The Ground War Begins

With less than one week to go before one of the most important and yet least cared about elections in modern history, the massive “Get Out the Vote” (GOTV) begins in earnest. The politicians and their campaign strategists have basically ended the phase of the campaign where they attempt to convince undecided voters to join their side. Instead, this largely unseen final stage of a campaign focuses on turning out the vote of your identified supporters.

How important is this phase? Well, if you go into the final weekend of a campaign down 10 points in the polls, a heroic GOTV effort still cannot save your campaign. But, if elections polls of likely voters shows the race within three or four points, the time and effort your side has put into organizing an effective GOTV will likely prove decisive.

In the 2002-midterm elections, a disproportionate number of elections go into the final weekend within that three or four point range. GOTV may turn out to be more decisive in this election than any modern election. Who controls the Congress is likely to come down to who controls the ground game in this final week.

The AFL-CIO signaled how well they understand what this election is coming down to. Last week, the incredibly well funded union pulled all media off the air. Instead, the AFL-CIO will devote their entire war chest to mounting a decisive GOTV effort. Republican Majority Whip Tom Delay also grasps how important this final phase will be. All year long, he personally spent time recruiting and organizing a project he calls STOMP that will move seasoned political operatives into critical swing districts in the final days to direct phone banks, precinct walks and other GOTV efforts.

The challenge for everyone involved with GOTV efforts is deciding where to concentrate scarce resources. This election year has an extraordinary number of very close races. In the Senate, where the chamber is currently divided 50-49 (although Independent Jim Jeffords regularly votes with Democrats, making the divide 51-49 for practical purposes) the final week of the campaign has six races legitimately “too close to call.” In North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole holds a declining lead, and the AFL-CIO, the NAAP, NARAL, and the Sierra Club have moved into the state to boost Democrat Erskine Bowles. In New Hampshire, Rep. John Sunnunu is locked in a dead-heat with Governor Jeane Shaheen”-the-taxing-machine.” Different polls show both candidates with a slim lead.

The race in Missouri between Senator Jeanne Carnahan, the Democrat, and former U.S. representative Jim Talent also has different polls showing either candidate leading. Same in South Dakota, where the airwaves have been clogged for months and now the candidates Rep. John Thune, the Republican and Democratic Senator Tim Johnson must rely on an effective GOTV effort to break out of the deadlock. Colorado’s incumbent senator, Wayne Allard faces his Democratic opponent from six years ago, Tom Strickland, and in recent weeks the race has narrowed to a statistical tie. The situation had been much the same in Minnesota until the tragic plane crash that killed Senator Wellstone. Now the situation remains “fluid,” meaning whatever happens, it will still be very close.

Unfortunately, what is missing from either side are candidates staking out bold and controversial positions on important issues. Mobilization requires passion, and too many candidates have played it safe this year on the issues. So it is not clear how effective many of these GOTV efforts will turn out to be on Election Day.

There are two notable exceptions. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina has stood fast against Erskine Bowles and his distorted attacks on her Social Security record. Early on in the campaign, Mrs. Dole signed CSE’s pledge to support personal retirement accounts as a solution for Social Security, and she has not wavered since. Bowles is spending $750,000 per week on negative TV ads attacking Mrs. Dole’s position on Social Security, and while it has taken a toll, her steadfast response has also shown her toughness. If she wins, Mrs. Dole will demonstrate clearly that a candidate can talk and campaign on Social Security reform and survive.

In New Hampshire, Rep. John Sunnunu has presented a pro-growth, limited government agenda and stuck to it. Sunnunu wants personal retirement accounts, fundamental tax reform and opposes the tax increase record of Governor Shaheen. He has boldly decided to present a real contrast between the philosophies of the candidates.

These two candidates, Dole and Sunnunu will benefit in the final week because they have given their supporters real passion. CSE cannot and does not endorse candidates for office. We do, however, educate voters about the positions of the candidates. In North Carolina, we are knocking on 100,000 doors and distributing literature about the candidates’ position on Social Security. We will also make over 172,000 phone calls and run targeted radio ads. (insert NC radio Ad) Our game plan is much the same in New Hampshire, where our paid staff will work with volunteer activists to make voters aware of candidate differences on the issues.

These midterm elections remain too close to call because nobody knows whose voters plan to show-up at the polls. Yet, a shift in one or two thousand votes could change the control of either house of Congress. That’s why the ground game is so important this year – and that’s why CSE has spent the past five years organizing a permanent grassroots army prepared to show up for less government, lower taxes and more freedom.

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