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Campaign ’04: Fighting For Every Last Vote

16 minute read
Karen Tumulty Perry Bacon Jr. and Eric Roston/Columbus

IN LANCASTER, OHIO, A FAST-GROWING SUBURB OF COLUMBUS WHERE cornfields are giving way to subdivisions, the Bush re-election headquarters at 120 East Main Street ran out of yard signs after giving out 3,500 of them and is scrambling to get more. Each evening, volunteers pour into a nearby building to make more than 1,000 telephone calls–their share of the more than 30,000 that George W. Bush’s campaign says its ground troops make in Ohio every night. When the sun comes up, the volunteers are out knocking on doors across Fairfield County. “I don’t think it’s close,” says Jim Mergler, 61, of the race in the county. Mergler is a retired teacher who voted for Al Gore in 2000 but is spending six hours a day this year going house to house for the Bush team, because, he says, they were the ones who asked him. “The Democratic Party in this county doesn’t exist.”

Apparently, Mergler hasn’t noticed 1201/2 East Main Street–up a mere flight of stairs from Bush headquarters. The John Kerry–John Edwards posters in the windows of James M. Linehan’s law offices give a hint of what is going on there each night when a smaller but equally determined band of Democratic volunteers takes over the premises for its own phone-bank operation. Linehan thought he knew just about every Democratic activist in the county, so he was startled when dozens of strangers showed up at an organizing meeting in his office last month. It turned out they had received e-mail invitations from the national campaign’s field operation and had come from all over the county to help. Although Linehan admits that the Democrats are still outgunned by the Republicans in a county that Bush won handily in 2000, he says he believes the Kerry insurgents can narrow the gap to the point where Kerry’s advantage in other parts of the state will enable him to carry Ohio. “I’m telling you we’re going to win this state,” Linehan says. “We have received more requests for signs than ever before. We’ve had more volunteers. The ranks of the Democratic Party have swelled unlike any time I’ve seen.”

That is what campaigning comes down to with three weeks left until voting day in a high-stakes election that a record number of Americans say they are following intensely, with polls showing the race too close to call. The battleground, once thought to comprise 20 states, is shrinking: Democrats and their allies, for example, are quietly redeploying some of their forces out of Michigan, which they are beginning to think they have won, and Arizona, which is starting to look like a lost cause for them. The number of undecided voters is minuscule–only 3% in a TIME poll last week–though the figure masks the volatility of the race. One in 10 Kerry supporters said they had supported Bush in the past few months; 5% of Bush supporters said they had supported Kerry at some point recently.

If you are among the majority of Americans who live in blue zones like New York and California or red ones like Texas and Mississippi, you probably have heard little more from the campaigns than the distant rumble of artillery–the flicker of a campaign ad as you flip from TLC to the Golf Channel, a quick glimpse of a candidate who is in the area to raise some money. But if you live in Ohio or Wisconsin or Florida or Pennsylvania, you are getting more attention from the presidential campaigns than you would expect in a hotly contested school-board race. In the town of Portsmouth in Ohio’s depressed southeastern corner, the turnout was high when President Bush visited last month. He was, after all, the first President that Portsmouth’s citizens had seen in person since Herbert Hoover in 1932. Thousands cheered Kerry at his rally in Newark, the seat of Licking County. They were celebrating what local records said was the first visit to the town by a presidential candidate since William Henry Harrison came in 1840. Kerry skipped Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s speech before Congress on Sept. 23 to spend some quality time with the Republican-leaning editorial-page writers of the Columbus Dispatch.

Both sides say the election is ultimately going to be won or lost in the battles that are raging block to block, house to house–and even, on Main Street in Lancaster, floor to floor. Given the relatively small slice of swing voters, the two campaigns, along with an array of outside organizations, are aiming their efforts primarily at their bases. That means finding their voters, registering them if they aren’t already, keeping them excited about the race, getting them to vote early where it’s possible and, come Election Day, making sure they get to the polls, even if doing so means loading them into a van and driving them there.

The weapons are as old-fashioned as yard signs and leaflets; the tactics, as post-millennial as data mining and microtargeting. If you live in the right precinct, a database somewhere probably holds information that not even the person who sits in the next office knows about your voting record, the issues that matter to you, the church you attend, even the things you like to do on weekends (see story, page 38). All year, both sides have been showing up at the doorsteps of millions of potential voters, asking them their views on gun control, the death penalty and abortion and trying to figure out what it will take to get them to vote. Catholics get regular emails telling them about the President’s position on gay marriage or providing a Web page where they can see a picture of Bush with the Pope. Sportsmen are linked to a page that shows Bush with a shotgun.

Some novel tactics of voter mobilization are being tested as well. Votergasm.org is asking for volunteers to have sex with a voter–and to withhold from nonvoters–on election night. Convinceyourmom.com offers tips for the “frustrated young lefty” for swaying his or her parents to vote against Bush. An ad in a local paper in the northwestern tip of New Mexico sought young women 16 to 28 who could “do a dance number and represent American diversity” at Republican events. Applicants, it warned, “must be able to smile and stay pleasant for long hours.”

Even as the two sides are pouring more resources than ever into the ground war, they have developed very different battle plans. The Kerry campaign has built the Democrats’ largest ground operation ever, with an army of volunteers who last weekend were planning to knock on 1 million doors in 20 states. Among those who have joined the effort: Sarah Lawrence College president Michele Myers, who took a sabbatical and moved from New York to Ohio, where she is staying with a friend and working the phones each night for Kerry in the studio-apartment-size Licking County Democratic headquarters.

An even larger effort is under way through the $125 million campaign being waged by an outside group, America Coming Together (ACT), which is coordinating its effort and sharing its information with organizations representing environmentalists, women, labor and the poor. ACT claims to have made 3.7 million visits to voters’ homes in Ohio alone. By law, such outside groups cannot work directly with the Kerry campaign, and their activists don’t mention Kerry’s name as they go door to door. Canvassers instead talk about Bush and use their Palm Pilots to show videos that are tailored to the interests of individual voters. ACT relies heavily on paid workers, such as 2,000 members of the Service Employees International Union who have taken leave from their regular jobs. The organization’s goal is to make contact with targeted Democratic voters seven or eight times during the election season. Is there overlap with the Kerry operation? “I hope so,” says Karen Hicks, who is running Kerry’s ground war from the Democratic National Committee. “I hope we are crawling all over each other.”

The Bush operation, on the other hand, is being run with an Amway-like business model from its campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va. Democrats have long been better than Republicans at the ground war–something Bush campaign workers learned the hard way in 2000, when the comfortable margin they were seeing in pre-election polls suddenly disappeared on Election Day. (Political professionals generally focus on polls of “likely” voters, which don’t anticipate big surges in turnout.) In the last election, five polls in Ohio showed Bush winning by as many as 14 points; he actually squeaked by on fewer than 4. The Democrats “just beat the socks off the Republicans in 2000 on the ground,” acknowledges J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state.

The Bush campaign this time set about to rectify that with a plan they say will actually prove more effective than the better-financed Democratic operations. “It’s a bit of a culture shock,” says a Republican official of the sustained and face-to-face commitment they are asking of their volunteers. “Some are used to just writing a check, and that’s it.” Much of the organizing is being done through churches. The campaign stirred up some controversy earlier this year when it began asking its recruits to turn over their church directories. The Bush strategy, road tested in some key congressional and gubernatorial elections in 2002 and 2003, relies far more heavily than the Kerry plan does on volunteers, who are given what amounts to sales quotas and are expected both to sell the candidate and recruit more volunteers. “Think creatively about other people who may not be registered,” reads a campaign e-mail. “Do you have a Christmas card list? Or sing in a church choir? Are you a member of a veterans’ group? What about the other parents on your child’s soccer team? Have you touched base with your old friends from school lately?”

THERE’S NO BETTER PLACE TO SEE THE ground war in action than in central Ohio. With its 20 electoral votes, Ohio is one of three states–along with Pennsylvania (21 votes) and Florida (27)–that commanders in both campaigns believe will determine the outcome. Win two of the three, they say privately, and the race is over. Ohio has special symbolic significance for its near-perfect record for picking winners in presidential elections. The campaigns and their allies have spent $72 million bombarding Ohio voters with political ads that have been shown some 82,000 times on television since March more than in any other state, according to figures by the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group. Nowhere in Ohio is the race more hard-fought than in Democratic-tilting Columbus and the ring of six reliably Republican counties that surround it. “It could well be that whoever wins the Columbus media market wins the state,” says Steve Rosenthal, the head of ACT who has spent more than a few days walking precincts there. “And whoever wins Ohio, well …”

Which is why Monica Frost, a single mother leaning on her neighbor’s beat-up Nissan in a black neighborhood north of downtown, knew exactly why Cosby Lindquist, 27, was heading up the walk one sunny afternoon last week with a Palm Pilot in his hand. It was not the first time she had talked to someone with “this little computer thing.” Lindquist pressed a button and handed it to her as an image of Bush appeared on the screen and an announcer listed how many African Americans had lost their health coverage and their jobs in the past four years. “You think that will affect your vote?,” Lindquist asked hopefully. “Would you be interested in being a block captain?” By the time Lindquist left, Frost said she would consider being one.

Lindquist, an art-school grad who has delivered pizza, has worked as a crew member on a blimp and is a photographer, has been making about $10 an hour, six days a week, doing this kind of work for ACT since January. Democratic veterans like former state party chairman Paul Tipps say ACT’s operation is more focused and better coordinated than any they have ever seen in politics. But others are worried whether outside operators who are being sent into urban neighborhoods will really connect with and galvanize a notoriously recalcitrant group of voters. Or even keep track of them: at several houses where Lindquist stopped that afternoon, the registered voter had moved without leaving a phone number or forwarding address. “We don’t bring 300 kids from Ohio State University into the inner city of Columbus,” says David Leland, national director of Project Vote, a nonpartisan arm of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which claims it has registered more than 50,000 voters in the Columbus area. “I don’t know that they have the same credibility, and they’re not as effective” as community activists, says Leland. Adds a top Republican official: “They are registering people who historically don’t vote. It’s sloppy, and it’s very hard to do the follow-up work.”

By comparison, the G.O.P. effort is hyperpersonal. The Republicans are relying on volunteers like Billie Fiore, a paralegal by day and Licking County’s Bush-Cheney campaign coordinator the rest of the time. The front seat of her station wagon is filled with maps, the back with yard signs. Fiore has replaced the baskets of voter-registration materials she once carried in the back seat with absentee-ballot forms to give to potential Bush voters who might not make it to the polls on Election Day. She says workers from her pool of 3,000 volunteers are making a total of 500 to 1,000 calls a night, and she’s happiest when the numbers they bring back show 80% for Bush. And while the Bush campaign would like more than 63% of the vote in Licking County, Fiore hopes to bump it up to more than 70%. When volunteers aren’t working the phones, they are given other tasks: writing letters to the editor, calling talk radio, distributing yard signs. The campaign watches their quotas closely all the while for indications of flagging interest. The reward for a job well done might be the best seats at a Bush rally or a signed photograph from the President.

It’s around Election Day that the real push begins. By then, the state G.O.P. wants to have each volunteer take responsibility for turning out 25 specific households that are likely to vote for Bush. The staffing charts for the past five days are already on the wall at the Licking County headquarters in suburban Columbus. By last Monday, 350 shifts were filled with 100 volunteers. Republicans, like Democrats, say this is an operation unlike any they have ever seen. “The grass-roots effort did not exist in 2000,” says Richard Finan, a former G.O.P. state senate president who is working with a group called Catholics for Bush. “We tend to think grass roots is less sexy, but it does the job.”

The Democrats, who have been at this longer, say these novice volunteers, however eager, aren’t going to produce what the G.O.P. hopes they will–especially when they are trying to fit politics somewhere between working a job, coaching soccer and attending church. “That whole operation is smoke and mirrors,” says Greg Haas, the veteran political consultant who ran Bill Clinton’s Ohio operation in 1992. “It might be good at generating big rallies, but it isn’t anything like what’s happening on the other side.”

IN MOST STATES, THE FIRST PHASE OF THE ground war had ended by last week, when the voter-registration deadline passed. There was ample evidence of the effectiveness of both sides’ field operations, as registrars across the country reported being swamped by the incoming applications, their staffs working nights and weekends just to process the paperwork. Mary Jo Long, director of the Licking County Board of Elections outside Columbus, is two weeks behind–despite the fact that her staff has been working 10 hours a day for the past two weeks, and last week added a seventh day to the work week. In the swing district of Berks County, Pa., two separate partisan groups showed up within five minutes of each other to drop off a total of 4,000 new registrations at the office of the director of elections. Michigan secretary of state Terry Lynn Land predicts that 96% of the state’s eligible voters will be registered to vote in this election. In Florida, where Bush pulled out his victory in 2000 with a hotly disputed 537-vote margin over Al Gore, 1 million people have registered to vote since then. “People are coming out of the woodwork to register,” says Ion Sancho, the supervisor of elections in North Florida’s Democratic-leaning Leon County. “These are new people, people who have never been to the polls. I expect a record turnout.” Most, he says, are not registering as members of either party, which suggests to him that “they are registering to vote in the presidential race, and the presidential race only.”

Reports from the most closely contested areas suggest that the Democrats have made the greatest gains in registration, primarily by working urban and minority neighborhoods. Republicans say they aren’t fazed, that the Democrats’ hired guns are turning in incomplete, fraudulent and duplicate registrations that they plan to make sure are thrown out before the balloting starts.

But there are early indications too that Democrats are showing their traditional turnout edge in the absentee and early voting that is already going on. Early voting got under way Sept. 23 in Iowa, and Democrats say the early tallies in the six biggest counties suggest that ballots of registered Democrats are coming in more than twice as fast as ballots of registered Republicans.

Which is why, for now, the Democrats say they are confident they will once again be proved the masters of the ground game. “We believe that if Kerry is behind in the polls by two or three or four points on Election Day, he will win,” Rosenthal says. “We’ve built the best field-goal unit in America. All we need is for the quarterback to get us in range.” But privately, Democrats are more than a little nervous–particularly about what the Republicans will produce when they turn on their operation full force for the last 72 hours of the campaign. Says a veteran Democratic organizer: “They are catching up in the advantage the Democrats have historically had. We won’t see until Election Day how much they have caught up.” –With reporting by Elizabeth Coady/Lancaster, Michael Peltier/Tallahassee, Nathan Thornburgh/New York, Matthew Cooper and John F. Dickerson/Washington

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