Game Time for GOP's Election Machine

Posted: Apr 28, 2006 10:07 AM

WASHINGTON -- Republican officials preparing for a tough election in November have begun to redeploy the voter turnout army of volunteers who produced the GOP's sweeping victory in 2004.

At a time when voters are in a sour mood and the GOP-run Congress is experiencing its lowest approval polls in years, Republican operatives here have reactivated their ground forces in key battleground states. These campaign workers have been sending in weekly reports on the number of new Republican voters they have identified and registered in strategic toss-up races, using a vast e-mail network linking district, state, regional and national party operations.

The full scope of this effort remains largely under wraps, but top party officials have broadly described it to me because they want to get the word out that the GOP will be playing to its strengths this fall: rebuilding a massive get-out-the-vote drive that is far more effective than anything the Democrats have been able to put together.

It resembles the 2004 outreach organization, only this time the GOP will be using "micro-targeting" technology to thwart the Democrats' fierce offensive to win control of Congress.

"Every single week our volunteers make tens of thousands of contacts with targeted voters," a senior Republican Party official told me. Right now, the number of volunteers is in the thousands, but eventually will grow into hundreds of thousands in the general election this fall.

While Republican National Committee officials have declined to talk in specifics about it, RNC political director Mike DuHaime confirmed that, "The organization is certainly in place and we're moving forward. It's kind of like a muscle that you have to keep exercising in order to keep it in shape."

However, a senior party operative who is intimately involved in the voter turnout project described a large and growing grassroots force that is given a set number of goals that have to be met each week.

"What we are doing now is relatively small compared to what we will be doing in the fall," the operative said. "We probably had a technological edge in 2004, but we're harnessing more technical power this time, bringing new efficiencies to what is really old fashioned grassroots politics."

Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee are among several dozen states that will be targeted by the GOP volunteers.

In addition, the GOP already has "active organizations on the ground, meaning paid staff, in more than two dozen states that will be greatly expanded in the months to come," this official said.

Right now, the generic congressional polls look bleak for the GOP, but there is less than meets the eye. For one thing, they usually overstate the Democratic vote. For another, they do not mention the names of the candidates, but ask only which party voters will support. Such polls have historically shown Democrats leading in years when the Republicans in fact made gains in Congress.

Moreover, Republican strategists familiar with the GOP's renewed voter outreach effort say that historically Republican voters tend to turn out in much larger numbers than the Democrats in midterm elections and that the GOP ground game is better equipped than the Democrats at targeting its voters and getting them to the polls.

"In '02 and '04 we did a lot better job than the Democrats in turning out the vote," veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black told me. "The RNC has been nurturing its voter turnout organization and it will be there to do the same thing this year."

"In midterm elections less than 50 percent of eligible voters turn out to vote, so it will depend which ones they are and getting your voters to the polls in large enough numbers," Black said.

Party strategists at the grassroots are similarly enthused by the RNC's aggressive voter turnout drive and say that the door-to-door drive will help reenergize GOP voters at the party's base.

"The Republicans have invested tremendous resources and energy in their turnout model so they know who to target and what messages work with voters," said John Brabender, a Pennsylvania campaign consultant who is advising Republican Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign.

"What was effective in 2004 I think will be effective in 2006," he said.

This year's House and Senate elections are shaping up to be one of the hardest-fought midterm battles ever. But Republicans have road tested and perfected an efficient voter identification and turnout system that, as in 2004, could be the critical factor this November.