Turnout, Not Burnout
After all the debates, campaign stops, and TV ads, it may all just come down to this: Which party can get its voters to the polls?
BLUE BELL, PA.-Here's Rick Santorum's plan to close his challenger's big lead in the polls and pull off a surprise win next week: a phone bank staffed with a half-dozen die-hard volunteers in this Philadelphia suburb. "The Republican Party is committed to protecting America in the war on terror and securing our borders," says Jack Posobiec, a Temple University senior, into a phone receiver on the second-to-last Tuesday before the election. "Can the party count on your vote?" Posobiec takes down the "Yes" response on a sheet of paper that will be scanned into the GOP's vast national voter database, then dials the next number on his list. It's the kind of person-to-person transaction, repeated millions of times over, that forms the grass-roots ground game credited with delivering the Republican gains of 2002 and 2004.
This year, facing its toughest political climate in over a decade (Santorum is just one of several Republican senators in a fight for their political lives), the GOP is counting on that get-out-the-vote machine more than ever. "Turnout in an off-year election is more important than in a presidential election because voters on both sides are less motivated," says a senior Republican adviser. Turnout this year is expected to be down by more than a third from 2004, which is why more than 20 GOP phone banks and volunteer centers across Pennsylvania have already contacted more than a million voters most likely to back Santorum-who is running up to 12 points behind challenger Bob Casey Jr. "The goal is to get [Casey's lead] to single digits by Election Day," says Santorum campaign manager Vince Galko. "The grass roots will take it from there."
Dispirited. With only days to go, however, achieving that goal appears iffy, at best. The revved-up Republican base that staffed the election-eve blizzard of phone calls and door knocks in 2002 and 2004 as part of the GOP's "72-hour plan" now appears dispirited. At the Blue Bell phone bank, one volunteer called a half-dozen Republicans who'd expressed interest in joining this year's "72-hour task force" before finding a taker. The Democrats, meanwhile, say they've improved their ground game since 2004, when the Democratic National Committee's voter file-the road map for turnout efforts-was so glitch-prone that Ohio's Democratic Party couldn't access it until a week before Election Day. In dozens of close races nationwide, the ability of the GOP turnout effort to deliver again, or the Democrats' ability to best it, will determine the outcome next week-and, with it, which party controls Congress.
The Democrats, by relying on organized labor, had historically maintained an edge on turnout operations-until President Bush was elected. But the GOP, under the direction of White House political chief Karl Rove and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, began running its turnout operation like a business, giving state parties customized volunteer recruitment and voter contact goals. In this cycle, Mehlman received weekly reports from state parties that showed how well each was managing its "metric" goals, starting a full year before Election Day.