Monday, October 23, 2006

The outcome of 2006 congressional midterm elections will be decided by one final, frantic battle — who wins the voter turnout game.

Fifteen days before voters go to the polls to decide which party will control Congress, the turnout game already is being played out in more than a half-dozen battleground Senate races and 40 to 50 closely contested House elections.

Tens of thousands of volunteer party activists have been canvassing voters, identifying supporters and preparing for a 72-hour get-out-the-vote election blitz that will be far more extensive than in any previous campaign, officials in both parties say.

Both sides are playing to their strengths. Democrats are being helped by an anti-Republican climate because of the Iraq war, and Republicans are touting their record on the economy and keeping the country safe from another terrorist attack.

At this stage of the game, turnout specialists say the Republicans might have the edge in the sheer numbers of volunteers and a more sophisticated, computerized ground operation, which held off a fierce Democratic offensive in 2004.

“It’s a great, sustaining grass-roots operation with a large degree of centralized direction, and Democrats have not done that. It’s very sophisticated,” said Curtis Gans, a veteran voter turnout specialist who heads American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

Mr. Gans’ praise for the organization built by Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Ken Mehlman is privately echoed by some in the Democratic camp.

“We’re not going to match the Republicans at their ground game,” a senior Democrat involved in party turnout told The Washington Times, acknowledging that Democrats this year “started too late.”

That’s not the case with the Republican Party’s turnout operation, which has built its voter lists and volunteer ground force since 2004 and has been sending weekly voter-contact reports from the precinct level up the political chain of command. Those reports eventually reach the RNC’s “turnout war room.”

“Republican volunteers have contacted more than 14 million voters this year and more than 7 million since Labor Day alone,” Mr. Mehlman said. “We have made 1 million voter contacts every week for the past five weeks, and for six weeks, we have surpassed the number of contacts we made at comparable times in 2004, a presidential election year.”

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean, who sent paid DNC organizers to all 50 states, has been “playing catch-up,” a Democratic campaign official said. But the party’s turnout efforts — which depend more heavily on paid workers, union members and other groups — have been more extensive in recent months.

On Oct. 10, “Democrats kicked off the final month of the election with more than 600 voter-contact activities across the country,” reaching 3 million voters in its third national organizing day, the DNC said.

In Ohio, a pivotal state where Democrats were expected to make sweeping gains in the state elections, organizers made 100,000 calls to people who did not vote in the last midterm election.

But Republican officials in the battleground states say they have been working on their turnout operation much longer.

In Tennessee, for example, volunteers have “been working on our get-out-the-vote effort for over a year now with the RNC,” state party executive director Chris Devaney said. “It’s an unprecedented, door-to-door effort based on the operation they had in Ohio in 2004, which won the state for President Bush.”

Volunteers are given target numbers of voters who need to go to the polls, based on the Republican vote totals in previous elections.

“They file regular reports on the number of doors knocked on, the Republican voters they’ve identified,” Mr. Devaney said.

Mr. Dean remains optimistic about his party’s voter turnout operation.

“We’ve been laying the groundwork for over a year now, and those early investments are clearly paying off as we head into the final stretch,” he said.

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