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Can get-out-the-vote effort help Democrats hang onto Colorado Senate seat? (+video)

With Colorado one of several toss-up races, most analysts agree that if Democrats have any hope of holding on to their Senate majority, it will be due to success on the ground, getting voters – especially minorities, young voters, and low-income voters – to the polls.

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    Sen. Mark Udall, center, greets supporters during a campaign stop focusing on Latino issues at Metro State University in Denver Monday. Democratic Senator Udall is in the fight of his political life as he tries to stave off Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner in a race that is seen as key to control of the Senate.
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At the Boulder County Democratic Party headquarters, volunteers are busy Monday afternoon dialing everyone in their databank who hasn’t yet voted, reminding them that they now need to drop off rather than mail in their ballot, and urging them to do so.

“Turnout is everything,” says Mike Hart, co-leader of the field team for the office.

Focusing on getting out the vote – or GOTV, as it’s increasingly known – in the final days of a campaign is nothing new. But this year, both parties are emphasizing it more than ever. And most analysts agree that if Democrats have any hope of holding on to their majority in the Senate despite discouraging poll results, it will be due to success on the ground, getting voters – especially minorities, young voters, and low-income voters – to the polls.

“A really good ground game is worth maybe half a percentage point. And in a close race like this one [for the Colorado Senate seat] that could be the difference,” says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

Colorado – along with Kansas, Iowa, North Carolina, Alaska, and Georgia – is among the Senate elections that are still razor-close in the polls, and is one of the states that Democrats almost certainly need to win if they have any hope of retaining their majority. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall was favored to win at one point, but has been trailing his opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, in the polls for some weeks now.

But Colorado is also the state that Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet won six years ago, despite trailing his opponent in every single poll leading up to the election.

It was a victory that few people predicted, and that is credited to Senator Bennet’s success in appealing to women (they voted for him by a 16-point margin) as well as an unprecedented, and data-driven, get-out-the-vote operation.

This year, the Democratic Senatorial Committee is modeling its GOTV effort in multiple key states on that successful campaign, dubbing their program the Bannock Street project, named for the address of Bennet’s campaign headquarters. They’ve said the $60 million program is the biggest and highest-tech GOTV operation yet.

Democrats traditionally have had the edge with GOTV, but Republicans have increasingly sought to emulate it, and have been touting their own program. Tuesday will be the test of how well they’ve succeeded.

“Every year, the question is asked about whether Republicans have caught up with Democrats in the ground game, and every year Republicans promise they have,” says Peter Hanson, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “We heard that before 2012, and their get out the vote operation ran into severe problems and their computer program turned out to be ineffective. We’ve heard a lot of talk from the Republican campaigns, but we’ll have to see.”

In Colorado, one new factor is universal mail-in balloting, the first time for the state in a national election. At the Boulder County headquarters for Democrats, Mr. Hart says it means volunteers can make much more targeted calls and home visits, since the party gets regularly updated lists of who has voted – and will have those lists updated every few hours on Election Day itself – but it also makes GOTV into more of a marathon. Ballots were mailed to voters back on Oct. 14.

“Everyone is sort of looking at [mail-in balloting] as an X-factor in this election,” says Udall campaign spokesperson Kristin Lynch. “No one is quite sure how it will play out.”

But, Ms. Lynch adds, “any time you reduce barriers to voting, that’s helpful to us.”

The lengthy voting time and sophisticated data systems also allow campaign operations to increase their efficiency.

“We have this universe of people we know we need to get to the polls,” says Lynch. “As we get real-time data back about people who have voted, we take those people out of the system so our universe gets narrower. Our whole operation is that much more precise.”

Professor Hanson says that research indicates a good GOTV operation can add a point to a candidate’s total – and polls currently show Senator Udall down by an average of about 2.5 points, though that’s within the margin of error – but he notes that there are a lot of unknowns, particularly around mail-in balloting, for anyone trying to predict the election.

Democrats’ GOTV operation has excelled in the past, he notes, because it’s had to: With voters who are younger, more low-income, and less educated on average than Republican voters, they’re also less likely to turn out and vote. It’s even more important in a mid-term election year, when Republican voters, at least in Colorado, are often more likely to cast a ballot.

“In order for Democrats to win elections, they’ve had to be very good at mobilizing their supporters,” says Hanson.

In order to take control of the Senate, Republicans need a net gain of six seats Tuesday. They have at least three that are virtually guaranteed: Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Pollster Nate Silver currently gives Republicans just over a 75 percent change of winning the majority, and a number of the closest Senate elections – including Colorado’s – now seem to be tilting to the Republicans.

As they insist they may still retain their majority, national Democratic leaders have continually emphasized their strength in GOTV, and say it may make a difference for them this year.

"I think we're going to hold the Senate," Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz predicted during an interview on ABC's "This Week." "We have a ground game that I know [the GOP] would take over theirs any day of the week."

Here in Colorado, longtime independent pollster Floyd Ciruli is less optimistic about Democrats’ chances, and gives Udall perhaps a 30 percent chance of victory.

Democrats “have bought every dollar of television they can buy, and in terms of persuasion there’s only about five percent of the public left,” says Mr. Ciruli. “Now it’s really about trying to get out your base plus, with the ‘plus’ being the extra 250,000 voters who normally would not turn out. … They really need that.”

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