With neither party showing a clear advantage in the final days of the fall campaign, the election is coming down to the ground war and which side can do a better job of getting supporters to the polls.
Both national parties are devoting tens of millions of dollars to turnout operations in states with close races, in what they say will be unprecedented efforts. In addition, interest groups from the Sierra Club to the NAACP to the Christian Coalition are pouring resources into getting out the vote. The AFL-CIO has gone so far as to cease all television advertising in the final weeks of the campaign to focus exclusively on member-to-member contacts.
The focus on grass-roots efforts, in fact, indicates a shift in campaign strategy, driven in part by a consensus that television ads are not necessarily an effective means of motivating voters. And while turnout has always been a key factor in elections, it's taking on heightened significance in today's evenly divided political landscape, in which more and more contests are decided by a few thousand or even a few hundred votes.
"There's a conscious awareness that the ground game has increased in importance," says Greg Casey, president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, which has launched its own grass-roots turnout effort by using employers to contact employees. "In many ways, it's back to the future: the voter is showing a preference for people-oriented politics. I think we'll look back at 2002 as a turning point for what is the most important thing you can do in a campaign."
But so far there's little sign that the new focus on turnout has come at the expense of television ads. Indeed, the amount of money spent on TV ads this election is expected to hit an all-time high of more than $1 billion.
And many experts are skeptical that the parties' efforts to get out the vote will make much difference in overall turnout, which has been steadily declining in recent years particularly in midterm elections, where the lack of a presidential contest tends to keep voter interest low. Turnout in this year's primaries averaged a weak 17 percent, with a number of states setting all-time lows. Most experts expect overall turnout levels on Nov. 5 to mirror 1998, when only 35 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.
When parties do get-out-the-vote efforts, they usually focus on likely voters, which doesn't necessarily result in higher overall turnout, points out Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "They're trying to get every one of their identified supporters out and many of them show up in every election," he says. "It's the people who are marginal that don't show up" that matter.
One consequence of low turnout rates is that groups that reliably vote in higher numbers such as seniors can have a disproportionate impact on the campaign agenda, Mr. Gans says. During the 2000 campaign, for example, "we heard ad nauseum about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and prescription drugs. We heard nothing about the cities," he says.
The senior vote is not monolithic, so a high turnout among the elderly doesn't necessarily benefit one party. But other voting blocs such as African-Americans, which tend to vote Democratic could tip elections in several states.
In places such as Missouri, where Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) is struggling against GOP challenger Jim Talent, or Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is in a surprisingly tough fight with Democrat Bill McBride, minority turnout may be critical. In the 2000 election, a higher-than-usual turnout rate among black voters in Florida resulted in a near-win for then-Vice President Al Gore. This year, the Democratic National Committee has already spent half a million dollars on turnout in Florida.
"There is a major effort being undertaken to turn out the black vote," says David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "It's been extremely influential in a number of elections."
It's possible that some states will see surges in turnout this year. The death last week of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), who was in a tough fight for reelection, could draw more people to the polls and tip the race to the new Democratic candidate.
High turnout could also impact the Minnesota governor's race, in which Independent Tim Penny is running even with the Democratic and GOP candidates. In 1998, a year of low turnout nationwide, Independent Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota governorship when nearly two-thirds of eligible voters turned out.