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Democrats have had great success in presidential elections registering, targeting and turning out their core voters. Now they are hoping to use that same sophisticated field operation to stave off defeat in what could be a tough mid-term election year for the party. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: These are panicky days for Democrats. With just six net pickups the Republicans could take control of the Senate, making the last two years of President Obama's term pretty miserable. The president himself has been sounding the alarm at every fundraiser and party meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When Democrats have everybody on the field, we cannot lose. That's just a fact. That's just the raw numbers.

LIASSON: That's true in presidential elections, but, says Mr. Obama...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: A lot of Democrats don't vote during midterms. We just don't. Young people, African Americans, Latinos - we just, oftentimes, don't vote during midterms.

LIASSON: And two weeks ago in a special election for a congressional seat in Florida, that's exactly what happened - or didn't happen. Geoff Garin was the pollster for the Democratic candidate who lost.

GEOFF GARIN: The cold hard facts are that 49,000 fewer people voted in the special election than in the November 2010 elections for Congress. That drop-off is occurring disproportionally among Democratic voters and creates a pretty substantial head wind for Democratic candidates.

LIASSON: The Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee is planning a massive investment to address that problem. They plan to spend $60 million to hire 4,000 staffers in the most competitive Senate race states. The goal is ambitious: Make the mid-term electorate - which tends to skew older, whiter and more Republican - look more like a presidential year electorate - younger and browner with more single women; in short, more Democratic.

The executive director at the DSCC, Guy Cecil, will deploy that large army of paid organizers.

GUY CECIL: They are going to be focused on registration, canvassing, phone banking. So we are going to do everything we can to make sure that folks are motivated and energized to get to the polls. And it's going to be a test to see that whether or not we can do that.

LIASSON: A robust turnout effort can add a point or two to the vote, tipping the balance in an otherwise tight race, says Sasha Issenberg, who studied the art and science of campaign field operations.

SASHA ISSENBERG: Everything we know from basically 15 years of field experiments shows that high-quality face-to-face contact from a volunteer living in the same community as the voter is the best way to turn somebody out. So there is a road map to doing this that's expensive and it takes a lot of staff to recruit and train those volunteers.

LIASSON: It can be done say Democrats, who point to last years Virginia governors race, where the Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, won by turning out more Democrats than in 2009.

But political analyst Larry Sabato doubts whether Democrats can repeat that feat in other states.

LARRY SABATO: They have not cracked that code and Obama said it himself the other day: A lot of Democrats don't think mid-term elections are sexy and they don't vote. What they might be able to do is to marginally increase the relative turnout of minorities and young people who vote Democratic. So if, for example, North Carolina turns out to be a one or two percent race, that could make the difference.

LIASSON: North Carolina, like Virginia, is a state President Obama carried. But, says Sasa Issenberg, what about vulnerable Democrats in red states?

ISSENBERG: A state like Arkansas, where Democrats haven't run a very competitive presidential campaign in decades, where you don't have a strong Democrat state party, you don't have a culture of volunteering, the questions is: Who is going to knock on those doors for a Mark Pryor? And that's something that isn't easily solved just by throwing money or staff from Washington out there.

LIASSON: And this year's senate map is full of red states like Arkansas. That's what gives Republicans such confidence. But they're not stopping there. Republicans are also spending millions of dollars to improve their field operations, even though their voters have a history of showing up in mid-terms.

At a recent monitor breakfast, RNC Chair Reince Priebus happily ticked off the long list of Democratic senators he thinks are vulnerable.

REINCE PRIEBUS: They're running in states where the president in 2012 didn't receive 41 percent. Whether Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia - now we're extending the map to Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and Michigan. And now potentially New Hampshire and it goes on and on and on.

LIASSON: A ground game to cover that much ground would be prohibitively expensive. And that's why Republicans are betting the map of vulnerable Democrats is too big for even the best field operation to cover. But Democrats are hoping they can change the electorate just enough, in just enough places, to minimize their losses.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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