Field Notes

If you look at the polls and nothing else, it seems almost self-evident that Nancy Pelosi will be wielding the speaker's gavel come January. Nationally, voters give Democrats a 10-point edge over Republicans in their congressional preferences. Another survey, of 50 swing House districts conducted for National Public Radio, found Democrats leading in the 10 seats they currently hold by a 2-to-1 margin, while Republicans trailed Democrats in the 40 seats they currently hold by a 4 percent margin.

But elections aren't won by public opinion alone. A midterm election is above all an exercise in voter mobilization, and looking at the Democrats' emerging get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operations, it's clear that the Democrats still face one tough slog. Though every major player on the Democratic side -- the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the unions, the environmental groups, the feminist and reproductive rights organizations -- can point to a higher level of activity than in the last midterm election, many leading Democrats fear that this year's operation may come up short in two crucial particulars: mobilizing the sometime base voters, particularly African Americans, and devoting enough resources to the ground game in the growing number of contested House districts.

Problem is, the most important Democratic player in turning out the base in 2004 can't point to a higher level of activity this year; indeed, it has ceased to exist altogether. America Coming Together (ACT), the state-of-the-art GOTV operation funded by such mega-donors as George Soros and Peter Lewis, which pushed Democratic turnout to record, if insufficient, highs in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and other battleground states, died a quiet death last year when Soros and Lewis pulled the plug. The problem is compounded by DNC Chairman Howard Dean's decision to distribute the party's own voter turnout efforts among all 50 states rather than concentrate on the states and districts where control of Congress is up for grabs.

Dean's strategy and ACT's demise will make this year's GOTV campaign less centralized, and smaller, than it was in 2004. They have left Democratic operatives in a state of chronic dread. “We could have assumed they [ACT] would do the base vote in certain places,” says Karen Johanson, the executive director of the DCCC. “I would have had a good sense of what's going on. I don't have as good a sense now.” In 2004 in Ohio, ACT spent $18.8 million to turn out Democratic voters, and the state is home to hotly contested gubernatorial, senatorial, and House races this fall. “There were about 1.5 million Ohio voters who voted for Kerry [in 2004] who didn't vote in 2002,” one senior Democratic operative notes. “You can't take $18.8 million out of Ohio without huge effect on your ground game. I'm extremely nervous.”

“What is the base voter turnout program?” asks one of the foremost political operatives on the Democratic side. “Outside of the states with the [ballot initiatives increasing] the minimum wage on the ballot, [the party's] coordinated campaign may not be strong enough to do the base-vote turnout.”

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Today, two of the party's three national organizations -- the DSCC and the DCCC -- have more funds on hand than their Republican counterparts, but they focus primarily on buying airtime for their candidates. The task of funding the voter mobilization efforts of the state parties falls chiefly to the DNC, which badly lags the Republican National Committee in fund raising, and whose GOTV strategy has bewildered and infuriated the party's legislative wing. Accordingly, both the DCCC and DSCC -- heeding Frederick the Great's maxim that to defend every place is to defend no place -- have now broken with past practice and for the first time are targeting their own resources and talents to voter mobilization in states and districts where they have targeted races.

It's not that the DNC hasn't been busy. According to Karen Finney, its communications director, the national committee has hired field organizers in every state, spent $8 million updating, correcting, and massaging Voter File, its master data bank on voters (“It didn't work in 2004,” says Finney, “the state systems couldn't talk to the national system”), and has $12 million in hard money set aside for its final fall push in 38 states with key gubernatorial, senatorial, House, and legislative races.

Many Democrats fear, however, that the DNC is spreading its relatively thin resources even thinner. “The RNC has the ability to drop a million bucks into each targeted House race just to do GOTV,” one consultant worries. “The reality of the situation,” says one staffer familiar with the DSCC operation, “has forced us to make significant investment in the state parties. We've put more money into our 15 [targeted] states than Dean has into his 50 states. We have direct input with the state parties.” Similarly, at the DCCC, Chairman Rahm Emanuel, who isn't even on speaking terms with Dean, is hiring legendary turnout consultant Michael Whouley to run an unprecedented field operation for House candidates.

Outside the official party organizations, the America Votes coalition, which first emerged in 2004 to coordinate the campaign activities of the major non-party players on the Democratic side -- the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Sierra Club, Emily's List, Planned Parenthood, and two dozen others -- has solidified its position as the pre-eminent vehicle through which the party's constituency groups will pull out their voters.

States that the Democrats have prioritized certainly have more field activity now than they did at this point in the last midterm election. “We have 15 full-time field staff” working on voter registration, says Ohio state party chairman Chris Redfern -- a significant increase over 2002. America Votes, which never disbanded in Ohio, has 24 full-time organizers of its own, supplementing the organizers of the more than 30 groups that comprise its coalition. As in 2004, however, no other state can match Ohio's density of Democratic organizers -- and at this point in 2004, Ohio also had 70 full-time ACT organizers, who are glaringly absent today.

One effort that will help boost Democratic turnout is a campaign -- spearheaded by the unions -- to increase the minimum wage. Initiatives raising the minimum wage will be on the ballot in six states with key races this November: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio, and possibly in Pennsylvania, too. “We don't have ACT, which was a good program without a clear product that directly connected with people's lives,” says John Ryan, on leave from heading the Cleveland AFL-CIO to manage the senatorial campaign of Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown, about Ohio's minimum wage effort. “We have the minimum wage, which doesn't have as good an operation behind it, but has a clearer outcome that does connect to people.”

Still, America Votes, which has a national budget of $13 million (a figure that doesn't count the far larger combined budgets of its member groups) is only able to mount fully staffed campaigns in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with smaller efforts in Arizona, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. (Unlike ACT, which hired its canvassers, America Votes can only intervene in those states where its volunteer-based member groups are already notably strong.) If, after comparing these lists, you wonder who's going to conduct the minimum wage/base mobilization campaigns in Missouri and Nevada, the answer is labor, which does have a considerable presence in both states. The AFL-CIO, says political director Karen Ackerman, will be involved in more than 200 races in 21 states -- a list that may expand to 29 as the number of winnable congressional races continues to grow. Within the Change to Win Federation and labor generally, the SEIU remains the most active international. In California and some other states, Change to Win unions have re-integrated themselves within the local AFL-CIO political operations, but in many states, the creation of a unified list of labor voters -- crucial for an effective GOTV campaign -- awaits the completion of negotiations between the two national federations.

This year, the America Votes groups will have access to better voter data than they have had before, which they are purchasing at discounted rates from the Data Warehouse, a new venture created by longtime Democratic operatives Harold Ickes and Laura Quinn. Purchasing the voter contact files of ACT, voter behavior data (that is, who voted in which elections) from the various secretaries of state, and other data and consumer information from a myriad of list vendors, the Data Warehouse will enable Democratic groups to “microtarget” voters with more particularized pitches than they have before. To a certain extent, its efforts parallel those of the DNC -- but since the DNC is legally unable to share its data with nonparty groups, and since the Data Warehouse can legally sell its data to state parties, the Ickes-Quinn firm is a valuable new tool for Democratic campaigns. It also has a long way to go to catch up with the Republican voter file operation, which is centralized within the Republican National Committee.

With data from the Voter File, Democrats have an easier shot of identifying, say, the 1.5 million Ohio Kerry voters who didn't vote in 2002. The question remains whether their operation will be able to turn out enough of them in 2006.

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