Tags: Analysis: | Voter | Turnout | Efforts | High | Gear

Analysis: Voter Turnout Efforts in High Gear

Monday, 06 November 2000 12:00 AM

Campaigns spend anywhere between six and 18 months persuading people why candidates are – or are not – worthy of getting votes. And, until recently, they spent comparatively little time working on getting that vote to the polls on Election Day.

For years, prevailing wisdom among campaign managers and consultants was voter turnout in presidential years was not an issue. The presidential election was "important," unlike a race for town council. Even the most marginal voters came to the polls out of a sense of civic-mindedness and didn't need to be pushed.

In the mid-1980s, the partisan tone of campaigns, together with deliberate efforts to polarize the electorate, drove voter enthusiasm down – as can be seen in the overall trends toward declining turnout. Campaigns had to develop new strategies to get their vote to the polls.

Jeff Butzke is chief operating officer of Advantage Inc., a voter contact firm. As a congressional candidate in 1986, Butzke learned about retail politics. As political director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups, he learned how to get voters to the polls.

"Advances in technology have driven advances in turnout techniques," he said. "We can do things now with machines that weren't possible 10 years ago. We have new tools at our disposal including the use of automated messaging to bring well-known individuals into the homes of targeted voters. Voter models have become increasingly sophisticated, allowing campaigns to identify potential supporters with much more specificity. Voter files can be segmented into ever-smaller categories, directing specific pitches to specific groups asking them to turn out on Election Day."

Successful party committees and campaigns now spend much more effort identifying friendly voters, maintaining their names, addresses, phone numbers, and now even e-mail addresses, for purposes of late-in-the-election voter contacts.

"This is all about getting your vote to the polls," Butzke said.

Jacque Mason's expertise is in grassroots strategies and voter turnout. She agreed that technology has made identifying targeted voters a more efficient process, but she said, "The best way to get them to the polls is still the old-fashioned way – personal contact."

"In the age of technology, people feel increasingly disconnected from their community and seek the personal touch," she said. "It is more important than ever to have a person go door-to-door with brochures, or have a neighbor talk over the fence and say 'hey, I know that guy and I am voting for him.' That's why campaigns still need organizations, to carry out these efforts. It can't all be done with money on TV."

"The conventional wisdom is that the campaign ground game, the grassroots efforts, means direct mail and paid phone banks [plus those run by volunteers] targeted towards favorable voters," she said. "If people have turned off the TV, are not reading their direct mail, not answering the phone, how do you get them to the polls?"

According to Mason, personal contact get-out-the-vote (GOTV) techniques can give a campaign as much as a 5 percent push on Election Day.

"In a close race, that's the difference between winning and losing," she said.

The closer to the community a race is – school board, town council – the more grounded personal-touch activity is. TV and radio ads and direct mail, while broadly viewed, hide the candidate in plain sight. It is wooden and impersonal.

"Poll workers and doorknockers put a personal, and hopefully cheerful, face on the campaign and define who the candidate is," Mason said.

Large numbers of volunteers are needed for a successful personal contact effort. Campaigns and parties must look to coalition partners – groups ideologically or politically sympathetic – to supply people.

Because of the volatility of the gun issue in America, groups on both sides of the issue spend a lot of time and effort on politics.

The National Rifle Association, with over 4 million members, is one of the largest citizen-membership groups in the country.

A bipartisan group supporting both Democrats and Republicans, it provides endorsed candidates with favorable publicity among its members, a network of supportive activists, and campaign contributions. In the presidential race, the group is solidly behind George W. Bush.

Chuck Cunningham, the director of federal affairs for the NRA, is a veteran of many campaigns and has worked successfully to turn out votes for several conservative public policy groups.

He said NRA activities in the final weeks break down to "mailing and phoning hundreds of thousands of NRA members and licensed hunters, carry-permit holders and others who have an interest in safeguarding Second Amendment rights. Election volunteer coordinators coming out of this year's 45 NRA grassroots training seminars are working in targeted races to turn out the pro-Second Amendment vote."

On the other side is the 500,00-member Handgun Control. Its spokesman David Bernstein – a former U.S. Senate staffer and, like Cunningham, a veteran of many campaigns – reported that this election cycle has been a record year for GOTV activities.

According to their own figures, they have spent $5 million this year – raised in a combination of large donations and membership contributions – on voter turnout operations, compared with only $200, 000 in 1996

"We have been educating voters on the difference between the two candidates on gun issues. We haven't endorsed either one, but we find more agreement with Gore than with Bush on our issue. We will be concentrating on getting out the vote of our members," Bernstein said.

Handgun Control has focused its activities on several states, especially Colorado and Oregon, where initiatives to require background checks for firearm purchasers at gun shows are on the ballot.

It organized a Bush "Truth About Guns" van tour of 11 states, where representatives joined with doctors, religious leaders and gun safety advocates to drive local press to talk about the governor's gun record.

To rally the pro-Second Amendment faithful, the NRA has put the group's president, actor Charlton Heston, on a tour of targeted states, where he has led rallies in 16 cities that have drawn an average of 3, 000 people at each stop.

"Most elections, particularly close elections like this one, are won or lost on the ground. It's a matter of energizing your supporters and getting them to the polls," Bernstein said, identifying direct mail and phone banks as two key turnout mechanisms. "They need to be able to see the clear differences between the candidates on the issues – including ours – and it is our job to educate them."

Cunningham said GOTV has changed as other campaign technologies have changed and as outside groups got politically smarter.

"The mail goes out earlier. There are better efforts to target voters, " he said. "There is a greater emphasis on getting people to be involved directly with campaigns, walking precincts, making phone calls, raising money."

"We created a better, more fined tuned product delivered more effectively," Cunningham said, hoping, like Bernstein, to see the benefits of their hard work on Election Day.

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Campaigns spend anywhere between six and 18 months persuading people why candidates are - or are not - worthy of getting votes. And, until recently, they spent comparatively little time working on getting that vote to the polls on Election Day. For years, prevailing...
Monday, 06 November 2000 12:00 AM
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