DAYTON, Ohio -- One sign dominated the landscape when President Obama made a campaign stop here on a warm, sunny Tuesday afternoon in Triangle Park. The sign did not say "Obama-Biden," or "Forward," or some other slogan. It said, in letters that stood nearly six feet tall: VOTE EARLY.
"Before I begin, I want you all to look at those two words: Vote Early," Obama said, pointing to his left immediately after taking the stage to raucous applause. "Do it now."
Many had already. "My whole family's already voted," said Cynthia Walker, of Dayton, as she waited for the president.
"Yep, early voter," said Mark Brown, of Dayton.
"Oh yes," said Bernice Brett, of Beaver Creek.
Not long before the crowd gathered in Triangle Park, top Obama campaign aide Jim Messina discussed strategy on a conference call with reporters, and it was clear that Obama's path to victory in Ohio relies completely, totally, and absolutely on early voting among constituencies friendly to the president. At times, Messina seemed less a strategist than a walking, talking encyclopedia of every, black, Latino, female, and young voter who has already or might soon cast an early ballot in Ohio.
"We're winning the early vote in the battleground states that will decide this election," Messina said. "The Romney campaign has bet that young people and minorities won't turn out. The early vote numbers are already proving the folly of that gamble, and the wisdom of our plan."
Messina is particularly focused on what are called low-propensity or sporadic voters -- that is, voters who can't be relied on to show up at the polls regularly, who might or might not make it to vote on Election Day. If Obama can bank their votes early, he won't have to worry about them on November 6. "Sporadic voters matter," Messina explained. "It can't just be about getting your traditional Democrats to vote early. If that were the case, then we'd be wasting our time and money. This is about increasing the overall share of people who may be drop-off voters…"
So far, there are indications the Obama/Messina plan is making progress. In the latest Rasmussen poll, released Wednesday, which showed the race in Ohio locked in a 48-48 tie, Obama led among early voters by ten percentage points. The problem is, that's less of a lead than Obama had among early voters in 2008. So now, the president is frantically pursuing all those sporadic voters out there, begging them to cast a ballot early.
That's the essence of the Obama re-election effort less than two weeks from Election Day. Team Obama knows the campaign doesn't have the magic it had in 2008. Crowds are enthusiastic, but not over-the-top enthusiastic. Obama's strategy is to make up the excitement gap by just grinding it out, doing the organizational work of getting the people most likely to support the president -- blacks, Latinos, women, the young -- to vote early. By doing so, he hopes to build up a sufficient bank of votes to prevail over Romney on November 6. It's the no-magic campaign.
One fact that seems sometimes lost in the obsession with early voting and the ground game is that Obama remains a very, very good campaigner. Certainly at Triangle Park he delivered what could only be called an extraordinarily polished performance. In recent days the Romney campaign has characterized the president's stump speeches as "increasingly desperate." Perhaps that's true, but the fact is, Obama is still an impressively effective campaigner when it comes to delivering speeches at old-fashioned political rallies. Comparing Romney and Obama on the stump is no contest. Even without the messianic promise of his 2008 campaign, the president is still a far, far better performer.
Obama has clearly been stung by criticism that he has no second-term agenda. In Dayton, he held up a newly-printed, glossy, 11-page booklet outlining his jobs plan. "I want to talk about what's in my plan just so everybody knows exactly what I intend to do over the next four years," Obama said. "My plan will actually move America forward. It's not just a sales job. It's not a sketchy deal. It's not the okeydoke."
The Obama supporters who've come to the rally believe the no-agenda critique is entirely unfair. "I think that's a farce," said Terry Littlejohn, of Trotwood, Ohio. "He spelled it out."
"That's malarkey, a whole bunch of malarkey," said Richard Clay Dixon, who served as mayor of Dayton from 1987 to 1994. "[Obama] stopped the free-fall in terms of unemployment." (Joblessness has, indeed, gone down in Dayton. After ballooning in the last months of 2008, hitting 10.4 percent when Obama took office in January 2009, it continued to rise, maxing out at 12.4 percent in January 2010. Since then, it has fallen slowly to 7.3 percent in August, although, like the rest of the nation, Dayton's workforce has shrunk at the same time.)
"He's got a second-term agenda," said Tommie Maxwell, of Dayton, who came to the rally wearing a PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'VE GOT YOUR BACK t-shirt. "Who shouldn't have a second-term agenda are the people that we have in Congress. They shouldn't have a second term, because they have stopped everything. And you know what? The reality of this is, it's not so much about the president as the fact that they want this African-American out of the White House. They don't care. He could have done somersaults. But the bottom line is, it comes down to black and white."
African-Americans make up about 43 percent of Dayton's population, compared to 12 percent of Ohio's population overall. Triangle Park is in a largely black part of town, and blacks appeared to make up at least half the crowd. Tuesday's rally was all about Obama revving up a base that already supports him wholeheartedly, but might not have made a trip to the polls yet.
Early voting began in Ohio on October 2. Now, early voting locations are open from eight in the morning until seven at night -- and they'll stay open all the way until Election Day. Obama's website carefully explains how to vote early, and in Ohio the president's team is constantly sending out tweets like, "Mark, a Vietnam veteran, already voted for @BarackObama! Follow his lead: OFA.BO/VoteOH #OHVotesEarly." Arriving at the Triangle Park rally, one woman explained how the campaign had been calling her at home, stopping her at the grocery store, and meeting her on the street, all to encourage her to vote early. Obama is betting everything on those early votes.
But the Romney campaign says it's a bet Obama will lose. Scott Jennings, who is running the Romney campaign's on-the-ground operations in Ohio, said Team Romney is matching or exceeding the Obama early-voting operation. Just last week, Jennings said in an interview, Romney volunteers knocked on 292,000 doors in Ohio. ("There's no other target state in America where any campaign knocked on that many doors.") Beyond that, Jennings said the campaign made 400,000 phone calls in the state last week.
The Romney campaign's thinking is not that it has to beat, or even match, Obama in early voting here. The way they see it is that Obama won by a 20-point margin among early voters in 2008. Right now, according to Romney officials, Obama is well off his '08 pace, and Romney is ahead of John McCain's '08 pace. If the early voting remains close, then Romney will win on November 6, when he will have a big lead among voters who actually go to the polls on the appointed day. "I think as mail-in ballots come in, we are going to continue to close the early-voting gap, and we are going to blow them out on Election Day," said Jennings.
The Obama campaign disputes all of that, maintaining it is ahead of its 2008 early-voting pace. But watching the president on the stump, and listening to his top advisers, it's clear something is seriously different this time around. There will be no incredible tide of Obama-mania in the few days remaining before the election. Instead, a second Obama term will depend entirely on those sporadic voters who might not even vote if the campaign didn't bug them constantly.
"Here in Ohio, you can vote early," Obama told the crowd in Dayton. "You can vote right after this event….Anybody who is here and has not yet voted, I want you to go vote."