- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

The toughest pill for Republicans to swallow from the 1998 and 2000 elections was why final opinion polls promised victory in so many key races that Republicans ended up losing.
In 2002, however, Republicans turned the tables by pulling out victories in several tight races, thanks to their new 72-hour task force. The concept, headed by the Republican National Committee at the urging of President Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, emphasized registering and turning out Republican voters.
"What that means is there are available, and always have been available, enormous numbers of people who would vote for Republicans and conservative candidates if an effort was made to identify them, get them ready to vote and turn them out on Election Day," said Morton Blackwell, Republican National Committee member from Virginia, who has long called for an emphasis on the "ground game" of voter turnout.
"In 2000 it was the Democrat candidates who scored 3 percent or 4 percent higher when votes were counted, but it was very obvious election night [2002] it was Republican candidates who were scoring 3 or 4 points or higher," he said.
Mr. Blackwell is writing a report to fellow committee members detailing successes of the turnout effort in the November midterm election, but he said he's heard from party officials and strategists that the new approach is "here to stay."
At the RNC, officials are still calculating the effects of their turnout operation, but spokesman Kevin Sheridan said they consider the program to have been a winner.
"The results really speak for themselves. We did turn out our voters in important races, and it showed," he said. "It's probable that Republicans have changed forever the way they get out the vote."
After the 2000 elections, Mr. Blackwell and other critics argued that media strategists had distorted the way Republicans ran campaigns. Those strategists make money off commissions earned by buying ad time and producing campaign commercials, and critics said campaigns became too dependent on "air war" campaigns and lost focus on actually getting voters to the polls.
To break that mold, Mr. Blackwell said the three national political committees the RNC and the House and Senate campaign committees pressured state organizations to construct and carry out a turnout plan.
"They put enough teeth in it that hardly anybody dared to dissent," Mr. Blackwell said. "[State parties and campaigns] were frankly told they weren't going to get the president, the vice president or administration officials campaigning for them.
"They required campaigns and parties to put together a ground-war plan a grass-roots, organization plan and they didn't mandate exactly what it was going to be, but they said it has to be a plan we approve," he said. "It had to have an organizational chart and job descriptions and time-table and budget, and they had to hire an initial staff to run the thing."
Mr. Blackwell said he received a call from Mr. Rove after the 2002 election touting particular successes such as Harris County, Texas, where Republicans registered 55,000 new voters or lapsed voters, all in Republican-friendly precincts.
Texas doesn't register voters by party, so Court Koenning, executive director of the Harris County Republican Party, said they focused their registration efforts on 274 of the county's 884 precincts where voters usually gave 60 percent of their votes to Republicans.
"You go duck hunting where the ducks are, and we registered in precincts where there are predominantly Republicans," Mr. Koenning said.
If the newly registered voters voted in the same proportion 60 percent Republican to 40 percent Democrat as the older voters in the 274 precincts, then it was a good payoff, he said.
While it's too early to see how many of those newly registered voters actually went to the polls in November, in the 274 precincts that the Republicans focused on, voter turnout was 28.5 percent higher than in the midterm election in 1998, while in the 610 other precincts it was up 18.9 percent.
Mr. Koenning said the approach is exportable to other places, and may work even better in states that do register by party, which would allow political committees to target voters.
The challenge now, Republican Party officials said, is to build on what they did in the November election, because they expect Democrats to follow suit to try to regain the turnout advantage the party had in 1998 and 2000.

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