The Ground Game

The “Ground Game” is an interesting thing this year. Traditionally it’s about turning on “The Base.” To understand this quirk of politics, I suppose it is best to understand a little economics.

Every year you hear the lament about how the voter turnout was so low. From an economic theory this is strange because what an economist might ask is, “Why is voter turnout so high?”

Public Good

By this I mean that voting can be seen as a a public good (in the economic sense). What a public good is—for those of you too lazy to click on my links—is a good produced where the benefits are enjoyed publicly instead of privately. Examples of public goods are roads, libraries, national defense, community police, fireworks.

Capitalist economic models are bad at distributing public goods because of the lack of transparency in people’s utility: the amount of good a group should purchase should be the sum of their utilities; the amount of good that actually gets purchased ends up being up to the highest marginal utility. That’s an awfully mathematical way of explaining something very simple.

Let’s say you and a bunch of your neighbors wants to fire off some fireworks to celebrate July 4th. If you did it privately, you’d probably maybe spring for some crappy Roman candles and bottle rockets so the smart thing to do is to pool your resources together and get some really kick-ass fireworks because all of you are going to be enjoying it. So you and your neighbors agree that you’ll all say how much you’re willing to pay and throw it into a pool.

But then you think to yourself, “Well shit. I can just say I don’t really like fireworks all that much (even though I do) and only contribute the amount I’d have paid for those bottle rockets. But then I can enjoy all the benefits of some kick-ass fireworks.”

The problem is, your neighbors are thinking the same thing and none of you really know how much the other is lying about their real value and instead of having some nice fireworks you pretty much end up with some really big versions of those crappy Roman candles and bottle rockets because that’s all the money that was collected.

That’s public goods.

…now onto voting

The same could be said for voting: “Well shit. (Unless I’m living in Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004) I can’t really influence the vote anyway so why bother to go to the polls. Besides I have work to do and I could be making money for myself during that time.”

See? Voting is a Public Good.

Only people who seriously do not value their time would vote and turnout would be a couple of percent at best.

It follows from this logic that it is impressive that voter turnout is so high. But economists are not to be so diminished and they would say that they achieve some sort of utility in voting that isn’t directly related to the election—how much is your patriotism worth? let me quantify it!

It also follows from this that if you want to make turnout high, you should concentrate on either making the stakes high (like the current election) or you should make the costs low. It would be undemocratic to think otherwise. It would be unrepublican also since those best equipped to make voting decisions are going to have correspondingly better use of their time that will be traded off in order to vote.

This was also my way of rationalizing my lack of participation in any election from 1992 to 2000. It’s also why I seem so passionate now to some. I am naturally conservative, frankly felt that I had more important things to do with my time than bother with politics and I’m pissed as hell some people have fucked the country up so badly with their radicalism that I have to get involved and express my political views actively. I could be figuring out the grand unified field theory or some shit, instead, because of fuck-ups like them, I have to go to the polls a mindlessly pull the “D” levers like a trained monkey.

And to think I was only mildly amused in 2000 when I came across Clearly with 20/20 hindsight, a chimp would have been a better steward of this country.

Back to the base

The concept of “The Base” naturally follows from this. Have you ever looked at the poll numbers? A particular party’s ticket is a senile man of questionable mental faculty and definitely devoid of moral character running with a winky-she-Bush who has a witch doctor for a priest and thinks Dick Cheney didn’t piss on the Constitution enough. And get this, this party has de-facto run the government for the last 28 years and their platform is one of “Change.” All this and still you can’t get anyone in Vegas to give you odds on anything less than 40% of America voting for these bozos.

That’s “the base.” In the end, people are pretty much going to vote who they’re going to vote for and elections are decided more on whether or not you can get them passionate enough to actually go vote at all!

The ground game

What’s interesting about the ground game is that accounting for it is the “secret sauce” in any pollster. When you hear that this polling has a “Republican” bias or “Democratic” bias, it probably isn’t the bias of the pollster themselves but how they weight the data they get into a “likely voter” model.

When you look at the raw data, all the pollsters pretty much get the same thing to within a point or two. But each has a different likely voter model. Don’t believe me? Well were you aware that exit polls are historically very accurate, but they weren’t in 2004 because exit polling voter models were not properly weighted for the fact that younger people are more participatory in exit polling? If you are wondering where all the liberal conspiracy theories about how the 2004 election “was fixed” come from: it comes from that discrepancy.

So think of the “ground game” as being the X factor difference between what you see in the poll and what ends up happening.

Get Out the Vote

When it comes to the Democratic version of a ground game, it has been a single strategy: “Get Out the Vote.” The idea is that since almost everyone in America agrees with the Democratic Party on almost every issue, the correct counterbalance to a “Get out the base” is to get everyone to vote and know that most people who vote would probably be voting Democrat. This year, that’s going to be pretty extreme. For every 100 votes in the 24-30 year old demographic that get mobilized, that will amount to a nine vote edge for Obama.

The cynical me thinks Democratic GOTV effort vs. the Republican “mobilize the base” one is because the Republican Party’s insight into voters and voting preferences has been far more advanced than the Democratic Party’s. In fact, the Democratic Party’s voter database is only two election cycles old and this is the first cycle it has been used cooperatively within the party. The Republican Party’s database has been in operation and refined for the last seven election cycles!

The Fifty State Strategy and the Ground Game

Someday I’ll need to write a blog entry on how all this economics shit relates to the failure of Triangulation but let’s just say that recently elections are proving the death of that strategy in the Democratic party and the rise of the Fifty-State Strategy.

So what happens when you apply the Fifty-State strategy to a Get Out The Vote Effort?

There are similar reports everywhere, but I the reason I blogged all this was I wanted to single out this anecdote from Texas:

I am a 42 year old ex-Republican. About the only thing I have ever done in an election campaign is to place a bumper sticker on my car.

I have been going out every day for the past two weeks. Early on, my canvassing partner and I ran into two young black men – bling, tattooes, etc. I try not to be racist – but it was all I could do not to be scared to death. They came up to us – and we introduced ourselves. The one gentleman’s name is Kai. I asked Kai if he was registered to vote – he said No and we discussed how he could register. He looked up at me – and I swear he was tearing up in his eyes – he said – “You are the first white man who has ever spoken to me with respect in my life. I appreciate all the work you are doing for Obama.” He then asked for more registration forms – he took about 100.

I understand from a friend at a local official registration location that Kai did indeed show up – with about 50 of his friends in tow. I actually started crying.

Texas will still, in all probability, go red; my state, most definitely will be blue. Still, on November 4th, I will cast my ballot. I hope, no matter which side you vote, you will to.

10 thoughts on “The Ground Game

  1. Great post, Terry–I didn’t realize quite how awesome you were.

    They should just finally kill the electoral college while the Dems have Congress. Or at least randomize the order of the party primaries.

  2. Oh, I’m not planning to vote this year. (Utah has the lowest chance of flipping according to Intrade of any state I saw on casual investigation.) I was just impressed that you’re as good at explaining economics as you are tech.

  3. @Braden: Thanks for the compliment (I think) on my ability to explain things. 🙂

    While it doesn’t have a state-by-state breakdown, I much prefer Iowa Electronic Markets to InTrade. The latter don’t have rules in place that make them resistent to rogue trading. 🙂

    I’m not surprised Utah has the lowest chance of flipping Blue (as for flipping in general, I’d think Hawaii—traditionally blue state, Obama hails from there—would give Utah a run for its money). I’d have thought Idaho also. In fact, any state with a large Latter Day Saints (Mormon) population, for that matter.

    My mom’s family is from Utah, so I feel your pain. 🙂

  4. Wow, Obama’s up to 84% on the IEM? Remarkable. I’d expected that Intrade would normalize once attention was called to the price manipulation. Thanks for the pointer.

    Well called on Hawaii: it’s also at 2%, as is, yup, Wyoming. (Idaho’s at 3%; Arizona’s at 7%.)

    Oh yeah? I hadn’t caught that. It’s a nice place to live on the whole, but yeah, the politics are pretty depressing.

  5. In this map, comparing Obama to Kerry, the following things stand out:

    Appalachia: either race or a partisan swing in the area toward republican (or both). (Race, not racism. Appalachia is intensely white which may just mean that the minority vote swinging to Obama didn’t have as much an affect here so the partisan swing of the area dominated.)
    Arizona: McCain’s home state
    1CD in Minnesota: one of the few states McCain outspent Obama
    Indiana: big ground game and spending movement by Obama campaign.

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