Last month, I wrote that though Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of life is showing up, in politics it's more like 100 percent. With the election now just weeks away, that statement is looking truer and truer.
The polls show the presidential race neck and neck. But that's among people who respond to polls. The actual election will hinge on who actually shows up to vote.
Pollsters try to account for this with "likely voter" models, which adjust the raw data based on who's likely to go to the trouble to vote not just spout off to a pollster. But those models are more art than science.
So the outcome hinges on who's genuinely motivated enough to vote -- and to encourage other, like-minded voters to do the same. In politics, this is called the "ground game," and it gets a lot less attention than the "air game" of TV commercials, etc., because, well, covering the ground game requires reporters to get off their butts and report, as opposed to just channel-surfing.
In 2008, Obama had the GOP beat hands-down in this department. His motivated army of volunteers, including many college students, was knocking on doors, arranging to drive people to polling places and generally stirring up the enthusiasm. McCain's people, on the other hand, were mostly just going through the motions.
In 2012, things are likely to be different, but the race may well turn on whether they are different enough.
College students -- perhaps contemplating a lifetime of living with their parents in the depressed Obama economy -- aren't showing the kind of enthusiasm they showed last time around. Now it's the Obama campaign that seems to be going through the motions.
Republican grass roots, on the other hand, are motivated. As someone I know said on Facebook recently in response to the latest press flap about an alleged Romney gaffe, "Is there anything Romney could say that would keep me from voting against Obama in November? Hell no." That sentiment seems to be widespread.
Also, the Tea Party -- which wasn't around back in 2008 -- is adding grassroots muscle that the GOP lacked last time around. All over the country, Tea Partiers are doing the unglamorous work of knocking on doors, compiling voter lists, arranging Election Day car pools and so on. And in some places, they're going further.
One project -- Volunteers for Virginia -- aims to take people from red states like Tennessee and Texas and get them to Virginia, a swing state, to do grassroots work between now and Nov. 6. Another group, NobamaNevada, is taking Tea Partiers from deep-blue California to work in swing-state Nevada. In both cases, the idea is to move resources from where they won't help to places where they will.
That's the sort of thing that big-bucks professional campaigns do all the time. But this time, the Tea Party movement is doing it on its own. Self-organizing, rather than being organized.
For two reasons, I think there's more of this going on than meets the eye.
The first is that it's hard to cover. I only know about these two operations because people who read my blog emailed me about them. Grassroots organizing, more or less by definition, takes place under the radar. (In fact, the old USAF term for flying below the radar was "in the grass.") And many Tea Party activists are probably happy to do without press coverage, for fear that will encourage people on the other side to get organized too. Tea Party groups, and allies like Americans For Prosperity and Freedomworks, are happy to communicate with supporters and volunteers via email and websites, but are probably just as happy not to get media coverage that might inspire the opposition.
The second, of course, is that the mainstream press isn't very interested in covering this kind of thing anyway. Stories about Obama grassroots organizers in 2008 were fine. Stories about the Tea Party organizing this time around would conflict with the preferred (if somewhat contradictory) narratives that the Tea Party is (1) just a bunch of billionaire-funded astroturf; and (2) a preserve of racist "bitter clingers" who are too busy digging for Obama birth certificates to engage in hard political work.
Either way, these kinds of initiatives will make a difference. The question, again, is whether they'll make enough of a difference.
In 2010, the Tea Party movement delivered a huge setback to Obama and the Democrats in congressional elections. And from 2010 up to now, it's delivered telling blows to insufficiently responsible Republican legislators in one primary election and caucus after another. (Just ask former Utah Sen. Robert Bennett, or Indiana's Richard Lugar, or even the victorious but chastened Orrin Hatch).
But now comes the Tea Party's biggest test. Can it swing a close presidential election against a dependency-loving incumbent, and in favor of a fiscally responsible challenger?
It's an important test for the Tea Party movement, and for America. Stay tuned.