WATERLOO, Iowa --- Republicans went into Election Day confident.
They felt they had the edge in enthusiasm.
The thought was this election was all about the economy. They could win on the national debt.
It turns out, the election was decided largely based on organizing, identifying voters and getting them to vote.
Democrats did it better.
"I think the lesson from this election from the top down was we primarily got beat on the ground game. I felt we won the message war, we won the arguments, but we lost the ground game," said Justin Bartlett, who served as campaign manager for Republicans Walt Rogers, who won re-election to the Iowa House, and Matt Reisetter, who lost a close Senate race.
President Barack Obama's campaign drew rave reviews for its efforts in the 2008 campaign to identify voters and create data-bases to tailor its outreach to specific blocks of voters. The resulting turnout helped carry Obama to election then in a wave.
In the intervening years Obama's team kept up relationships with volunteers in states like Iowa while continuing to build on the voter data it had assembled. In the spring of 2012, Obama's Iowa campaign began making voter contacts, re-establishing connections from four years ago.
Obama established 67 campaign offices around the state, while Mitt Romney's campaign had 13. Some of the difference in the approaches was evident at the offices. The Republican office was often manned by a handful of young volunteers, often college Republicans. At Obama's Waterloo office, a handful of paid staff, including those brought in from places like California and Missouri, worked closely with a couple dozen local volunteers.
"I think it did make a difference, very definitely. I think we did a tremendous job. Everybody worked day and night," said Pat Sass, Black Hawk County Democrats chair.
As the election neared, most polls showed Obama with slight leads in nearly all of the battleground states. Republicans still were optimistic, claiming the polls were based on a voting base that looked like 2008, while they thought Republican momentum would produce a pool of voters more similar to the one that re-elected George W. Bush in 2004.
Throughout the campaign, Democratic operatives exuded confidence in their ground efforts. Those efforts produced an electorate that closely matched the 2008 version.
Republicans hadn't sat on their hands since 2008. They had learned from Obama and put a renewed effort into winning on the ground. Mitt Romney's campaign established its own data operation, and Republicans made concerted efforts to knock on more doors and get more of their voters to cast early ballots.
"I do know that the Black Hawk County Republicans worked harder than they have in the past on our absentee ballot program, on our early voting, so that was better than it's been," Rogers said.
But evidence of the Obama effect on the ground made election night much less dramatic than anticipated. In Iowa, early and absentee voting added up to an insurmountable lead. Republicans closed the gap in early voting from 2008, gaining 32 percent of the early vote to 42 percent for the Democrats. In 2008, that split was 18 percentage points. However, early voting as a whole was up, meaning more actual votes in the bank for Obama and Democrats down the ballot.
In addition, Democrats weren't just making contact with their base, they were reaching out to voters who weren't registered with a party and encouraging them to vote early. In Black Hawk County, absentee ballots were breaking 2 to 1 for the Democrats, sinking a pair of Republican candidates who built leads in voting at the ballot box.
Sass confirmed the Democrats made a concerted effort to reach out to independent voters. They locked up early votes from independents with an interest in Democrats' key issues.
While many pundits speculated enthusiasm among young voters would be down after four years in a rough economy, that didn't prove true. Nationwide exit polls showed voters age 18 to 29 made up 19 percent of the electorate, up 1 percent from 2008. In Cedar Falls, lines of voters at precincts near the University of Northern Iowa included many students registering to vote on Election Day.
In the end, Obama's campaign organization not only helped propel the president to victory, but helped win U.S. Senate races and boost local candidates across the nation. They proved the doubters wrong.
"The other side was bragging leading into the election that the ground game was going to win for them, and I think a lot people were skeptical of that, and I think we were skeptical of that. I think they proved they were right about that, their ground game did what it needed to do," Bartlett said.