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The insider: what’s really happening inside the campaigns on election day

The stage is set for the Romney/Ryan election night event in Boston, Massachusetts. EPA/Matt Campbell

It is now election day in the United States. You can compare being on an American political campaign on this final frenetic day to spawning salmon giving their all to leap waterfalls before they die.

Media coverage tends to focus on what the candidates and their senior advisers are doing. This typically means photo opportunities outside polling stations or subway stops, and these might shake out a few extra votes. But all they can really do at this point is to wait for news from the “get out the vote” (GOTV) operation, and that is where the real story is unfolding.

A friend of mine could tell you about the successful Republican congressional campaign he worked on. On election day, the campaign manager picked up a senile woman from a retirement home and drove her to the polls. Passing as her relative, he helped her to vote for the “right” candidate. Every extra vote counts.

American political consultants will tell you that every campaign has three resources at its disposal: people, money, and time. When election day dawns, campaign staff know that there are only about 12 hours left to make a difference.

Teams of volunteers, usually students for the field work and pensioners for the GOTV phone calls, are already in place. Campaigns have the right to check that polling places begin the day with a clean count, and their volunteers remain outside of the polling areas to distribute literature and to take a headcount of voters. Campaign headquarters check-in with volunteers frequently to compare turnout in friendly vs. unfriendly precincts, and to make determinations about whether volunteers need to be moved around to more competitive precincts. Although official results are not available until after polls close, the campaign number crunchers already have a pretty good idea by lunchtime whether it will be sweet or painful night.

Still, the entire election day effort remains focused on GOTV. Likely friendly voters will have already been contacted by the campaign, sometimes in the form of multiple pre-recorded “robo-calls”, and anyone who says they plan to vote but has not done so yet will receive very generous offers of transportation and assistance.

I have voted in-person in three American states, all with completely different voting technologies and levels of privacy, and every experience has been a smooth one. Every time I served outside of a polling place, the experience was similarly drama-free. Confrontations of any kind between opposing volunteers are exceedingly rare. Everyone is just too busy trying to coax out those last few votes from a complacent system that provides no incentives to wait in a queue, and no penalties for simply ignoring the election entirely.

Over the weekend, I emailed a friend who is currently volunteering in Iowa as an attorney for the Obama campaign with the brief of preventing voter disenfranchisement at polling stations. He has also been a candidate for office himself, and he described the total immersion in the moment as follows:

You can tell the difference between a winning and a losing campaign based on what the volunteer turnout is like and other metrics of enthusiasm, but on election day, it does not matter. Everything is going into it, no matter what. If anything, a winning campaign is far more nerve-wrecking. If you’re already losing, there is nothing to lose, so you can do and try anything. On a winning campaign, the stress is enormous. You do not want to be the person that somehow screws it all up and costs your candidate the election.

Teams of volunteers hit the phones to “get out the vote” ahead of Tuesday’s election. EPA/Michael Nelson

Eventually the polls close, and if campaigns are lucky they will still have people at each precinct to stay for the tabulation. I did this in 2006, trying to drive on the freeway as I read over my mobile phone the precinct vote for each race and ballot measure to campaign headquarters. I had a couple of close calls on that sleet-lashed autumn night, but I finally made it to the big rally in the end.

The campaign victory parties represent the culmination of hours or years of effort. They are open to the public and held in large meeting spaces, usually hotel ballrooms, but sometimes rented restaurants. They might have cash bars, but most do not offer food: there is no point in undersupplying hors d’oeuvres to college kids who have not eaten all day. There is a stage surrounded by placards, and in the back are giant TV screens set up so that the faithful can follow the race. But these are annoyingly muted, along with the up-tempo pop music on the house system, whenever some functionary sees fit to make an early speech. In recent years, the political junkies now simply huddle in corners with laptops, phones and tablets to compare notes about other races around the country, while the local activists crowd the dais to listen to community leaders.

Most Americans like to back winners rather than go all in for game underdogs, and we tend not to be tribal enthusiasts. At sporting events, fans expecting a lopsided defeat for their team head for the exits early to avoid traffic.

Likewise, you can tell whether a campaign has a shot by the size of the party it is attracting. On my first election night in Boston, in 1994, the hotel ballroom for Senator Ted Kennedy’s victory party was far larger than the adjoining room for the Democratic nominee for governor who was losing by more than 2-1 in the polls. Even tables full of cookies by the front door were not deterring the rush of university students and labor union volunteers from Kennedy’s overcrowded celebration. In Pueblo, Colorado (just visited by both VP candidates) in 2010, the Democratic election party emptied out as soon as it became clear that the local incumbent congressman would lose, and only a few hardy souls stayed around to watch their senate candidate edge to victory.

So, as you watch correspondents report “live from Romney/Obama campaign headquarters” (which is really a hotel somewhere nearby) you will be able to learn more about the state of the race by watching the crowd behind them.

In 1996, election night was quite different. The Massachusetts Democratic Party had adopted a Coordinated Campaign model, which seems to be used now by Democrats in many states, and there was a single election night event for the presidential, senate, and congressional campaigns. The big name in the room was John Kerry, who won a hard fought senate reelection against the popular Republican governor just mentioned, and his staff, with whom I had recently interned for a year, ran the “main event” of the evening’s victory. Clinton-Gore operatives nonetheless remained at the far back of the ballroom smoking celebratory cigars and taking down addresses to send inauguration tickets to student volunteers who had worked on GOTV.

Nearly a quarter of a million people gathered on election night in 2008 to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory in Grant Park, Chicago. EPA/Kamil Krzaczynski

Ultimately GOTV is everything on election day, and increasingly during weeks of early voting. The necessity of spending all of the campaign’s resources simply getting supporters to the polls is perhaps why the campaigns do not spend more time educating the public about the issues involved. The barrage of negative TV ads to which voters have been subjected for months are frequently intended not to get persuadable voters to change their mind, but to drive down enthusiasm for the opponent so that some supporters simply stay home.

It is well worth considering what election day in America would look like if we had the same voting requirements that Australians do.

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