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Has politics lost its 'human touch'? Louisiana Senate race is test case.

For the parties, getting people to vote is all about marrying voter data and high-tech capabilities with a human touch: interaction with voters – on the phone, at their door, via snail mail. Here's how this is happening in the Louisiana Senate race.

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    Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu greets potential voters at a New Orleans event.
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Rosie Washington takes the pulpit before the packed congregation and goes into preacher mode. Remember when Moses went to Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go”? she asks. Now it’s “Let my people vote!”

The reason to vote, she says, is to elect leaders who will address the community’s issues: high suspension rates in the local schools and high incarceration rates for African-American men in New Orleans.

“Oh come on, put your hands together!” exhorts Ms. Washington, a community organizer and minister-in-training here at Marine and Mt. Moriah Ministries near New Orleans. “This year’s election, the dominant narrative is black folk don’t vote in the midterm.... But in 2014, black folk will vote.”

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What Washington doesn’t say is “Vote for Mary Landrieu!” By law, she can’t: Both the church and the nonprofit she works for, The Micah Project, must remain nonpartisan. But the politically attuned know exactly what she means. And they know that for Senator Landrieu to win a fourth term on Nov. 4, black voters must turn out for her.

Landrieu, a Democrat in deep-red Louisiana, is one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents and faces an enthusiasm gap between Democratic and GOP voters. A Landrieu loss could tip control of the Senate to the Republican Party, which needs to net six seats.

“This election is going to turn on how well Democrats can turn out votes – particularly black voters,” says Michael Henderson, a political scientist at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge.

Sunday proclamations are only the beginning for church-based efforts to boost turnout. For the parties, getting people to vote is all about marrying voter data and high-tech capabilities with a “human touch”: hordes of volunteers interacting with voters – on the phone, at their door, via snail mail. TV ads still matter, but their effect is often ephemeral. Interaction with a real human being, studies show, can inspire a soft supporter to actually show up and vote.

This hardly seems like rocket science. But the reality is that politics – and politicians – has grown increasingly removed from “the people.” Technology spurred that trend, with the growth of TV, robocalls, e-mail, and now social media. The flood of outside money into campaigns, and gridlock in Washington, has made voters only more cynical about the packaged messages bombarding them.

The answer, experts say, is to link technology with old-fashioned human contact.

Both parties tout this year’s get-out-the-vote drives, or GOTV, as the biggest and highest-tech yet. Democrats call their program the Bannock Street project, after the Denver field headquarters for the successful turnout effort by Sen. Michael Bennet (D) of Colorado in 2010 – a winner in an awful year for his party. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s $60 million program involves 10 states, 4,000 paid staff, and 60,000 volunteers.

The Republican National Committee has Victory 365 – what the party calls “a neighborhood-focused, volunteer-driven, voter-contact effort.” So far, the RNC has invested $100 million in the program, with 1,500 paid staff and almost 19,000 volunteers. It’s spread among more states than is Bannock Street, including those with close governors’ races.

In Louisiana, both parties are tight-lipped about their turnout operations. Each has 10 regional offices, but neither will reveal numbers of paid staff or volunteers. Republicans allow press to tag along while volunteers canvass neighborhoods, but Democrats don’t. The Louisiana GOP also allowed this reporter to chat with two handpicked volunteers at a phone bank in Metairie on a recent Saturday. The calls to voters lay the groundwork for future contact aimed at making sure Republicans have voted – early, absentee, or in person on Election Day.

Outside groups are also doing GOTV. The Micah Project, where Washington is an organizer, works with 16 congregations in Greater New Orleans on voter registration and voter engagement. Her goal for each prospective voter is “three touches” – once by phone, once at the person’s door, and once in his or her congregation. By Election Day, she hopes to “touch” 32,000 voters, and get 3,400 to turn out. “We urge people to vote their values,” Washington says.

It’s the perfect coded language for any part of Louisiana and any demographic. To African-Americans, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, it means “Vote for Landrieu.” But Landrieu’s top GOP opponent, three-term Rep. Bill Cassidy, can say the same thing and it means “Vote for me!”

Representative Cassidy, a physician, has been playing it low-key. As a sitting member of Congress, he can’t rail too hard against Washington. And he can’t move too far to the center, given the challenge from his right by tea partyer Rob Maness.

Louisiana holds a “jungle primary” – an Election Day oddity in which all candidates run on the same ballot. If no one gets a majority, the top two face off on Dec. 6. Landrieu is gunning hard to win outright on Nov. 4, but that’s looking doubtful. In polls, she and Cassidy average in the mid- to high 30s, and Mr. Maness is in high single digits. In polls of a Cassidy-Landrieu runoff, he leads by almost six points on average.

Cassidy is avoiding debates, a sign that he’s in the driver’s seat. He has agreed to two, while Landrieu wants five.

In a Monitor interview, Landrieu insists this isn’t her toughest Senate race yet. That was in 1996, she says, her first Senate race, when she came in second on Election Day and eked out a victory in the runoff. But Louisiana has grown increasingly conservative since then, and there’s an unpopular Democrat in the White House.

“I’ve heard a lot of negative things about Landrieu,” says a white, middle-aged waitress in Alexandria, La., who didn’t want her name used. Like what? “She’s connected to [President] Obama.”

Cassidy’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.

For Republicans, the election is a referendum on both Landrieu and Mr. Obama, says Mr. Henderson of LSU. “For Democrats and independents, it may just turn out to be a referendum on Mary Landrieu,” he says.

If the race does go to a runoff, Landrieu might consider GOP Sen. Thad Cochran’s strategy in neighboring Mississippi this past June. The Cochran campaign and outside groups enlisted black ministers to turn out black votes in his primary runoff against a tea partyer – and won an upset victory.

“We’re already planning for the runoff,” says Washington of The Micah Project.

On a recent Friday in Alexandria, deep in the heart of the Bayou State, Landrieu works the room at a “Women for Mary” luncheon. She poses for pictures with tiara-wearing beauty queens. She applauds the “union ladies” there – women forklift drivers and truck drivers from the local plywood mill – and cheerleads for equal pay. She autographs a pink “Women at Work” T-shirt.

Speaking before about 200 people, Landrieu delivers her core campaign message: Her 18 years in the Senate and her role as chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources are crucial to a state where energy is the No. 1 industry. She also highlights last year’s successful effort to save nearby Fort Polk from cuts.

“That’s what seniority and clout mean,” the senator says.

Landrieu doesn’t mention her big political family – she doesn’t have to – but it’s an important part of her “brand.” Her father, Moon Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans and housing secretary under President Carter. Brother Mitch Landrieu was lieutenant governor and is currently mayor of New Orleans. Mary Landrieu has been in politics nearly her entire adult life.

The Landrieu name “is associated with honesty and hard work, and that definitely helps,” she tells the Monitor. “I’m proud to carry that name.”

Landrieu’s reputation has in fact encountered a few bumps. She had to reimburse the federal government for campaign travel that had been mischarged. And her residency came into question, though the response only reinforced her deep roots in Louisiana: Landrieu, her parents, and eight siblings co-own the family home in New Orleans.

But the event in Alexandria is all about women – not as central to Landrieu as black turnout, but every vote matters in a tight race.

At the end of the program comes the “ask.”

“This is a working lunch, y’all,” says Kristin Gisleson Palmer, director of the campaign’s Women’s Initiative. She invites women to create videos, photos, and other personalized messages with Landrieu that they can use to persuade their friends – more “human touch.”

Noticeably absent from Landrieu’s pitch is talk of women’s reproductive rights. That’s on purpose, she tells the Monitor.

“I have a coalition that supports me that’s both pro-choice and pro-life,” says Landrieu, who has two adopted children. “People realize that regardless of what label they claim or own, we want to minimize the number of abortions and maximize options for adoption. And we really respect the sanctity of life, but there are limits to what the government should be involved in.”

Ask Cassidy supporters about Landrieu’s two-track message on abortion, and they bristle.

“I support Bill Cassidy because of his moral integrity,” says Paula Shaffer, one of the GOP phone-bank volunteers in Metairie. “Mary Landrieu only knows how to keep herself employed.”

She also questions Landrieu’s claims of “clout.” After all, Obama still hasn’t approved the Keystone XL pipeline, a project popular in Louisiana.

Another phone-bank volunteer, Landon Allen, who is retired from the Navy, calls Landrieu “very liberal” and says Cassidy will be strong on defense and fiscal matters. As a black Republican, Mr. Allen is unusual – coming from a demographic slice so narrow that LSU’s Henderson doesn’t break it out in his recent analysis of partisan enthusiasm in Louisiana.

Henderson’s survey, taken Aug. 14 to Sept. 7, found that black registered voters in the state are just as likely to vote as white registered voters, but less likely to vote than white Republicans. Louisiana is almost one-third African-American, the second highest percentage of any state.

“If Landrieu can get 30 percent of whites to vote for her and have blacks make up close to 30 percent of the electorate, that’s her path to victory,” Henderson says.

That’s a tall order – a presidential-election-year turnout. But “if anyone can pull it out,” he says, “maybe Landrieu can.”

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