Looking at Get-Out-The-Vote: Who is More Effective?

Contrary to the impression conveyed in many media reports, I have been arguing that I have seen no clear sign that either Obama or McCain has run the more effective campaign, strategically speaking.  Instead, media claims that Obama’s campaign is better organized is partly predicated on his massive advantage in money to spend.  One way in which that advantage ought to manifest itself most heavily is in the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.  We would expect. Obama’s campaign to be more effective than McCain’s at getting people to the polls.  This was a topic raised by Adam Lovell much earlier in the year, and we are now in a position to try to answer his question: which organization has the better GOTV?

Some 30 states have early voting, so we can use turnout in these states as an early indicator of the relative effectiveness of the GOTV for both candidates.  Of course, states cannot report actual vote totals as yet, but several pollsters have been surveying the early voters, so we can draw some conclusions.  CBS reports that about 25% of registered voters have already voted, and they report that early voters back Obama 56%-41%. Pew has 32% of likely voters already casting their ballots with Obama up 52%-39%.

However, how do we know that the Obama advantage in early voting is due to their GOTV superiority?  Maybe it simply reflects the broader support for Obama more generally, as well as the greater level of enthusiasm shown by Obama supporters?  One way to address the marginal impact of GOTV is to ask voters if they have been contacted by either the McCain or Obama campaign.  Several pollsters have asked that question.

The Wall St. Journal/NBC polls find almost no difference in the likelihood of voters getting contacted by either campaign: 24% of voters were contacted by both candidates’ organizations, 10% by the Republican only, and 12% by the Democrats only. (Btw, this proportion almost exactly mirrors the contact data from 2004, but the number of contacts has almost doubled).  So, in total, 36% of voters have been contacted by Obama, and 34% by McCain.

Gallup paints a somewhat similar picture; they find that 39% of registered voters have been contacted by the Obama campaign, but only 33% by the McCain campaign. . Interestingly, however, blacks report a much higher rate of contact – almost 4 times more – from Obama than from McCain.

Of course, not all contacts are the same: We know from previous studies that personal contact is the most effective way to get out the vote. Which organization is doing better at that? Fortunately, Pew breaks the contacts down by category: mailings, telephone calls (personal or automated) or personal visits. About 14% of registered voters have been personally contacted by someone from a campaign. Here we find that 18% of Obama supporters have received a personal visit, but only 10% of McCain supporters.  McCain has tended to rely more heavily than Obama on direct mailings.

Not surprisingly, then, based on data through Nov. 1, it appears that the disparity in funding has provided an edge to Obama in terms of GOTV, particularly in his campaign’s ability to target potential supporters through personal contacts.  (Truth in Advertising: I should acknowledge here that my oldest son did door-to-door canvassing for the Obama campaign this summer.  You should NOT take that as an expression of my partisan leanings or support for either candidate, however.)   Of course, we will know just how much of an edge tomorrow.  But this could prove crucial in the 5 battleground states on which hinge McCain’s very slight chance to pull out an Electoral College victory.


  1. Hotline/Diageo yesterday had data on this – 38% of LVs had been contacted by phone or in person; of those approached by only one camp, it was Obama’s by a 5:3 ratio.

  2. I’m a little skeptical that an advantage in early voting necessarily correlates with a better GOTV program. Perhaps Obama supporters are simply more enthusiastic, or the Obama campaign is putting more of an emphasis on early voting (I think both are the case).

    I also would like to challenge your suggestion that if Obama has a better GOTV program, it is due specifically to his fund raising. My sense is that Obama has a leg up in volunteers as well as fund raising, and that his campaign has been good at channeling the volunteers through online programs in a way McCain’s campaign has not.

  3. George – that’s precisely what I say in the post. Give it a second read and you’ll note I specifically warn against correlating early voting with GOTV.

    You are right about volunteers – by definition they don’t get paid! – but even here money could give Obama an advantage in putting together an infrastructure to reach out and organize volunteers. The problem with measuring the impact of volunteers is that I have no data on that and, as you probably know by now, I don’t make claims unless I have some data to back it up.

    Rob – thanks for the data. It’s consistent with what Pew is saying at least.

  4. Regarding superior organization: Obama has 70 field offices in Virginia to McCain’s 21. Obama has 45 field offices set up in North Carolina whereas McCain shares 40 field offices with the RNC, congressional, and other lower ticket Republicans in North Carolina (from the Economist, week of 10/27).

    When I tried to find more information on field offices for both campaign I learned that apparently fivethirtyeight.com tried to find out how many field offices McCain had set up in Missouri and were denied access or comment.

    I do not have any evidence that this extra organization will translate into a more effective GOTV strategy, but I can comment with some confidence that having more field offices, more volunteers, and a better established organization can’t hurt Obama’s GOTV effort on election day.

  5. Garrett – I don’t think there much disagreement. Not that anyone needs additional evidence, but it’s just another indication of the massive resource advantage Obama possesses. I’ll post updated polling data for these states in a bit, but suffice to say McCain is closing on Obama in the polls in both North Carolina and Virginai. If they are close going into tomorrow, one would expect Obama’s GOTV to make the difference.

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