- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

As the 2004 presidential campaign moves into its final weeks, President Bush and John Kerry traverse an ever-shrinking political map. And as the electoral geography contracts, it’s clear whichever side executes the mechanics of turnout more effectively in these battleground states will elect the next president.

“It’s a game of inches,” a Bush campaign aide told me. But it’s also a game of “feet.” Whether it’s walking, running, or skipping, getting people to the polls is a central focus of both campaigns. Turnout is the big unknown in this contest, and might also be the big surprise.

While the media may focus on shifts in national horse-race polls, those numbers are increasingly irrelevant. The election outcome is largely known in 35-40 states today. It is voters in the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon who will determine the winner.

That’s where “the feet” come in, as well as some opportunities for surprise. Here are three to consider.

First, the impact of Democratic 527 organizations like America Coming Together, which are focused on winning the electoral ground game for Mr. Kerry, is unknown. ACT does not operate on a national basis. Instead, it is focused largely in big cities. Therefore, even if national voter turnout continues its secular decline, boosting partisan participation in a handful of key states could tip the balance of the election — or at least that’s the hype.

Separating fact from fiction regarding the impact of 527s is difficult. “These organizations are untested,” a veteran political consultant told me. “Stories about increases in turnout abound every election around this time. It rarely materializes,” he said.

Will they supplement a traditionally strong Democratic ground game, usually led by unions? Or are they old wine in a new bottle, simply supplanting declining labor- union membership with a new breed of liberal voters?

Then there’s the issue of who benefits from increases in overall turnout. Conventional wisdom says it helps the Democrats. Not so, according to political scientists John Petrocik and William Perkins. In a paper presented last year to the American Political Science Association, they demonstrated that conventional wisdom is wrong. The authors focused on House elections between 1972 and 2000 and concluded that an increase in turnout is not a Democratic Party asset. Indeed, it would be ironic if groups such as ACT are credited with raising turnout, but Republicans end up the beneficiaries.

Finally, what about the Republican ground game? Largely ignored in the press and without a lot of national hype, Republicans have been quietly massing ground troops in the same battleground states. “There’s been a lot of focus on the Democrat 527s this year because they operate in larger cities and the big newspapers do stories about them,” a Republican National Committee official told me. “But we’ve been working turnout efforts for the past four years in counties all over each of the battleground states,” he said. “It’s kind of the tortoise and hare story, but we’ve been doing a lot and are very prepared.”

“Micro targeting” is one example. Previous campaigns utilized unsophisticated means to identify likely partisans. “We used to rely on aggregate county voting records and look for areas where we might boost our turnout. We ended up getting some more of our people to the polls, but turned out some of the other side, too,” a Bush campaign official told me.

Today, using market and survey research along with sophisticated software, campaigns now have the ability to refine targeting like never before. “We can generate a list of people that didn’t vote in the last election whom we know, if they get to the polls, will vote for us,” a GOP political consultant told me. “Those people will get a lot of personal attention in the next few weeks.”

Despite the media’s obsession with the national horse-race polls, the 2004 presidential election drama may come down to political mechanics in a handful of states. Notwithstanding the attention to 527s, and the conventional wisdom concerning turnout, voters may still have some surprises up their sleeves. Just as the Internet was more hype than reality to Howard Dean, there is some evidence that Republican turnout efforts may confound conventional wisdom. And despite all the talk about national polling trends, whoever walks into the White House next January will be propelled by the “feet” of voters in a handful of states.

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