Ohio ground game: Three yards and a cloud of dust

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

LEWIS CENTER, Ohio—For all the fascination with high-tech campaign apps and social networking strategies, the volunteer armies for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney go into battle equipped with the oldest political weapon of them all—the clipboard. The voter contact lists may be based on sophisticated algorithms, but the streetwalkers and the door-knockers of politics still depend on time-honored techniques like broad smiles, practiced pitches and infinite patience.

Wearing a bright red Romney T-shirt and carrying dog treats to win over barking pets, Sharyn Sytsma stands on Natalie Chubb’s front porch and says, “My name is Sharyn—and I’m a volunteer for the Ohio Republican Party.” We are on Big Sur Drive (the Ohio Big Sur without oceans or mountains) in this affluent Columbus suburb where houses go for more than $300,000. This is a Republican neighborhood and within seconds Sytsma—whose only prior political volunteer work was as a college student for Richard Nixon in 1968—is racing back to the trunk of her car to get a Romney-Ryan lawn sign for Chubb.

With the cooperation of the Romney and Obama campaigns, I am accompanying dedicated canvassers on their appointed rounds. This is the non-glamorous side of campaign 2012,  the political equivalent of legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes’ strategy of "three yards and a cloud of dust." My footsore goal is partly to get a sense of the ground game that could make a difference in a close election. But I am also trying to piggyback on the Romney and Obama lists to spot the most elusive prey in 2012 politics—the truly undecided voter.

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in the Columbus area with just a few fallen leaves dotting the sidewalks as a harbinger of autumn. I first caught up with Sytsma, a business manager, in a bustling strip mall that housed the Romney headquarters filled with more than three dozen volunteers serving the southern portion of Delaware County. (In 2008, John McCain carried Delaware County with 59 percent of the vote.)

Within a few minutes, Sytsma finds what I’m looking for. Phil Horstman, a middle-aged industrial engineer who voted for McCain in 2008, tells the smiling Sytsma, “I really don’t like Barack Obama, but I don’t like the direction that the Republicans are going in either.” At my prompting, Horstman explains that Romney & Company are “too pro-business.” He continues: “They exclude a lot of folks. Most people don’t own a business.” Horstman also tellingly brings up Romney’s "47 percent" comment to illustrate the GOP nominee’s ability “to put his foot in his mouth.”

But predicting voting behavior based on front-porch banter remains a tricky business. Horstman has scant affection for Obama (“too anti-business”) and will not be watching Wednesday night’s opening-gun debate because he has to work. But Horstman gave a hint of where his final voting sentiments are apt to end up when he says, “I hope Romney does real well in the debate.”

Jay Smith, a 62-year-old Columbus commercial real estate broker, is Sytsma’s political doppelganger. The veteran Democratic volunteer—his sister Gayle Smith is a top White House foreign policy adviser—is the Obama leader in German Village, a hip neighborhood of 19th-century brick homes near downtown. Instructing a small group of new Obama canvassers on Saturday morning, the white-haired Smith tells them, “Remember you’re representing the president of the United States. Overwhelm people with kindness.”

On Saturday morning, we have gone down a few steps on the economic ladder from German Village to knock on doors in the adjoining Merion Village. This is a largely Democratic transitional neighborhood on its way back up, where homes on small lots without historical pedigree cost about $100,000. When Smith finds Democratic voters like a woman in her late 50s with a faded “Love Hurts” tattoo and a marginal job baby-sitting, he urges them to take advantage of Ohio’s early-voting rules.

But as we walk along Southwood Avenue, Smith’s canvass sheets direct him to Kevin Scholl, a wavering 2008 Obama voter. Scholl, a firefighter wearing shorts and a white T-shirt, explains that he is not making up his mind until he watches Wednesday night’s debate. Smith, ever the salesman, stresses that Obama needs another four years to get the job done; he also pauses in his hucksterism to admire the vintage jukebox in Scholl’s living room.

In response to my questioning, Scholl is vague about precisely what he is looking for in the debates. But he knows what bothers him—the bailouts. “The bailout thing was a mystery to me,” he says. “Not the auto bailout, but the Wall Street bailout.” Still, in a reminder that all politics is local, the major source of Scholl’s ire is Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich and his efforts to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions like the firefighters.

It is folly to draw any big-picture Ohio conclusions from my Saturday front-porch politicking in the Columbus area. But walking the beat with Sytsma and Smith did underscore a reality about ground-level campaigning for both Republicans and Democrats: Fewer than 20 percent of all voters are home and willing to chat with a stranger on their doorstep on a Saturday.

So the next time you hear a campaign operative for either Obama or Romney brag about the number of “door knocks” by volunteers, remember that the real hidden number is “door answers.”