Candidates Plan GOTV Strategy

With only a few weeks left before the presidential candidates square off, their GOTV — or Get Out The Vote — operations are going into high gear. Barack Obama's deputy campaign manager and John McCain's campaign political director offer their insight.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. After the presidential debates are done and all the campaign ads have run their course, the final outcome of the 2008 election will depend on one thing, making sure voters actually get to the polls. In politics, it's called GOTV for short, Get Out The Vote. We're going to hear now from two people responsible for the Get Out The Vote operations for the two presidential campaigns.

NORRIS: First, we're joined by Mike DuHaime. He's the political director for Senator John McCain's campaign. Welcome back to the program.

NORRIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Mr. DuHaime, it's widely believed that the McCain campaign has not fully inherited the aggressive Get Out The Vote operation of the Bush campaign used effectively in the past two elections. How much truth to that?

NORRIS: I don't think there's any truth to that. I mean, I can say that with great certainty because I was part of both. I was part of the turnout operation in 2004, and I'm part of the operation in 2008. And I think one of the things we actually benefit from is there are so many folks who have been part of it, not just staff folks, but more importantly, volunteers who are part of this.

And it's become part of the culture of what is fun about campaigning now is that, during that final weekend, we have a lot of folks who now like to do it every year, when they come out for those final 72 hours. And it's become a fun part of the culture of politics now, certainly on our side of things.

NORRIS: You're talking about volunteers working in the last 72 hours, but for now, in terms of the ground effort in key battleground states, it seems like you're outnumbered. Obama has almost 300 field offices in Virginia, 10 times more than the McCain campaign in North Carolina. McCain reportedly has about 30 paid staffers compared to almost 400 for Barack Obama. How do you compete on the ground if you're that outnumbered?

NORRIS: Because in an election that literally over 100 or maybe 120 million plus people are going to vote in, it is not about a few hundred paid staffers. It is about volunteers who care deeply about their candidates and are committed. And I have no doubt that the Obama campaign has more money and more staff and more offices.

But where I do know that we have an advantage, I believe we have committed volunteers, passionate volunteers who have been part of this program before, who have done it, who believe in John McCain. And I really believe that we are going to be in a very good position for a solid turnout operation because it's really about volunteers, not staff.

NORRIS: Mr. DuHaime, one of the interesting things about this election is a wave of new voters who've now gotten involved in the process. And at this point, Democrats have greatly out paced Republicans in newly registered voters. That seems like that would be cause for worry to someone like you.

NORRIS: Well, there's been - there's no doubt that the Democrats had a historic primary on their side. And with that came in an influx of new voters coming in and wanted to be part of the process, which is a good thing for the country. What our challenge is now to make sure we communicate with new voters. And we also have had intense voter registration efforts, and one of the things we have done even better than other campaigns in the past is making sure our new voters actually turn out to vote.

NORRIS: Can you catch up, though? I mean, the numbers are astounding in some of these states.

NORRIS: Well, there's no doubt that there are places where Democrats have seen voter registrations spikes, but there's also many states where Democrats outnumber Republicans, and we win, for example, Florida. Democrats outnumber Republicans, but Republicans have been winning for the last decade.

NORRIS: There are some members within your own party that say that John McCain has not put enough emphasis on get out the vote early on. And I'm wondering if you are at a certain disadvantage because John McCain did lock up this nomination so early. He didn't have to build ground operations in some of these key states that had primaries that fell a bit later on the calendar.

NORRIS: I think that it was basically an advantage to lockup the nomination much earlier because it gave the McCain campaign time to raise money and start to put an operation in place. And anyone who is...

NORRIS: But he didn't start to put an operation in place in the state like Pennsylvania, where he didn't have to compete.

NORRIS: We have a very solid operation in Pennsylvania. It is very good. Anybody who is - I think critical early on - I don't think that criticism has to stand itself. There is certainly some criticism early on and perhaps in the summer about that. But now, if you look at the output that we have from volunteers, it's very much on par and in some cases exceeds what was going on during the same time in 2004.

And certainly, the Obama campaign in many ways does benefit from having a long primary and having an enormous staff and being able to, you know, move people around. But at the same time, they had to develop the get out the vote operations in places like Montana or North Dakota or even Puerto Rico during the primaries. And they have to spend a lot of time and a lot of money in places that really are not battlegrounds for the fall, so as many advantages that are, you could probably say there's some disadvantages as well.

NORRIS: Mike DuHaime is Senator John McCain's political director. He joined us from McCain headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

Now, to the Democrats. Steve Hildebrand is the deputy campaign manager for the Obama campaign and joins us now from Miami. Welcome to the program.

NORRIS: Great to be here, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, the Republicans are known for running a very sophisticated high-tech get out the vote operation that has been widely credited for helping them win the past two presidential elections. How do you plan to match or best that effort?

NORRIS: Well, we started, you know, many, many months ago in the primary season, where, you know, we built very solid organizations in all 50 states. It was a critically important period of time that and, you know, frankly really prepared us for the general election. We built a large volunteer operation that is probably more dominant in American politics than any political operation has been and certainly in many decades.

NORRIS: Now, you certainly have ramped up a very large operation with a large number of volunteers. But I'm wondering if this is a case where a lot of people who are relatively new to this game are going up against an older, more experienced, more sophisticated operation, an operation with a record of success.

NORRIS: Well, we're quite pleased to let John McCain and his operation believe that they're running a smart and sophisticated operation. Barack is a different kind of candidate, different kind of campaign. He began his working career as a community organizer, and what he has taught us and what we are doing in this campaign is we are organizing in communities, in neighborhoods, at peoples doors. That's what I think is going to win this election and not, you know, these big regional operations that the McCain campaign is running.

NORRIS: I want to get to the mechanics of the Get Out The Vote effort in just a minute, but it's been reported that the Obama campaign is actually pulling staff back from North Dakota and from Georgia to focus more on some of the battleground states. But if you're pulling people back, I'm wondering about that so-called 50 state strategy.

NORRIS: We are pulling the staff back from North Dakota. We don't feel it's as winnable as we once expected it to be. In the case of Georgia, we're very proud of our operation there. We still believe that Barack can win Georgia.

NORRIS: Are you pulling people back?

NORRIS: We pulled a few people out. Here's what happened. We had set some pretty, you know, high goals to register new voters in the state of Georgia. We achieved those goals, and what we did is, we asked some of our best voter registration staff to move in to some other states in order to help us achieve the voter registration goals that we've set in those states that we weren't achieving.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about how you actually make sure that they show up on November 4th on election day? And Mr. Hildebrand, I'd like you to help me understand the nuts and bolts of the Get Out The Vote operation. What are the most effective ways to get people to the polls beyond the traditional knocking on doors and working the phone banks?

NORRIS: I think voters are more motivated to turn out this election year than they've ever been. There are certainly going to be people who need that extra nudge. They will get knocks at their doors asking them to get out and vote or to fill out an absentee application and vote by absentee, or we'll drive them to an early vote site.

You know, we've got to make sure that people who are so called sporadic voters, those voters who that sometimes vote but don't vote in every election, they need special attention, probably. And, you know, we'll make sure that we communicate with them often and encourage them to get out and vote, but this is going to be big.

NORRIS: Good to talk to you. Thank so much for your time.

NORRIS: Any time.

NORRIS: Steve Hildebrand is deputy campaign manager for the Obama campaign.

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