Fueled by cans of Dr. Pepper and tubs of candy left over from Halloween, volunteers at the Democratic phone bank in a storefront here are deep into calls by mid-morning Saturday – an effort that could seal a victory for their party on Nov. 7 ... or not.
The question they're asking is the same across America: Can we count on your vote on Tuesday? If the answer is yes, there will be a follow-up call on Election Day: Have you voted?
Nothing is more basic in a campaign than getting out the vote. The Republican Party is famous for its well-oiled mechanism for identifying, finding, and prodding its voters all the way to polling sites, but this year, Democratic leaders say, they're ready to match the GOP's vaunted "72-hour plan" call for call.
Note: In the Bethesda office – campaign headquarters for US Rep. Benjamin Cardin, who is running for Senate in a tight race against Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) – no one is dialing a phone. Calls to targeted voters are automated, allowing volunteers to talk to as many as 100 probable supporters an hour. Instead of recording responses on sheets of paper, volunteers punch "1" (for "yes") on their phone keypads, and that voter's file is automatically updated.
These automated voter files can match data from other sources, revealing information such as an individual's ethnicity, race, religion, income, financial data, subscriptions, buying habits, and political history, even from states where a voter has formerly lived. Routes for volunteer canvassers are integrated with mapping software.
"Our use of data has become much better and more efficient," says Artie Harris of the Maryland Democratic Party. "We have thousands of volunteers and paid canvassers on the streets working very, very hard, contacting hundreds of thousands of voters."
In Maryland, polls show that the GOP's Mr. Steele, an African-American, could take a bigger bite out of the black vote in neighboring Prince George's County than Democrats had expected. It makes the get-out-the-vote effort here in Montgomery County all the more crucial for Mr. Cardin.
Until the 2002 campaign, Democrats, backed by labor union supporters, typically had the edge in turning out their voters. But the "72-hour" get-out-the-vote (GOTV) program developed by Karl Rove, President Bush's adviser, and Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman – which includes microtargeted voter lists and a nearly year-round mobilization effort – gave Republicans a strategic and technological edge that helped them hold onto the House and Senate in the past two elections. This year, the RNC promises "the biggest midterm GOTV operation in history."
Since then, Democrats have scrambled to catch up. By 2004, the Democratic National Committee had improved its automated voter files, but the operation was prone to glitches. Some state GOTV teams couldn't access the files until days before the election. After that campaign, the DNC launched an $8 million overhaul of its voter-file system and invested in training in all 50 states.
"Through Governor Dean's 50-state strategy, we put field staff on the ground in all 50 states a year ago," says DNC communications director Karen Finney.
"A lot of people criticized [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Howard Dean for his 50-state project. They wanted him to focus on a small number of battleground states," says Kim Gandy, chair of the National Organization of Women and its political action committee, who is spending her vacation helping to organize the phone bank here. "But what has happened in the last month shows the wisdom of what he has done, because there are competitive races in states we never thought there would be, and now there is a mechanism that could put these Democratic candidates over the top."
In West Virginia, the state Democratic Party started rebuilding its precinct captain structure in June 2005. With help from the DNC, it set up an automated, updated voter file accessible down to the precinct level. Volunteers can now see prospective voters' party identification, gender, age, how they voted in the past six to eight elections, whether an absentee ballot was used, plus appended microtargeting data such as estimated household income, occupation, magazine subscriptions, whether they have kids in school, and what they told previous party canvassers.
"Twenty years ago, Democrats here had an excellent get-out-the-vote system, and we're trying to get back to that ... and to branch out to traditional Republican areas," says Derek Scarbro, field director for the West Virginia State Democratic Party. "Our ability to track and manage that data has come a long way in West Virginia, and that's helpful. We even think we have an edge," adds Mr. Scarbro. The number of Democrats casting votes early is up 3 percent from the level in 2004. "Republicans are down a bit, and that's encouraging," he says.
Still, top GOP campaign advisers say the party's turnout plan can give Republicans the edge they need to win close races this week. "There are about 30 hotly contested [House] races, within the margin of error, and our 72-hour effort will make the difference on what it looks like on Election Day," said Rep. Tom Reynolds (R) of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, on Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Some voting experts say the get-out-the-vote arms race is less than meets the eye.
"The Republican turnout machine is a myth," says Robert Richie, executive director for FairVote – The Center for Voting and Democracy, based in Maryland. "There's very little to indicate from the results that the Republicans are doing a better job at mobilizing people," he says. Republicans won in 2002 and 2004 not because they had higher-tech turnout toys, but because they persuaded people.
"Voter turnout is not very complicated. It's identifying voters, reminding them to vote, reminding them again, then making sure they vote," adds Mr. Richie. "You can call new techniques something fancy, but at the end of the day it's the most basic thing you do. Both sides do it."