GOP Bets on Get-Out-Vote Campaign for Win

The vaunted Republican Get-Out-The-Vote machine is credited with President Bush's victory in 2004. And Republicans are hoping it will play a similar role in this year's congressional elections. Democrats are fighting back, but will it be enough?

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Fallout from the Mark Foley Congressional page scandal is proving to be a big distraction for Republicans heading into the midterm elections. Many are worried it may keep the party faithful from turning out to vote.

In the past, the GOP has surmounted that kind of problem with a highly centralized and very effective program to identify and turnout voters. In 2004 it helped them win even in the face of strong national anti-Republican sentiment. Well, this year Democrats are trying to make their get out the vote operation just as good.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: What's happening at this phone bank at a Republican State Party headquarters isn't glamorous and it's not rocket science, but it just might be what makes the difference between Republican and Democratic control of Congress this fall.

Unidentified Woman: I'm calling to ask you a couple of quick questions about this November's election.

LIASSON: Mike DuHaime is the political director of the Republican National Committee.

Mr. MIKE DuHAIME (Republican National Committee): It really is just a new name for something that's been done in politics for a long time and that's get out the vote. It's what any campaign and any political party's always tried to do is to make sure that enough voters come to the polls. What this has done is it allows us to have a much more sophisticated level of targeting who those voters might be.

LIASSON: What DuHaime is talking about are tools like the voter vault, a national database filled with demographic and consumer information on individual voters, and techniques like data mining and micro targeting, which give the Republicans the ability to identify voters who might be persuaded to vote for their candidates.

The GOP has spent 15 years and tens of millions of dollars on these techniques and they've become very good at them. How good? Just ask Democrats like Charles Schumer, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): In 2002 and 2004, the morning of Election Day we thought we were going to win and we didn't. And the reason we didn't win the seats that we thought we were going to win was because they had such a better get out the vote operation.

LIASSON: While the national Democratic Party hasn't made the same kind of investment as the RNC, the Democrat's campaign committees have launched their own get out the vote operations and Democratic operatives like Harold Ickes have been raising unregulated soft money to create private databases to help Democratic affiliated groups find voters.

Ickes says even a state of the art get out the vote operation can't reverse the overall dynamic of a race but it can make the difference in a close one.

Mr. HAROLD ICKES (Democratic National Committee): Many of these Congressional races will be decided by the thinnest of margins. You need to be able to go in and pick out a group of individual voters that you think you can persuade and drag out to vote and then contact them on an individual basis, as opposed to trying to get them out by media.

MARA LIASSON: And that is the biggest innovation in what's called GOTV. In the old days, the parties focused on geography, turning out as many voters as they could in heavily Republican or Democratic precincts. But now, says the RNC's DuHaine, get out the vote is focused on behavior.

Mr. DUHAINE: It's finding out what people's interests are as opposed to looking at where they live, whether it's voting behavior habits or purchasing habits they have that may lead you believe that there's a certain issue where they may identify with the Republican Party or the Republican candidate.

Unidentified Woman #2: What issue is the most important to your vote? Homeland security? Illegal immigration, okay. So we'll put homeland security at the top of your list.

LIASSON: This phone bank in Maryland is building on information already in the voter vault, allowing Republicans to create computer models of persuadable voters - say, for example, a married woman who subscribes to Redbook, attends regularly and gives money to certain charities. She may get a series of contacts, individually tailored direct mail, phone calls, then outreach from a neighbor. This, says Harold Ickes, is what Republicans have gotten so good at.

Mr. ICKES: Not only is their database good, they've trained a cadre of people across the nation who understand the importance of targeting, and we have lost our touch on that, quite frankly. We will catch up, but it is a problem that plagues us. We just aren't as good on our get out the vote as they are.

Mr. NATE JENKINS (Democratic Campaign Worker): Everybody has their scripts? Their talking points? Their map to the location?

LIASSON: The Democrats are working hard to catch up. Last Saturday in a parking lot in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, Democratic campaign worker Nate Jenkins gave an on-the-spot GOTV training session to a group of volunteer canvassers who were about to go door to door in the battleground Sixth Congressional District. Their goal, talk to targeted voters and find out what they care about.

Mr. JENKINS: Now for the really important part. I'm going to explain to you how we mark our sheets. This is absolutely essential, okay guys? We take this information and we use it, right? So we're not just talking to people randomly. We know who we're talking to today, and we want to know what's said.

LIASSON: Democrats say this year, the voter lists they're working from are a lot better and bigger, and they're hopeful that the Republicans' vaunted GOTV machine will not be good enough to survive the wave of anti-Republican feeling fueled by the war and the Foley scandal. Senator Schumer of the DSEC says the overall environment will make it easier for the Democrats to turn out votes.

Senator SCHUMER: The wind is at our back. If people want change, it's a Democratic year. They may have a very refined ground game, they do. Ours - it is much improved. Whether it's as good as theirs remains to be seen, but it's a lot easier this year to turn out Democratic votes and a lot harder to turn down Republican votes than it was in '04.

LIASSON: And for the next five weeks, both parties will be doing everything they can to find and turn out every last persuadable voter.

Unidentified Woman #3: We got five weeks left, and then it's get-out-the-vote week.

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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