An undisclosed location, Va. -- From the outside, the headquarters of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign is completely unremarkable -- so unremarkable that passersby have no way of knowing it's even there. Through the tinted windows of the Arlington office tower where the headquarters is lodged, people shuffling papers can be glimpsed as through a glass darkly. There is no storefront-style sign out front, even though the office is on the ground floor, nor is there a sign on the door. The campaign is not listed in the building directory, and there's no address for it posted on the Internet or in the local directory services.
"Our location is disclosed, but not completely," says Brian Danza of the Bush-Cheney communications office. "We just don't like having media people out here."
The administration's love of secrecy, its concerns about being a soft target for terrorists and its desire to depict the president as above the fray have turned the re-election project into the ultimate under-the-radar campaign. While the Democratic Party has been noisily tearing itself apart for the past six months, the Bush-Cheney re-election team has been quietly and methodically building a formidable grass-roots operation. Since launching on May 17, 2003, the president's team has grown into a 24-state operation with 160 people at its headquarters. And, as with the buildup of troops before the Iraq War, the deployment has gone largely unnoticed.
Though the president has publicly avoided election-year wrangling, on any given day his campaign has been sending Cheneys, cabinet members and the first lady out on the trail. Take Nov. 6, for instance: The president was in Washington to sign the Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction supplemental funding bill, Laura Bush went down to campaign events in Virginia and West Virginia and Lynne Cheney popped up to a Bush-Cheney reception in Pennsylvania. Or Dec. 5, when the president attended a Bush-Cheney '04 fund-raising lunch in Baltimore and stopped by a Home Depot to give a talk on the economy. Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary John Snow talked jobs in the swing state of Missouri, the vice president campaigned in Oklahoma and the Bush-Cheney '04 staff trained grass-roots supporters in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Three days later, on Dec. 8, while George W. Bush was at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall signing the Medicare prescription-drug bill, campaign manager Ken Mehlman was rolling out the re-elect team in South Carolina and Commerce Secretary Don Evans was attending Bush-Cheney '04 fund-raising receptions in Kentucky.
As with everything about the Bush presidency, its re-election campaign seems to exist at two levels. There's the public campaign, in which a moderate, visionary president comes up with inclusionary programs -- pro-Mars, pro-Mexican -- to broaden his base of support. And there are the more niche campaigns, hidden in the shadows, in which the campaign stirs its right-wing supporters to action by appealing to their baser instincts. There are impressive efforts to register and turn out millions of new voters. And there's evidence of national Republican efforts to perfect longstanding voter-intimidation programs directed at blacks and Hispanics.
All that can lead to a multitude of messages. Having endeared himself to movement conservatives during his first three years in office, for instance, the president is now moving more to the center to pick off portions of the Democratic base with such policies as his prescription-drug coverage act and his proposal for immigration reform. Both policy shifts fall far short of meeting the real needs of the targeted populations, but politically they're intended to move small percentages of senior and Hispanic voters into the Republican column. Republican strategists, for instance, speak of boosting Bush's share of the Hispanic vote from the 35 percent he won in 2000 to 38 percent next year, which could spell the Republican margin of victory in New Mexico and Arizona. In a nation more or less split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, just a little movement within discrete constituencies can drop three or four additional states into your column.
But while broadcasting moderation, the campaign is also narrow casting a meaner message toward its true believers. There's a neat division of labor here: While the e-mails that go out over the president's signature to supporters are chipper and unremarkable, those from Mehlman sometimes play to classic right-wing phobias in order to keep supporters' zealotry suitably stoked.
On Dec. 18, for instance, Mehlman sought to rouse his troops with a message titled, "Foreign liberal cash used to defeat President Bush!" What followed was an extremely unflattering photograph of a grimacing, hook-nosed George Soros (one of the most significant contributors to the unofficial Democratic voter-mobilization organizations that have arisen in the wake of McCain-Feingold) and a message bemoaning the "billionaire liberals and the flood of foreign money that they're encouraging." Mehlman called on "450,000 AMERICAN grassroots contributors" to counter the sinister attempt by Soros -- a native of Hungary but a naturalized American citizen who has lived in the United States since 1956 -- to provide the Democrats with money from an immigrant. The ad comes close to resurrecting the classic anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish cosmopolitan financier undermining a Christian republic.
Much of what the Republicans have wrought outside the limelight is, to be sure, not so sinister. All the same, Democrats should be paying far more attention than they are to what the GOP has done here -- both in terms of its fund raising and the very early on-the-ground organizing, which has frankly given it an undeniable head start in an area that Democrats used to own. In 2003, Bush very publicly raised a record $130.8 million and ended the year with a soothing $99 million cash on hand. His campaign also used the fall and winter to bring on campaign chairs, hire key staff, build online networks, hold voter-registration and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) training sessions for thousands of activists, and prepare to go into the field in key battleground states months ahead of when it had been able to in the 1999-2000 electoral cycle.
Visiting the Bush campaign headquarters after spending time at former Gov. Howard Dean's (D-Vt.) bustling Burlington hive feels rather like being a scholarship student visiting a rich friend whose family name graces the school buildings. The whole setup speaks of wealth and security. Instead of the Dean offices' mismatched, secondhand furniture, everything at the Bush headquarters is new, comfortable-looking and designed expressly for the purpose it is serving. Instead of being stuffed four to a corner, staffers each have a neat little cubicle, complete with partially padded walls in a tasteful orange-and-blue tapestry design. The desks all have chairs of which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would approve. The computers, also new, all match. Terry Holt, press secretary for the campaign, is dressed on the day before New Year's in his day-off casuals -- a blue sweater, slacks and a well-worn, pumpkin-colored "W" cap -- when we sit down in his spacious office, where the floor is covered by Persian rugs and the two televisions are tuned to MSNBC and the FOX News Channel.
Most staffers on this pre-holiday afternoon, says Holt, are taking the day off to watch ballgames. Though he doesn't say it, it's clear that this is some of what $130 million buys you. No competitive primaries. No frantic late nights. Time to plan and to be thorough. Time to go to ballgames. But as different as the Bush and Dean campaigns may appear, when it comes to voter outreach, they sound remarkably similar.
"The president has made clear that this campaign is going to be won or lost by people talking to people," says Holt. The line between the personal and political, as Holt sketches the campaign, will be a thin one: Re-electing Bush will be the work of countless block parties and yard sales. "The best endorsement," Holt adds, "comes from your neighbor." In fact, he sounds a lot like Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, talking about the Democratic candidate's community-based, "people-powered" campaign. Holt looks surprised and a little taken aback at the idea. "Well," he says, he says of Trippi, "he's right."
That the Bush and Dean campaigns are using similar rhetoric about the importance of the grass roots is no coincidence. Both Bush and Dean come across as "conviction" politicians who assiduously cultivate their parties' activist bases. But their similarities are not merely stylistic; they are organizational as well. While the Dean campaign likes to present the growth of its own grass roots as an organic surge of popular sentiment, both it and the Bush campaign are, in fact, working out of the same playbook. To a considerable degree, they got it from the AFL-CIO.
The story, on the Republican side, starts just after the 2000 election, which Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, had expected to yield a 50-percent to 51-percent popular vote for his candidate. Instead, Bush's backing declined in the final week: He won just 48 percent of the popular vote and entered the White House thanks chiefly to the friendly ministrations of five Supreme Court justices. Once they had installed their man, Republicans scurried to see what had gone wrong. Blaise Hazelwood, the Republican National Committee's (RNC) political director, had research showing that union households in 1998 and 2000 were turning out to vote at rates much higher than their percentage in the population. Evangelicals, meanwhile, were underperforming, putting Republicans at a distinct disadvantage in the final 72 hours of a race, when union mobilizations led by the AFL-CIO were having a strong impact in turning out households that would vote Democratic. "It seemed that they had a really good ground game," Hazelwood told The Washington Post in 2002.
So the RNC's organizers developed a 72-Hour Task Force to work on the problem. They tried more than 50 different organizing methods, doing trial runs in the state elections of 2001. They learned that knocking on doors, instead of merely leaving fliers, could be worth 2 to 3 percentage points in a tight election. In another RNC experiment, four volunteers were pitted against a professional telemarketing firm, each with an identical script and separate lists of voter names. The four volunteers got almost 5 percent more people to the polls than the pros. "The 72-Hour [Task Force] reads like a Democratic GOTV manual," says Teresa Vilmain, the general election strategist for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
More particularly, the tests the Republicans ran and the answers they found are remarkably similar to those that Steve Rosenthal, then the AFL-CIO's political director, had conducted for the federation after the 1996 election. "We found that union members calling union members were more effective than paid phone bankers," Rosenthal says. "We found that the most effective form of communication was for someone they knew -- a shop steward, for instance -- to talk to them and hand them materials from their union. You want the contacts to be as personal as you can make them; you want as many contacts as possible. It's not rocket science." The AFL-CIO transformed its field program accordingly, and the union household share of the electorate rose from 19 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2000.
What worked for the house of labor, though, also worked for the party of capital. In the 2002 midterm elections, the Republicans sent more than 1,500 activists from Washington and 15,000 volunteers from across the country to sway voters in competitive races. Mobilizing conservatives in swing states while the Democrats had virtually no message and no one in the field but labor, the GOP's GOTV program worked. The percentage of Republicans voting went up, and for the first time in decades the party in the White House gained congressional seats in a midterm election.
This coming November, just as in 2002, the Democrats won't have GOTV to themselves. Starting in September 2003, the Bush campaign began forming local leadership teams in battleground states. By January 2004, it had campaign leaders in place in 24 states: West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee, Michigan, Oregon, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, Arkansas, New Jersey, Hawaii, Virginia, California, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania and, of course, Florida. Like the Democrats, the Republicans attend to voter mobilization so urgently because they believe the nation is so evenly divided. In a memo last November to Mehlman and Karl Rove, Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign, noted that "this race will be decided within a four- or five-point margin, not the 18- to 20-point margins like 1984 or 1972."
So the war in the field has already begun. In Florida, the state party is registering 75,000 new Republican voters and boosting turnout to more than 80 percent among those already registered as Republicans. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the campaign will have trained more than 2,500 activists and volunteers at 12 get-out-the-vote training sessions by the end of January. Organizations in nearly all of the state's 67 counties are already in place. The campaign plans to recruit 65,000 volunteers in Florida alone to talk to voters, host block parties and write letters to the editor. "I don't think they've ever been this close to the ground ever," Geoffrey Becker, executive director of the Florida GOP, told the Prospect.
This year, says Becker, Florida Republicans are scouring the property-tax rolls to find people in GOP precincts who aren't yet registered. They're also tapping into Florida's abundant localized church alliances and organizations, along with such longtime allies as the National Rifle Association and the Florida Farm Bureau. Above all, the party is starting earlier this year than ever before. In 2002, says Becker, the national committee initiated its 72-Hour Task Force in July and August; this year, it's starting in February.
Like their Democratic counterparts, GOP activists have become something of a flying squadron, especially throughout the South. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, according to Becker, between 1,500 and 2,000 people came from out of state to volunteer in the 72-Hour Task Force for Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.).
"I was told to get ready for more of this in 2004," Becker says. "Last year we sent people to Mississippi for [the] governor's race [on behalf of Haley Barbour], and Mississippi might be sending their folks here in '04. They're not looking at a very contested [presidential] election there."
For its part, the Florida state Democratic Party has announced it has no plans to start ground organizing until March, which is still considerably earlier than it has mobilized before. In 2000, "We didn't have our field staff in place until midsummer," DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe told the Prospect last year. Perhaps more significant for the Democrats, some of the "527s" -- the independent organizations formed in reaction to campaign-finance reform laws that will be carrying out most of the Democrats' registration and GOTV campaigns this year -- are already deploying in Florida.
(The 527s are certainly shaping up this year as the Democrats' counter the Republicans' newfound affinity for the grass roots. In last November's Philadelphia mayoral election, Democrat John Street was returned to office in good part due to the efforts of one such labor-backed group, Partnerships for America's Families, which registered 86,000 black and Hispanic voters in a city of 1.5 million people.)
In Michigan, the GOP appointed its 72-Hour Task Force director, Beth Thompson, close to a year ago. Its goal is 40,000 new Republican voters in a state where people don't register by party. Michigan Republicans are canvassing unidentified voters by phone, flushing out the potential Bush backers by asking them, says Thompson, about such time-honored wedge issues as "life and guns." The Democrats are hoping to counter this by registering tens of thousands of new voters at their Feb. 7 presidential caucuses. Ed Bruley, who served as chief of staff for former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), the onetime House Democratic whip, notes that 40,000 new Republicans "doesn't amount to much in a state where 6 million voters are registered." (In 2000, Al Gore beat Bush by 217,000 votes there.)
Which raises a key question for campaign 2004: Which party's base can be enlarged more? Rove has said that the Republicans aim to register and turn out 3 million new evangelical Christian voters. Rosenthal questions whether they're up to the task and argues that the universe of unregistered Democrats among African Americans, Hispanics and working women is the more expandable. The election's outcome may turn on who's right and which side does the better job of following through on its promises.
Voter registration and identification weren't the only mobilization programs that occupied the Republicans in 2003, however. They were involved in a major voter-intimidation program as well. The battleground on which they tested their latest tactics was the Philadelphia mayor's race, where the campaign of the Republican challenger, Sam Katz, grew extremely nervous at the success the Democrats had had at registering minority voters. The Republican response was an attempt to scare black and Hispanic voters away from the polls -- not a new trick in the Republican playbook by any means, but one that the DNC had better be studying and preparing to confront this November.
To begin, according to Democratic consultant Tom Lindenfeld, who ran the counter-intimidation program for the campaign of Democrat John Street, the Republicans assembled a fleet of 300 cars driven by men with clipboards bearing insignias or decals resembling those of such federal agencies as Drug Enforcement Agency and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Thus arrayed, says Lindenfeld, these pseudo-cops spent election day cruising Philadelphia's African American neighborhoods and asking prospective voters to show them some identification -- an age-old method of voter intimidation. "What occurred in Philadelphia was much more expansive and expensive than anything I'd seen before, and I'd seen a lot," says Lindenfeld, who ran similar programs for the campaigns of Harvey Gantt in North Carolina and other prominent Democrats. In a post-election poll of 1,000 black voters, 7 percent of them said they had encountered these efforts (this being Philadelphia, there were allegations of violence and intimidation against Street supporters as well). Lindenfeld employed 800 people to confront the GOP's faux-agents at polling places.
Lindenfeld's operatives found Republican volunteers from as far away as Missouri, and attorneys from the District of Columbia were discouraging Philadelphia voters from exercising their franchise. That doesn't make the effort an official activity of the RNC, of course. But it does mean that a broad network of Republicans are still honing their techniques for manipulating an election.
There are, after all, a multitude of tasks this year for which the Republicans must ready themselves: soothing the centrists while inflaming the right; getting their vote up and keeping the Democrats' vote down. In 2003, the Republicans' early deployment of their field campaign, much less their cultivation of the blacker arts, went all but unnoticed. In 2004, with the electorate divided evenly between the parties, even the smallest ploy can pay dividends. Republicans mean to be ready.