“It isn’t slipping away,” Romney’s Political Director Rich Beeson says emphatically – on the cusp of mild-mannered exasperation – when the media’s doomsday narrative is first broached. A Colorado native and a major player on the successful Bush/Cheney re-elect effort in 2004, Beeson is even-keeled and good natured, yet his disdain for the emerging conventional wisdom that Obama has the election in the bag is palpable. Asked about rumors that Ohio is in danger of falling off the map for Romney, he shakes his head. “I’m going to push back really hard on that Ohio stuff,” he says. “There is absolutely nothing we’ve seen that has showed Ohio is remotely out of reach.” The campaign’s polling guru, Neil Newhouse, isn’t as delicate. “I’ve seen every single poll out of Ohio. My firm is also [polling] the Senate race out there. It’s baloney. I’d use stronger language if [Townhall] weren’t a family publication.”
Quizzed on Karl Rove’s “3-2-1” 2012 victory formulation, the operatives flip through a binder of at least half-a-dozen alternative victory scenarios (they underscore the point that 3-2-1 isn’t Romney’s only route), but eventually settle on the page dedicated to Rove’s calculus. Under this model, Romney would have to flip six states from blue to red to win the presidency. Of the first three – Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia – the campaign is most concerned with the Old Dominion State. “Virginia is very competitive,” Newhouse says, “I’m not going to make any news there.” The next two states are Florida and Ohio. “I feel pretty bullish on Florida,” Beeson says. “Obama’s issue metrics are really weak there, on unemployment and on foreclosures.” He also name-checks two key surrogates who will help limit Obama’s advantage among Hispanic voters in the Sunshine State: Senator Marco Rubio, “who is extremely effective all around the state, and especially down in Miami Dade” county, and Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno, who is an asset with the large Puerto Rican population along central Florida’s I-4 corridor. “Florida was a turnaround state for us in the primaries because of our turnout operation,” Newhouse recalls. “We feel really good about our ground operation in Florida.” Ohio is a separate beast. Both Beeson and Newhouse insist that people writing Romney off in the Buckeye State are far off base, but concede that there’s work to be done. It’s not an easy state, they say, but the campaign is devoting a special effort to winning it. “Ohio is going to be a knife fight until the very end. It’s that simple” Beeson intones. “Low single-digits, and a battle” Newhouse says flatly.
If Romney manages to win those first five states, the final piece of Rove’s puzzle is “one.” One additional state -- any additional state -- to put the GOP ticket over the top. Beeson brands this part of the conversation “fun,” eagerly pointing to a large US map on a wall perpendicular to his desk. He and Newhouse talk up Iowa, where polls show a virtual tie. “Iowa launched [Obama] in 2008, but the thrill is gone. He’s been camping out in Iowa for a reason,” Beeson says. “And he didn’t move the numbers there,” Newhouse adds, finishing Beeson’s sentence. Even though Iowa’s employment picture is superior to many of its neighbors’, the Romney strategists say Iowans have an acute intolerance for debt, a topic Romney ads have hammered in the Hawkeye State. They run through a litany of other winnable states, from rosier pictures (Colorado, Wisconsin and Nevada) to the heavier lifts (New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania). Beeson circles back to his home state of Colorado. “We’re doing pretty damn well, all things considered,” he says. “It’s legitimately a one point race. It’s going to come down to [Denver’s] collar suburbs.” He rattles them off, pointing at the laminated map.
Neither Beeson nor Newhouse tries to spin the numbers as evidence that Romney is on the doorstep of victory, but neither man seems fazed by the slight edge their opponent currently enjoys in most national polling. “The Democrats’ convention had a real bump effect, not just for Obama, but for other Democrat candidates, too,” Newhouse says. But the numbers are moving. They’re moving back to us, back to a dead heat.”
There’s another factor at play this year: Enthusiasm, which impacts turnout. The Romney campaign is confident that the electorate will look decidedly different from the one that propelled Obama to a comfortable victory four years ago. “We’re seeing that we’re ahead in many of these states among voters with the highest level of interest and intensity. There are grains of salt that go along with that, but it’s definitely encouraging,” Newhouse explains. “At worst, we are at a level playing field on enthusiasm – at worst – which is a far cry from 2008. That’s why some of these polls with really Democrat-heavy samples aren’t credible.” Whereas the 2008 electorate featured a D+7 partisan breakdown, Newhouse expects to see 2012’s voting public break much more evenly. He ballparks it: “Maybe D+3.”
A key element of exploiting strong Republican enthusiasm is putting a well-oiled ground operation into motion. The Romney campaign believes it’s in a strong position to challenge Team Obama’s vaunted get-out-the-vote apparatus, pointing to several metrics that they say demonstrate marked improvements over the McCain/Palin operation. Romney’s state campaigns have orchestrated seven times the number of volunteer phone calls placed on behalf of the Republican ticket, compared to this stage of the 2008 race. The GOP ground game has knocked on 3.4 million doors as of last weekend. The grand total McCain door-knocks in 2008 was just shy of 2.5 million. The stats in states like Florida and Ohio are even more lopsided. Romney advisors say these efforts are truly critical, as door-to-door solicitations have been established the most effective form of voter contact when it comes to affecting eventual turnout. As of September 15, the Romney campaign had tallied 22 million voter contacts through its army of volunteers.
Twenty-first century campaigns also rely heavily on a robust online presence, and Romney digital director Zac Moffatt isn’t bashful about highlighting his team’s success in that realm. Since the effective end of the primary season on May 1, MittRomney.com has welcomed more than 16 million visitors. The campaign has raised $76 million online, 96 percent of which has come from small donors. Romney has added more than 5 million Facebook friends and nearly 650,000 Twitter followers during the same span. And Paul Ryan’s social media presence has exploded in the weeks since his announcement as Romney’s running mate. He’s netted 3.3 million fans on Facebook and more than 350,000 on Twitter. Far more important than the raw numbers, Moffatt explains, is the level of engagement and activism associated with the respective digital campaigns.
“The way we define success online is through engagement and action rates,” he says, gesturing toward a series of color-coded red and blue data charts on his flat-screen monitor. “Focusing on big numbers is nothing but a vanity project. The intensity level among our supporters is clearly visible online. Our members are engaging with our campaign, and we’re consistently outperforming [the Obama campaign] on a head-to-head engagement scale.” For instance, though Obama has a much larger footprint of digital “friends” than Romney, the Republican often bests his rival on the more salient metric of who is driving online discussion. Moffatt also mentions that according to a Facebook seminar he recently attended, approximately half of Obama’s Facebook friends aren’t American citizens. These people certainly add to his gaudy numbers, but legally cannot have any impact on the campaign itself.
Unsurprisingly, Romney’s inner circle believes their man will ultimately emerge victorious in November. They say their opponents’ outsized summer spending advantage will be erased over the last 50 days as Romney achieves and surpasses financial parity. “Intensity and financial advantages are going to come into play in the last 45 days,” Beeson says. He cites Romney’s advertising ramp-up and the October debates as significant factors that will influence voters as the clock winds to zeroes. Ultimately, though, he predicts victory or defeat will boil down to political trench warfare; an ongoing tug-of-war over turf, turnout and messaging. Lenny Alcivar, a liaison between the campaign’s digital team and traditional communications shop, doesn’t forecast any big break for Romney in the weeks ahead. “We are pretty much exactly where we thought we’d be at this point,” he says. “Would we like to have a clear lead? Sure. But we weren’t expecting that. Heading into the debates, the race is going to be a toss-up. We’re going to be up some places, and we’re going to be tied or slightly down other places. We’re not going to win this thing until the very end.”