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Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2004 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

John H. Fund

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Turnout Titans: Meet the gurus of getting out the vote.


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | If John Kerry is elected president, he will have many people to thank, but the list may start with Michael Whouley. A legendary Democratic field operative, the reclusive Mr. Whouley is in charge of the thousands of Democratic grassroots organizers who are charged with getting out the vote.

Similarly, if George W. Bush wins he will owe a great deal to Morton Blackwell, a GOP national committeeman from Virginia, who helped persuade the party to supplement its paid advertising with a ground game that worked so well in Senate races in 2002 that it became the model for this year's GOP get-out-the-vote efforts.

A candidate's GOTV efforts can be the key to victory, and a bad effort is an easy way to blow a lead and lose an election. "When elections are close, people always credit an effective ground game with between one and three points," says Teresa Vilmain, a key player in Democratic efforts to bring their base vote to the polls.

Ms. Vilmain told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that in Wisconsin the Democrats now have 348 paid workers, compared with only 70 in 2000, when Al Gore carried the state by 5,708 votes. Another 44 student coordinators are in charge of getting out the vote on college campuses, a drive aided by the Wisconsin's status as one of six states where people can register to vote on Election Day.

Republican officials in Wisconsin say they have 50,000 volunteers signed up, each of whom has pledged to try to bring 50 voters to the polls. "There is often so much advertising at the end that many voters tune it out and rely on family, friends, co-workers or the volunteer knocking at the door to motivate them to vote," says Rep Scott Jensen, a former speaker of the Wisconsin House.

In previous years, both parties paid telemarketers to call voters and direct-mail houses to distribute campaign literature. This year, the reliance is on volunteers calling and writing friends, having house parties, and pledging to deliver a certain number votes from their precinct.

Both sides have developed sophisticated campaign Web sites to help volunteers. The Kerry campaign site tells people how register to vote, get an absentee ballot and send e-mails to friends reminding them to vote. The Bush site provides information on traveling to a battleground state to sway undecided voters as well as obtaining a "precinct kit" that includes walking maps for target neighborhoods.

Some of the volunteers aren't mere foot soldiers. Both sides will have thousands of lawyers standing by to engage in courtroom battles in any close state. Mr. Whouley, the field marshal of the Kerry campaign, has six "SWAT teams" of lawyers stationed around the country, all of them within an hour's flight of any battleground state. The Associated Press reports that the Kerry legal teams have office space in every battleground state, with plans so detailed they include the number of staplers and coffee machines needed to mount legal challenges. "Right now, we have 10,000 lawyers out in the battleground states on Election Day, and that number is growing by the day," says Mr. Whouley, who will run the Democrats' election night war room in Washington. .

Mr. Whouley has the absolute confidence of top Democrats, including Mr. Kerry, for whom he first worked as a director of field operations in his 1982 race of lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. In 1992, the Boston native was director of field operations for Bill Clinton's campaign and after serving as patronage chief in the Clinton White House helped save New Hampshire for Al Gore in the 2000 primary against Bill Bradley. Mr. Kerry says one of the reasons he didn't challenge Mr. Gore for the Democratic nomination that year was that "I would not have enjoyed running against Whouley." Later in 2000, Mr. Whouley was the Gore aide who told the vice president on election night that the vote in Florida was too close to call and that he should retract the concession he had just made to George W. Bush.

This year, Mr. Whouley teamed up with Mr. Kerry again to rescue his campaign from oblivion in the Iowa caucuses. He brilliantly deployed all of the weapons at his command--door-to-door volunteers, direct mail, phone banks and even a helicopter that ferried the candidate to as many as six events a day--to pull off one of the great upsets of this year's elections. Democrats are counting on him to be Mr. Kerry's ace in the hole next week.


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But Republicans also have their legendary grassroots specialists. Morton Blackwell was the youngest delegate at the 1964 Republican convention that nominated Barry Goldwater. He has since become president of the nonprofit Leadership Institute, which has trained more than 40,000 young people in the mechanics of politics, fund raising, media relations and public speaking. "It sometimes seems Morton has trained half of the most energetic and bright young people I run into on political campaigns," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

After the 2000 election, in which the Bush campaign was caught flat-footed by Mr. Whouley's organizing efforts on Election Day, Mr. Blackwell wrote a cri de coeur warning that political consultants working for the party were more interested in making money on commissions from TV advertising than in winning elections. Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says that Mr. Blackwell "finally got people to listen to him but only after he pointed out that since Democrats have a built-in grassroots base in unions the Republicans are bound to lose elections if they don't compete in that area."

Republicans responded to the challenge in 2001 by creating a 72-hour task force to measure the impact of increased grassroots efforts in elections in Virginia and New Jersey. The results led the party to adopt a rule that no state party would receive funds if it did not develop a permanent 72-hour effort. In 2002, such efforts were credited with winning control of the U.S. Senate back for the Republicans. "Shoe-leather politics were a major factor in winning the recall campaign for Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003," says Ron Nehring, who has revitalized San Diego's Republican Party with the creation of volunteer armies.

This year Mr. Blackwell is encouraging the use of automated survey equipment to supplement volunteers. The new technology allows campaigns to cheaply ask yes-or-no questions to almost unlimited numbers of people. The computer recognizes and records the "yes" and "no" answers people give. That information, without any delay, can be used in subsequent contacts with those who were called. In Ohio, it has allowed supporters of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to make 3.3 million calls identifying supporters of the idea, making it far easier to contact them to urge them to vote on Election Day.

So while media outlets focus on showing the television ads that are bombarding the battleground states and obsessing on the endless polls, the real work of the campaigns that will probably decide the election is going on in the backroom where millions of paid and volunteer workers are organized. That you probably haven't heard about people like Mr. Whouley and Mr. Blackwell is no accident. Mr. Whouley is so camera-shy that photographs of him on the Internet are almost nonexistent.

Get-out-the-vote organizers want "minimal attention to their under-the-radar skid-greasing," as the online magazine Slate put it. They take pride that they are most often successful when no one outside their closed circle has ever heard of them. But these almost completely unknown specialists may make more difference than anyone in determining who wins next Tuesday.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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Up

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©2001, John H. Fund