly 2.5 million alone last Saturday, with 30,000 volunteers participating on that single day. 

Republicans lead among early vote ballot requests in Colorado 35.1 percent to 33.5 percent; in North Carolina 52.01 percent to 26.86 percent; and in Florida 43.4 percent to 38.97 percent. The Obama campaign has helped Democrats maintain their voter registration edge in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Nevada and Pennsylvania. 

And in Iowa, Democrats are handily winning the early vote battle, leading Republicans by 46,000 in ballots mailed in; by 3,700 in in-person votes and by 67,000 in total ballots requested.

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