- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

If elections were engines, voter turnout is the octane that makes them roar. It's no exaggeration that whoever wins the ground game in this year's midterm contests by revving up its partisans will control the levers of power in the next Congress. And while Democrats traditionally dominate get-out-the-vote efforts, a new Republican plan has Capitol Hill buzzing because of its potential impact on the balance of power.
The last two midterm elections taught political pros some valuable lessons. In 1994, President Clinton's party experienced one of the most devastating defeats in American political history, losing 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. In 1998, that same president made history when his party gained five House seats only the second time in the past century that the president's party picked up ground in an off-year election.
The lesson? It's "the turnout, stupid," providing even softly supported candidates a big stick in American politics.
Party "base" voters those most likely to participate and make a difference in off-year elections get energized or depressed depending on issues, circumstances and events. Certain national security, social or fiscal issues get them all wound up, but electoral mechanics simple political tactics such as identifying likely voters and getting them to the polls make a huge difference, too. It's in these trenches playing the ground game where close elections are won or lost.
Democrats have an advantage in this tactical political zone. Labor unions, environmentalists and other liberal activists know how to organize, getting personally involved in the mechanics of get-out-the-vote operations.
Republicans traditionally let turnout take care of itself. As one GOP strategist said, "Republicans write checks and then wash their hands of the nitty-gritty." But the party pays a price for this approach.
Analyzing public and private polls in the 1998 and 2000 elections, Republican Party strategists noticed a troubling trend a significant drop-off in support in the final days before the election. One Republican operative noted that in many contests, "Our candidates were six points up the weekend before the election. Our folks said, 'Well, we're done.' We'd then see these races tighten up and even end up losing some."
Over the past year, the Republican National Committee (RNC) conducted systematic research to explain this phenomenon and the results were unequivocal: Turnout does matter and a personalized approach to voters makes a difference. While this conclusion is not shocking, quantifying the impact of volunteer-focused turnout tactics was. A change in attitude among GOP operatives, as well as Republican volunteers was necessary. Money can buy you a lot of things, but it doesn't always boost turnout.
In test after test, RNC research demonstrated significantly better turnout results using well-trained, community-based volunteers compared to paid campaign workers. It also quantified the impact of sound voter ID programs, providing instructions to newly registered voters, and showing up at someone's door on Election Day.
Two major efforts this November by Republicans will implement these findings, boosting GOP efforts to compete with the Democrats in achieving parity, and perhaps even winning, the ground wars.
One, spearheaded by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, is known as STOMP (Strategic Taskforce for the Organization and Mobilization of People), while another is the Republican National Committee's 72 Hour Program. Both focus on recruiting and mobilizing people in targeted races to engage in personal, hands-on turnout operations. Both are unprecedented in terms of time, detail, sophistication and resources to changing the approach and the attitudes of party operatives and volunteers about successful voter mobilization.
One Republican operative called it "a cultural reformation of the GOP getting back to what we used to do instead of just relying on money." In at least 30 targeted congressional and Senate races across the country, personnel from STOMP and the RNC have already mobilized an army of volunteers down to the precinct level to identify likely Republican voters and get them to the polls on Election Day. Like special forces troops, these electoral commandos are already on the ground quietly surveying the battlefield in preparation for the ground war.
State Republican parties, with help from the RNC, have invested more money this year in volunteer efforts than ever before. The RNC alone trained more than 15,000 people in 40 states as part of this program. STOMP has done the same in 30 competitive congressional districts.
Midterm elections are the talk radio of American politics low participation by a highly motivated group of participants. This smaller universe of voters makes surges or declines in turnout even more significant. The GOP's new ground game may end up providing the president's party with a razzle-dazzle outcome: additional seats in an off-year election.

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