Setting aside any shenanigans the Republicans pulled in Ohio in 2004, the takeaway (as I remember it) was that Kerry had met his turnout model target but was overwhelmed by an unanticipated level of turnout in the rural areas of the state that was driven by evangelical organization. Karl Rove had made sure that an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment was on the ballot as a carrot for the churchfolk, and they turned out to approve it with 62% of the vote.
So, in that sense, I agree with Kevin Drum that a big part of the Republicans’ turnout machine is not going to show up if you are just looking at how many field offices Romney has established. On the other hand, this year there are no ballot measures in Ohio to act like catnip to the evangelicals. This year, the ticket includes a Mormon and an Ayn Rand/Catholic, instead of a southern Methodist. If the GOP is relying on the self-motivation and self-organization of a bunch of evangelical communities, they may not get as much of a boost out of that this time around.
There is also the issue of efficiency. A centralized organization allows you to take the voter list and winnow it down. You don’t want to be wasting time contacting voters who are definitely going to vote for you or who have already voted. You don’t want to knock on the door of someone who has already told one of your organizers to get lost. You want a contact list that is small and manageable that has as much meaningful information about the voters as possible. That’s why the Obama team pushes early voting so hard. Once someone votes, you can take them off the list and concentrate on people you actually need to reach.
When you are trying to coordinate with a bunch of megachurches, there is simply no way to match the kind of winnowing and efficiency with which the Obama Team operates. So, even if you have an equal number of bodies in the streets and on the phones, you won’t be anywhere near even. To give a real life example of what I am talking about, in 2008 I spent election day knocking doors in Coatesville, Pennsylvania for Obama for America. We had a great walk-list. But we were tripping over the heels of SEIU volunteers who were working the same turf without updated walk-lists. The only difference between us is that we had less doors to knock. We were doing the same job, but the SEIU was doing it less efficiently. We had that turf covered, so their effort was basically unnecessary. That was a failure of coordination between the campaign and the SEIU which may have been a result of some legal barriers to coordination. But the point still stands. If we had that minor problem of inefficiency and redundancy, the Republicans will have that problem on steroids.
The Republicans are relying on the RNC to do most of their voter mobilization, but the RNC is working mainly out of congressional or local party headquarters whose main responsibility is to elect state officials or U.S. congressmen. It’s important to realize that the GOP has the megachurches doing supplemental work for them just as it’s important to keep in mind that the unions are doing supplemental work for OFA. But it is safe to say that Obama’s turnout operation is and will continue to kick the ass of Romney’s turnout operation. And that should be good for two to three points in the final outcome. However, that doesn’t mean two to three points better than the polls indicate. A lot of Obama’s organizational advantage is already captured by the polls because they have already improved registration ratios and they have already made a ton of voter contacts, and they have already built up an early voting lead. But their advantage will continue to help them every single day the polls are open, too.