After millions of dollars in ads, polls and six-figure consultants, the 2006 elections could turn on one final, frantic, door-to-door battle: Who wins the get-out-the-vote game.
A little more than a week before voters go to the polls to decide who will control Congress next year, that game is being played out in a half-dozen battleground Senate races and 40 to 50 closely contested House elections across the country.
While the Democrats are leading in the Senate races (enough to take control of that chamber) and in 20 or more House races (they need only 15 to take charge), many contests appear close enough where turnout could make the crucial difference. That is, keeping Democratic gains lower than they would be otherwise.
No one doubts which party has the stronger voter-turnout ground game: the Republicans.
"It's a great, sustaining grassroots operation with a large degree of centralized direction, and Democrats have not done that. It's very sophisticated," said Curtis Gans, the pre-eminent voter-turnout specialist who heads American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. But Gans does not think the Republicans' turnout army -- which held off a fierce Democratic offensive in 2004 -- will be enough to save the GOP this time.
Still, contrary to a belief in some GOP circles that its base is fragmented and disillusioned, polls show Republicans rallying to their party. This week, for example, a Washington Post-ABC News survey showed 88 percent of GOP voters supporting their party in the congressional elections.
However, it also shows 95 percent of the Democrats and a whopping 59 percent of independents favoring the Democratic candidate in their congressional districts.
Stronger Republican voter turnout in a number of the closest House races could conceivably overcome that disadvantage in Republican-drawn districts where GOP voters vastly outnumber Democrats.
That's what Republican national chairman Ken Mehlman is hoping for, anyway, to save as many of their lawmakers as possible from defeat.
Mehlman, the architect of the 2004 get-out-the-vote operation, has been fine-tuning his grassroots army ever since -- adding to his voter lists and building a ground force that has been sending a steady stream of weekly voter-contact reports from the precinct level up the chain of command. It is an impressive operation run out of the Republican National Committee's "turnout war room" here, and Mehlman remains as confident as ever that it will keep Congress in GOP hands once again.
"Republican volunteers have contacted more than 14 million voters this year and more than 7 million since Labor Day alone," he said last week. "We have made 1 million voter contacts every week for the past five weeks, and for six weeks we have surpassed the number of contacts we made at comparable times in 2004, a presidential year."
This is in sharp contrast to what the Democratic National Committee has been able to do under party chairman Howard Dean's operation, which has been playing "catch-up," a Democratic adviser told me.
Dean's operation has had to depend more heavily on paid workers, union members and out-of-state groups to canvass voters, a force that is not as effective as local volunteers who are going door-to-door in their own neighborhoods, party surveys show.
But Dean has poured much of his money into his controversial 50-state strategy, hiring organizers even in the most Republican states. "We've been laying the groundwork for over a year now, and those early investments are clearly paying off as we head into the final stretch," he said last week.
Republican organizers have been working on their get-out-the-vote operation for much longer. In Tennessee, for example, where there is an unexpectedly close race for an open Senate seat, the GOP's executive director, Chris Devaney, said they've been building their voter list for more than two years. "It's an unprecedented door-to-door effort based on the operation they had in Ohio in 2004, which won the state for President Bush," he told me.
As in other states, GOP volunteers are given target numbers of voters that must be turned out in their precincts and counties, hard quotas that are based on Republican vote totals in previous elections. These totals include an added vote cushion to overcome a large Democratic turnout, he said.
In Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Rick Santorum appears headed for defeat, the GOP has amassed an army of 30,000 volunteers overseen by 35 paid field organizers. "It's a pretty strong ground game in place," GOP state chairman Rob Gleason told me.
Still, there can be no question that Republican prospects look bleak. Their only hope is a stronger get-out-the-vote performance in enough states to keep the Democrats' expected gains as low as possible.