Secret to Obama’s success: A great ground game

President Obama won re-election in part because his crack campaign team understood 2012 voters and put together an impressive ground operation. Out of professional respect, Republicans should refrain from cracking jokes about the president’s erstwhile profession, community organizing. That’s what I took away from recordings of Harvard’s Institute of Politics quadrennial presidential campaign autopsy, which were released Monday.

Team Obama conducted nightly surveys of 9,000 likely voters in 10 battleground states. Because of those surveys, campaign manager Jim Messina told the gathering, “We thought we knew exactly where the electorate was.” The campaign’s targeting was so tight that national field director Jeremy Bird was able to see support slacken at Ohio State University and respond by multiplying the campaign’s presence. Messina claimed, “We knew exactly who we had to go get.”

The Obama campaign continually asked not only for people’s votes but also for their time and engagement. Call your friends, the campaign would urge supporters, and make sure they vote for Obama, too. Digital campaign maven Teddy Goff boasted that an astounding 99 percent of the campaign email list voted.

Political consultants like to think of themselves as the secret ingredient that wins or loses races. The Obama campaign, to the contrary, depended upon volunteers and field workers. In 2008, the campaign sent out regular “state-of-the-race memos,” then-campaign manager David Plouffe wrote in his book, “The Audacity to Win,” because, “It could not have been more important for our supporters to understand how we saw the race and to know why their money and time were so important.” The campaign saw grassroots supporters “as full partners and had designed a campaign with the belief that they could make the difference for us.”

You could call the 2012 Obama operation a successful marriage of old-style ward-heeling to state-of-the-art numbers-crunching and milking social media. The journalist moderators asked Team Romney if GOP candidates would have to moderate their positions on, say, immigration, to win in 2016. Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades regretted the campaign’s decision to hit Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants as well as Mitt Romney’s call for illegal immigrants to engage in “self-deportation.”

The GOP ticket’s share of the Latino vote has fallen since George W. Bush won about 40 percent of that vote in 2004. John McCain garnered 31 percent of the Latino vote, Romney 27 percent.

Ron Paul adviser Trygve Olson suggested that the party might want to channel some libertarian ideas to attract enthusiastic young voters.

Matt David, who advised former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in the race, posited that the GOP might want to rethink a couple of positions but argued that the real reason for a Republican freak out is technology. “The GOP is far behind there.’”

The last strong push to modernize the GOP, GOTV (get out the vote), came in 2004. It’s time for an upgrade at the Republican National Committee. Quoth David, “The beauty of technology is that you can buy it. The challenge is that you need the institutional knowledge to use it.”

I wish the Obama White House cared as much about the economy as the campaign cared about winning. But I have to respect success. Obamaland knows how to appeal to voters. Republicans should listen and learn.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is

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