POLITICS OCTOBER 23, 2008
Mark Feest is doing all he can to get John McCain elected. Unfortunately, the McCain campaign hasn’t always made that easy. Feest is the chairman of the GOP committee in Churchill County, a rural region of some 26,000 people in northwestern Nevada. Feest complains that the campaign doesn’t seem to understand the nature of rural areas. “Early on, his campaign was sending materials to Las Vegas, hoping we would pick it up,” Feest laughs. “That’s an eight hour drive!”
Feest isn’t alone. As McCain’s plummeting numbers begin to adversely affect down-ticket races across the country, local GOP officials are becoming increasingly frustrated with a presidential campaign they see as a drain on their resources while providing little in the way of support. While the McCain campaign may have imported the take-no-prisoners ethic of the Bush campaign, it seems not to have adopted its ruthless efficiency. Interviews with local GOP chairmen in swing states across the county reveal a campaign unable to capitalize on the enthusiasm of its base, struggling to respond to Obama’s superior resources, and neglecting the basic logistics of outreach. The disconnect between local operatives and the campaign continues to grow as McCain is put on the defensive in an increasing number of states each week.
The most common complaint from local GOP officials is the McCain campaign’s inability to provide adequate campaign materials to local offices. “We’ve only got about 1,000 yard signs so far, and we could have used at least 3,000,” says J. Richard Hornstein, GOP Chairman in Ashtabula County, Ohio. “They’re not being supplied, there’s no literature, there’s very little of anything.” Some local organizations have resorted to printing their own makeshift signs out of desperation. “We’ve gotten nothing in almost a month,” says another GOP county chair in a swing state, who, like many local officials contacted for this article, asked not to be named discussing the campaign’s problems. “It’s been rather embarrassing and hectic.”
Party officials lament that disorganization from the presidential campaign reflects poorly on local efforts. “For a lot of voters, the only contact they have with the party is when they’re trying to get top-of-the-ticket literature,” says Chris Dean, GOP chairman in New Hanover, North Carolina. “We don’t want that to be a negative experience for them.” And when enthusiasm spiked after the Palin nomination, the McCain campaign provided insufficient resources to local offices to enlist these new supporters. “People are almost, I won’t say hysterical, but almost to the point of upset,” says Wayne York, chairman of the GOP organization in Auglaize County, Ohio.
Obama's aggressive ground-game in GOP states has forced the McCain campaign to spread its meager resources even further. "He was doing really well [here]," says a GOP chairman in a newly competitive state, "and, all of a sudden, it's an even race. Does that mean they're going to spend more money here? I don't think so--because there's no money left." The tightening map is only further straining local offices that would rather be worrying about their own races. "We're asked to supply volunteers for the [campaign] to make phone calls," the chairman adds. "But my problem with that is that I'm trying to run my own county organization ... and now I'm being asked for more volunteers, which I don't have." The result is a drain on local coffers: "We're spending our own money, which should be used for the local candidate.”
Beyond material support, local chairmen complain most about the McCain campaign’s ineffective communication and coordination. “[In the national campaign] it doesn’t seem that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” says another chairman who requested anonymity. “When we go to plan an event, there might be two people from the McCain campaign replicating everything the other person is doing. You have one person who thinks they’re in charge, but the campaign has contacted a different individual. It has been somewhat bewildering.” As a result, coordinating events is often hurried and frantic. “People buy tickets through the campaign’s website, but they don’t send that information to us,” says another county’s political director.
County chairs cannot help but express their envy of Obama’s organizing efforts. One chairman states flatly that “without a doubt” Obama has far surpassed John Kerry’s effort in 2004. “They didn’t even have an office here last time around,” he says, speaking of a conservative region in which Obama has now matched McCain’s manpower. “If you had told me a year ago that Obama would have an office in Williamsburg, [Virginia] I would have told you [that] you had been drinking too much,'' Ralph Bresler, a Democratic county chair in Virginia, told Bloomberg this week. (McCain aide Mike DuHaime dismisses Obama’s registration efforts by claiming that the McCain effort has been more “surgical.”)
But the most striking comparison for GOP officials is between McCain and Bush. “Bush was better organized,” says Hornstein. “Supplies of materials were better, and there seemed to be more help and communication between local and national parties.” York, the GOP county chairman in Ohio, echoes the frustration of many local officials in saying that the McCain campaign has been forced to respond to events rather than pursue a coherent strategy. “With Bush, we had three-ring binders with the whole battle plan laid out in January,” York says. “With this campaign, there’s no three-ring binder.”
Eric Zimmermann is an editorial web intern at The New Republic.