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One-Doorbell-One-Vote Tactic Re-emerges in Bush-Kerry Race
April 6th, 2004 - The New York Times - They call it the ground war. And as anticipated, it is back after a long hiatus, subtly changing politics as we know it. Or trying to.
After decades of playing poor relation to television advertising, grass-roots politics has become a campaign star this year, as many political pros predicted it would be in the aftermath of the Bush-Gore face-off of 2000. And today it ranges from old-fashioned shoe leather to Web technology that can make a precinct captain of anyone with a computer.
It is a matter of adaptation, or survival of the most flexible. With the country still so sharply divided that political analysts figure as few as 10 percent of voters are undecided, each side is fighting to find and bring out every last one if its voters, and persuade the "persuadables," too. That means competing door to door, computer to computer, Web site to Web site. A ground war to complement the air war.
"It's funny; it's in vogue," said Steven Rosenthal, a former labor organizer now directing America Coming Together, one of those new tax-exempt groups in pursuit of a large Democratic turnout. "Some of us have labored in the trenches of grass-roots politics for a lifetime and fought with the party leadership for more resources," Mr. Rosenthal said. "Now it's the thing to do."
It is at least one thing on which strategists for President Bush and John Kerry agree.
"In a world where there is a wealth of information, there is often a poverty of attention," said Ken Mehlman, Mr. Bush's campaign manager. "A face-to-face communication is most often the most credible and effective way to reach somebody."
In the days of ward politics, when the country was smaller and the technology simpler, the party bosses knew a lot of the voters personally, and they or their lieutenants kept tabs on them. They knocked on their doors, harangued them, slipped literature in their mailboxes, rewarded loyalty with a ticket to a ballgame here, a letter of recommendation there. Maybe a job.
Then, with the Kennedy-Nixon campaign of 1960, television took over and made such tactics anachronistic. Why knock on 100 doors when one TV ad can reach millions? Now, campaign tacticians have decided that all those millions of people do not necessarily want to hear the same message. They want to hear about what they care about. Solution: everything old is new again; the return of ward politics, sometimes with a high-tech twist.
"We're going back to the 1950's," said Karen White, political director of Emily's List, the powerful political action committee that helps elect Democratic women.
So hundreds of union workers attend a weekend camp preparing to spend months away from home in search of Democrats from Florida to Pennsylvania. And Republican volunteers meeting in the solid Bush town of Macon, Ga., are instructed in the political arts of calling radio talk shows and sending e-mail. A computer specialist uses marketing tools to distinguish Democrat from Republican, another invokes the importance of blogs. And a former Republican national chairman, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, warns party stalwarts gathered in Washington that "this will be a close election, and the best-organized campaign will win it."
John Kerry's advisers voice equal enthusiasm for the new-old strategies.
A Surgical Approach
The goal is basic: identifying supporters and some undecided voters, then appealing to them directly and repeatedly.
"We're going to find every Bush voter, we're going to call them, we're going to write them, we're going to knock on their doors, and when the day comes, we're going to physically take them to the polls," Ralph Reed, coordinator in the southeast for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said to those meeting in Macon a few weeks ago.
The reason for the ground war's new popularity is simple: a bipartisan belief that grass-roots appeals work, and almost worked to elect the other guy last time.
"In both parties, particularly in the Republican Party, we got away from what we were best at," Mr. Reed said. "We focused money on media and polling, on contrasting our message with Democrats mostly through paid TV ads."
"Then in 2000, we won the presidency by in effect 537 votes out of 105 million," he continued, referring to the Florida face-off. "That tends to focus the mind."
Republicans, shocked by the loss of the popular vote in 2000 and their razor-thin margin, if that, in Florida, credited Democrats with besting them on the ground in the campaign's last days. Vowing never to be caught short again, they put together a detailed plan (the "72-Hour Task Force") to beat their rivals at their own game in the 2002 midterm elections, and succeeded.
Now both parties have rediscovered their roots, with significant help from the new campaign finance law. It spawned nominally independent groups, largely on the Democratic side so far, that use unlimited "soft money" contributions for get-out-the-vote activities. In the past, much of that same money would have gone to television ads about candidates.
These days, the race has begun to organize from the bottom up, focusing on about 20 battleground states: those that were so close in 2000 that a small edge in any one of them could theoretically decide the outcome this time. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and, of course, Florida top the list.
Television is not going anywhere. "Nobody would be dumb enough not to include it," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic consultant. "But there are limits to TV."
Television audiences have grown cynical about political advertising, many analysts are convinced, and fragmented by the Internet, cable, talk radio and magazines.
"If you are going to communicate effectively you need to take account of that trend and act accordingly," Mr. Mehlman advised.
The Game, the Dinner, the Blog
That means campaigning retail as well as wholesale, at the high school football game and the church dinner, through Web sites and blogs and e-mail messages -- techniques that, as Howard Dean demonstrated, were popular because they can be, or at least appear to be, personal. The pros even have a phrase for it: niche communications.
It is customized campaigning, appealing to women in Los Angeles who favor abortion rights; to voters in Colorado worried about the environment; to the concerns of the Nascar dad and of the millions of evangelical Christians who did not go to the polls in 2000 in the numbers the Bush team had hoped they would, as Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, has lamented.
They will be aggressively politicked this time, just as conservative men, normally apathetic in nonpresidential elections, were in the Georgia governor's race in 2002. The Republican, Sonny Perdue, won in an upset, in part because his party identified those voters and persuaded them that Mr. Perdue shared their concerns. Still-smarting Democrats charged that Republicans lobbied conservative men about the Confederate battle flag, to Republican denials that they focused particularly on the flag.
Now, both parties are already trying to find and motivate their voters. These include people like Bonnie Rainwater of Elyria, Ohio. Elyria is a Democratic working-class neighborhood about a half-hour's drive from Cleveland. Ms. Rainwater, her toddler at her knees, was home one late afternoon when Tarina Howard rang her doorbell to say she was trying to register voters.
"Things on the news don't interest me, but with the war going on and me having a little one, it's scary," Ms. Rainwater said, explaining that she and her husband, a sanitation worker, were struggling to make ends meet. She filled out a registration form, one of several collected by Ms. Howard and about 30 others canvassing that afternoon in Elyria for the Ohio branch of America Coming Together, the organization that Mr. Rosenthal directs.
ACT, as it is called, uses mostly the contributions known as soft money and, under the campaign finance law, is supposed to be independent of the Democratic Party. It can register people in blatantly Democratic areas like Elyria and can ask about issues and party preferences, but it cannot overtly urge a vote for or against any candidate.
Definitions are murky, though, and Republicans as well as leading advocates of changes in campaign law are challenging the way such operations are financed. But it is expected to take the Federal Election Commission months to resolve the objections and clarify the rules, and meanwhile groups like ACT are at work, paying students and unemployed men and women $8 to $10 an hour to go door to door with hand-size computers and state voter lists.
Ms. Howard, a 20-year-old single mother, made out a voter registration form for Ms. Rainwater and entered Ms. Rainwater's concerns about the economy and the war into her mini-computer.
Voter registration efforts are nothing new, but the scope this year is unusual, people in both parties say. ACT is also overseeing an ambitious plan to send as many as 2,000 members of the Service Employees International Union, half from New York, into largely black and Hispanic areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida to register and canvass voters. Starting this week, workers will take job leaves ranging from a few months to seven; ACT and the union will pay for lodging, transportation, a daily food allowance of $35 and a salary of $600 a week, slightly more than some now earn working in hospitals and nursing homes.
Republicans are doing their own organizing. "We're going to run like we are behind," Mr. Reed told the more than 250 party workers who went to Macon for a training session in late winter. "This campaign is going to be won or lost by what we do at the grass roots."
Participants were instructed in a highly detailed plan, complete with organizational charts and an official manual marked confidential for each county chairman. They were lectured on the importance of writing letters to newspapers in support of the president. They were urged to diversify each county organization to include a social conservative, a Hispanic, a veteran, a teacher, a representative of a small business and an African-American. They were assigned specific goals for registration and turnout in each county, got tips on the importance of bumper stickers and shared information on where to get the best bunting and how to comport themselves if they called radio shows.
"We want short, specific comments," said an associate of Mr. Reed, Timothy Phillips. "We're not looking for personal attacks. And gather e-mails from folks in your county. We want permission. We don't want them to get angry about spam."
According to Mr. Mehlman, more than 220,000 volunteers, called team leaders, have signed up nationally to work for the president's re-election, and the party's goal is to register three million new Republican voters to help elect Republicans to statehouses and Congress as well as to retain the White House.
Oops, Wrong Candidate
There are of course, limitations and risks in the ground war. No amount of grass-roots campaigning can make up for a candidate who does not go over with the public. And campaigners can inadvertently energize voters for the opposing team. In Elyria that afternoon, Ms. Howard found herself registering Jose and Juanita Torres, recent arrivals from Puerto Rico who said they liked Mr. Bush. (Their voter registration forms will be duly submitted, said Jess Goode, ACT's Ohio communications director.)
In practice, campaigns can use voter lists and other public records to paint an ethnic, racial and political portrait of a neighborhood, but they cannot be sure about the politics of every individual.
Or can they?
This year, both parties are experimenting with new technologies that build lists of about 170 million potential voters. Each name is cross-indexed with demographic and financial information drawn from public records and some commercial sources.
Computer experts are using the data to try, for the first time, to profile millions of voters, to figure out if they are worth contacting. It has never been done this way before because the technology was not sophisticated enough before. The question now is whether the technology will ever be reliable enough to typecast the public's politics by the millions.
"People want a quick fix, they want to believe that if I can find what magazines you subscribe to, I can know how you will vote," said Laura Quinn, a consultant to the Democratic National Committee. "It just doesn't work that way."
Others say it can but is not quite there yet. How does it work? The experiments are up and running.