- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

Political watchers say that get-out-the-vote campaigns could prove crucial in Tuesdays Democratic primary in Virginia, as voters decide whether state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe or former state Delegate Brian J. Moran becomes their party’s nominee for governor.

“This is the rare case study where get out the vote could be the entire ball game,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “We will have either a very low turnout or an extremely low turnout.”

Although Virginia’s contest has garnered intense media attention and the candidates have spent millions of dollars, primaries historically have far fewer voters than general elections. Officials are estimating about 3 percent of the states 5.8 million voters will cast ballots in the primary.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said that with the low predictions the entire election could hinge on a candidates ability to get just a few more voters to the polls.

The winner will face the Republican nominee, former state Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, selected at the Republican convention last month.

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The race for the Democratic nomination has been back and forth. Mr. Deeds surged ahead last week with 27 percent, according to a Public Policy Poll released Tuesday. The poll, by the nonpartisan firm based in Raleigh, N.C., showed that Mr. McAuliffe had 24 percent and Mr. Moran had 22 percent.

The McAuliffe campaign is banking on inspiring more voters to go to the polls. On Saturday, Mr. McAuliffe told campaign workers at his Tysons Corner headquarters, “I think all these folks are wrong who say we are going to have a tiny turnout.”

But Nancy Rodrigues, the secretary of the State Board of Elections, said that numbers compiled as of Thursday showed that voter requests for absentee ballots, which is usually an indicator of voter turnout on the primary day, were very low.

Primary voters often represent only the party’s most faithful, Mr. Tobias said. “They are people who consistently vote for the party and follow politics.” Saturday could have proved a pivotal day for absentee ballots, but the State Board of Elections was not releasing additional figures until Monday.

The McAuliffe campaign is concentrating on the surge voters, those who traditionally don’t vote in Democratic primaries but came out in high numbers for Barack Obama. “That is who we have to make sure we get out to the polls; we’ve got to explain to them” how important their vote is, Mr. McAuliffe told his campaign workers Saturday.

To that end, the campaign had 5,800 volunteers knocking on 85,000 doors and making 1 million phone calls across the state over the weekend.

In an effort to get more voters to the polls, a new line was added to the script for campaign volunteers of the McAuliffe campaign. While trying to convince registered Democrats that they should vote for Mr. McAuliffe, they also were asking whether voters knew their polling location and how and when they were getting to the polls.

John Bownik, 37, has been volunteering for the McAuliffe campaign every day for the past three weeks. On Saturday, he was making phone calls, knocking on doors and conducting interviews to help get his candidate elected. On Tuesday, Mr. Bownik plans to get up at 5 a.m. and begin knocking on doors to remind people to get out and vote.

“Their vote’s not worth anything if they’re not there to cast it,” Mr. Bownik said, while knocking on doors on the 7300 block of Hooking Road in McLean.

Bob Holsworth, a former public policy professor who runs a political Web site Virginia Tomorrow, said that the McAuliffe campaign thinks “if they can expand the electorate, they have a very good shot at winning.”

Mr. McAuliffe’s opponents have strategies more in keeping with the predicted low turnout, Mr. Holsworth said of Mr. Moran and Mr. Deeds, who both have long-term constituent bases in the state.

Mr. Deeds is trying to capitalize on the rural vote, where he has a lot of natural support, and expand into areas of Northern Virginia, Mr. Holsworth said.

“He is hoping that he can appeal to the strategic voters in Democratic Party, who basically think that what this election is about is who can best beat Bob McDonnell,” he said.

To that end, the Deeds campaign has focused on reminding committed voters, in his home base and other areas where he traditionally has had a lot of support, that their vote is needed on primary day, his campaign manager Joe Abbey said. They have also been running a persuasive campaign in areas of Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads-Richmond corridor where none of the candidates has a natural base.

The campaign thinks the primary voter will be that “super voter,” who doesn’t miss an election, Mr. Abbey said. “People have to vote. We have always seen ourselves and been seen as the underdogs in this race. Despite polls and surging, it is all nothing if our voters don’t get out there to vote on Tuesday.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Moran has worked to develop a huge turnout in his elder brother Rep. James P. Moran’s 8th Congressional District, Mr. Holsworth said. Mr. Moran has also pushed to get local endorsement and appealed directly to activist groups.

“He has what I call the Tip O’Neill strategy that all politics is local,” Mr. Holsworth said.

At the end of the day, it is about numbers, said Jesse Ferguson, communications director for the Moran campaign. “We’re confident more of our voters are going to turn out than his voters,” he said about Mr. McAuliffe. “We don’t have to reinvent a network of supporters around the state.”

“The get-out-the-vote organization in every city is run by the mayor who supports us,” Mr. Ferguson said. “That is the key to having the organization to win the primary and general election is having the committed volunteers, local supporters who know their communities who have won the races for Tim Kaine, Mark Warner and President Barack Obama in those communities.”

The number of Democratic voters may not be the only wild card, Mr. Tobias said, noting that Republicans may turn out to vote in the primary. Because the state has open primaries, a voter can cast a ballot in either the Democratic or Republican primary but not both. If Republicans do turn out, he said “the idea is to vote for a weaker candidate, but here I don’t think it is clear.”

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