A visitor from Mars, just landed in America, might see all the TV ads and newspaper coverage, the automated phone calls and literature dropped into people's doors and think: This is a nation consumed by politics.
In fact, turnout on Tuesday could be nearly as low as it was four years ago, when just under half of the voting-age population went to the polls. This year, the presidential race is so quirkily close that it's possible one candidate, George W. Bush (R), could win the popular vote, and another, Al Gore (D), could win in the Electoral College.
In that case, the first time since the 1800s such a scenario would play out, Mr. Gore would become president, likely sparking an uproar over the perceived unfairness of the system.
But tomorrow, for many Americans, turning out to vote will be a "maybe" thing. And for the parties, the candidates, and the myriad of interest groups that care deeply about Tuesday's results, the outcome could all hinge on getting those "maybes" - their maybes - to cast a ballot.
"We're doing a better job of getting our message out than ever before," says Bob Kelley, president of the Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO in St. Louis. But ironically, he says, "this is as passionless an election as we've seen in a long time" - so they've had to work hard to mobilize.
Mr. Kelley is speaking from a state that features perhaps the most unusual election of all this year: The Democratic Senate candidate, Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash after it was too late to take his name off the ballot. So he could still win that race, posthumously. The new governor got Carnahan's widow, Jean, to agree to fill his seat if he wins.
That race is but one of many around the country in the hard-fought battle for control of the US Senate and House of Representatives, where spending on television and other get-out-the-vote techniques - or GOTV - have soared well beyond previous records.
Voter drives go high-tech
Nationally, the Republicans say they're spending between $40 million and $50 million on GOTV, compared with $18 million in 1996. The Democrats are spending $30 million this year, but when spending on turnout by the labor movement is factored in, the numbers aren't so uneven.
The biggest development in the turnout business this year is the explosion in the use of technology, which enhances a campaign's ability to recruit workers, analyze voter areas, and target voters.
In crucial battleground states, such as Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, any potential voter with a telephone is being bombarded with automated calls from candidates, celebrities, and other supporters.
But Terry Holt, spokesman for the GOP's voter-mobilization program, says these so-called "push calls" aren't everything they're made out to be. "People have become very savvy consumers from telemarketing," he says. Of course, "you don't get a call from Norman Schwartzkopf every day."
In the management of data, the Republican National Committee has a centralized database in Washington. Among the Democrats, the state parties own their voter lists.
The technology has advanced to the point where data can be housed in a CD-ROM in a personal computer sitting in an office. "You can have someone queue in the data every night after they've made phone calls or after they've walked, and the next day you can spit out clean lists," says Laurie Moskowitz, director of the Democratic National Committee's coordinated campaign.
With the growth of mail-in and absentee voting, parties are making increasing efforts to track each day who has voted already - and get calls out to those who haven't.
On election day itself, "poll watchers" will be able to track, hour by hour, who's voted and who hasn't, report the results to a local headquarters, and make calls offering people rides to the polls.
The personal touch
In the end, though, it all comes down to old-fashioned shoe leather and people-to-people contact. After spending millions on television ads in the 1996 election cycle, the labor movement is focusing on worker-to-worker persuasion and literature drops at people's doors.
For weeks, a purple trailer with "Service Employees Union International" emblazoned on its side has been sitting in the parking lot of the Michigan AFL-CIO headquarters in Lansing. Inside, an automated phone system has placed 3,600 calls an hour; when a live person picks up a call, a live person inside the trailer speaks to him.
Now, "I'm just doing lit drops," says Danny Hoffman, spokesman for the Michigan AFL-CIO, who is working on a fistful of close races - presidential, senatorial, and congressional, as well as the state school-voucher proposal. "I've been walking till my ankles hurt."
In Pennsylvania, another battleground state, ask the communications director at the state Republican committee about GOTV, and you'll get back a flood of statistics: 7.5 million registered voters total - 3.16 million Republicans, 3.63 million Democrats, and 732,000 independents.
GOP spending in Pennsylvania for all Republican candidates for getting out the vote will "likely be in the millions" and will be "well over $1 million," says the communications director, Lauren Brobson.
Thirteen official campaign phone banks, staffed by volunteers, are operating around the state, and many of the 67 local party committees also have volunteer phone efforts of their own. These phone banks have gathered information on which party voters belong to and whom they plan to vote for.
On election day, more calls will be placed to make sure those who said they would vote for Bush turn out, to arrange transportation, and dispatch drivers if necessary.
In Florida, the fourth largest state, which could be the key to tomorrow's presidential vote, residents have already been bombarded with every conceivable form of GOTV propaganda known to man.
But in Hillsborough County, party activists say the heavy artillery started this weekend, when supporters started standing on street corners with signs, hanging literature on doors, and revving up the phone banks.
More than 100 volunteers will hang door tags promoting Democratic candidates from the White House to the court house, says Rob Crickmore of the Hillsborough Democratic Party. Supporters are hitting the street corners, waving Gore signs.
Despite what union leaders are saying in other places, Mr. Crickmore, an electrical union member, sees big excitement this year over the presidential race. "I go to the coordinated campaign office every afternoon after I get off work, and it's standing room only. I have to park a half a block away just to go in and get signs."
Sometimes GOTV efforts of an individual candidate can dwarf party efforts, such as the case of New Jersey Senate candidate Jon Corzine. On election day alone the wealthy Democrat is shelling out $2 million, representing about two-thirds of his party's GOTV election-day budget.
He's even luring homeless people from nearby Philadelphia, to the tune of $75 a day, plus free food, to help get out the vote in New Jersey. So if Gore loses Pennsylvania by just a few votes, he'll have someone to blame.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society