I don't know that it was in any way decisive, but apparently the Republican Party's Get Out The Vote effort fell completely to pieces on Tuesday [h/t The Other McCain] due to over-centralization and reliance on tech that was just not ready for prime time.
Now hear this: You can lose a hotly contested election even with a great ground game and very effective GOTV (for example, by telling the fastest-growing voter demographic that their relatives should "self-deport"). But you can't win a hotly contested election without them.
I live in St. Louis county (Missouri). While the city and north county are overwhelmingly Democratic, south/west county are largely Republican, and county-wide races can be competitive.
In an election year, it goes something like this:
- Months before the election, I start getting direct mail from candidates of both parties.
- Weeks before the election, Democratic candidates start leaving stuff on my door and sometimes knocking on it.
- Weeks before the election, Democratic party workers start knocking on my door to find out whether or not I am registered to vote and GET me registered if not (presumably they do not do this in the Republican parts of the county -- they're hitting areas where they expect the people they register to almost certainly vote Democrat).
- A week or two before the election, I start getting robo-calls to tell me how close it is and how important it is that I vote. Those calls run about 3:1 Democratic.
And on election day, my phone rings off the hook with prominent Democrats urging me to vote, offering me a ride to the polls, screeching that the election depends on my participation, etc. Back when I voted, those calls stopped once I and my wife had voted, which leads me to believe that there's a watcher at each polling place, communicating to the phone banks when they can scratch names off lists.
At the polling places, both parties have signage out, and both parties have campaign workers greeting voters with sample ballots, brochures, etc. There are usually 15-20 Democrats and one or two Republicans. The local Democratic Party workers -- and in many cases the candidates themselves -- come around in the morning with coffee and breakfast food for those workers. They come around at noon with box lunches. They come around in the afternoon with bottled water.
This is in an area where there is no doubt whatsoever that the Democratic candidates will win the races in the immediate area. The reason for the herculean GOTV effort is to boost the Democratic vote count for county-wide and state-wide races and in the presidential election.
In 2008, I ran for Congress in the gerrymandered Republican second district down in south/west county*. And what did I find there? Same thing -- the Democrats had everything wired up to perfection. The Republicans were barely visible. The Democrats knew they weren't going to win that congressional seat, but they still wanted as many Democratic votes as they could get to influence the outcome in the countywide and statewide races. The Republicans either figured they didn't need to work a safe district and could take the day off, or else they bused their workers to other places where the local outcomes were more in doubt.
I suppose it is possible that there are areas of the country where the GOP is as well-organized as the Democrats are here. But I've never heard of them. When I hear about a well-oiled ground game and GOTV project, it's always the Democrats.
The Romney campaign's "Project ORCA" appears to have been an attempt to put together an election day GOTV effort as good as Obama's. It fell apart in implementation, but they tried. And even if it had succeeded, it was too little, too late. Their ground game needed to have extended back into the weeks and months before (and by "ground game" I don't mean big rallies and sign-waving, I mean identifying and registering likely Republican voters and motivating them to get their asses to the polling places -- or to vote NOW in early voting states). Their GOTV effort needed to have emphasized early voting by the base as well.
My personal friend and political opposite, Eric Dondero, went Greyhound from Texas to Ohio to help out the Romney campaign. His description of his work there sounds like his dedication and willingness to work were not efficiently utilized. They had him doing things like waving a sign and button-holing random passersby in areas where there might be some votes to be had. If he had been put to work with a list of likely Republican voters, knocking on their doors and driving them to early voting centers, he'd probably have drummed up more Romney votes. Not his fault, of course. He showed up and asked to be put to work. They just didn't make the most of that.
Was ground game / GOTV the decisive factor in the election? I don't know. I'm still pretty sure that demographics, especially the Latino vote, played a big part. But it was certainly a major factor in the outcome.
* My Republican opponent was Todd Akin, he of "legitimate rape" infamy. I polled more votes than any third party candidate, or any combination of third party candidates, had polled in that district since at least as far back as 1996.