Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2004 / 2 Kislev, 5765

Rich Lowry

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Consumer Reports

A grass-roots army | What was the secret weapon of the Bush campaign? Gay marriage? Karl Rove? No, the greatest unappreciated asset was simple — volunteers. Hundreds of thousands of people put themselves on the line for something they believed in. If they had worked for a liberal candidate, they would now be celebrated as a great "people's army" that vindicated their ideals on Nov. 2. Alas, they worked their hearts out for a Republican.

From a study of its insufficient turnout operation in 2000, the Bush team discovered that the "most important thing in political communications is personal contact from a credible source," according to Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. The campaign proceeded on that basis. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie explains: "It was like a direct-marketing appeal. We built it around personal contacts. We'd ask someone to get five people, who would get five people, and you would have these concentric circles. By the end, we had 1.4 million volunteers in the battleground states. That's a staggering sum."

"We spent 2003-2004 building this incredible grass-roots army," says Mehlman. The campaign was addressing what had become a key GOP deficit.

"We as a party had moved away from relying on grass-roots volunteers. Instead, we relied on paid contacts, paid mail and paid phone calls. We let a lot of the grass-roots effort atrophy," explains Bush political director Terry Nelson.

The Bush team focused on identifying three categories of potential voters: people who had recently moved into new areas (it registered 3.4 million of these often "ex-urban" voters), Republicans who don't always vote (roughly 7.4 million people) and unaffiliated but sympathetic voters (roughly another 10 million). "That's 20 million people in nine or 10 states," says Mehlman. "That's a serious number of new people."

"We acquired a raft of consumer information — do you own a gun? attend church regularly? — that a credit-card company might get," Mehlman continues. The campaign then matched its volunteers with its target voters. "In Wisconsin, we had a lot of sportsmen phone banks, where sportsmen would call and explain to other sportsmen why they should be for us," says Nelson.

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"We tried to match up anyone with a common interest, common membership," Mehlman explains. "Someone concerned about education is going to be more likely to believe what she hears from a fellow member of the PTA than from a kid wearing a baseball hat who wants to show her a John Kerry video and who is getting paid by a temp agency."

You can throw lots of money around paying people (the George Soros approach) and still not duplicate the passion, commitment and credibility of volunteers. According to Mehlman, the model was the Bush caucus campaign in Iowa in 2000, where you could be a Bush team leader by bringing 10 other people into the fold. The campaign learned then, according to Mehlman, that "lots of volunteers will beat a paid army of people who don't have skin in the game."

The same dynamic applies to donors. "If someone gives you five dollars, he has skin in the game," Mehlman says. "We massively, massively, massively built the size of our donor list, more than a million people. You want to raise money, but you also want to give as many people a stake as you can."

Thanks to all of these efforts, millions of people felt directly vested in the Bush campaign. It was waged on a genuinely populist basis. And it worked. New registrants, which were supposed to carry Kerry over the top, broke only 54-46 for the senator. The GOP goal was for 14 million "attempts" — attempted contact with voters — in the battleground states in the last four days of the campaign. The number might have hit 18 million. In only four states did Bush's percentage go down from 2000.

Passion and idealism are qualities that money can't buy. Liberals used to understand that — before they put their faith in the power of Bush-hating billionaires.

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11/09/04: The brewing immigration backlash
11/05/04: The values election
11/02/04: The Kerry recovery
10/29/04: The Ohio insurance policy
10/26/04: The provisional-vote scam
10/22/04: The Florida lie
10/19/04: How government created the vaccine crisis
10/15/04: Kerry's strange respect
10/12/04: Senator, you're no Reagan
10/11/04: Tora Bora bull
10/05/04: The debate that wasn't
09/29/04: Momma gets tough
09/24/04: The GOP's demographic problem
09/21/04: Kerry's Iraq gambit
09/20/04: Questions for Dan Rather
09/14/04: John Kerry, explained
09/10/04: The unfathomable human toll
09/08/04: W the Bold
09/03/04: Loud and proud
09/03/04: The candidate of change?
08/27/04: The McCain myth
08/24/04: Kerry refuses to admit that he burst onto the national scene by telling a shameful falsehood about American servicemen
08/20/04: The war on obstetrics
08/17/04: And now it's ‘Tommy Franks lied’?

© 2004, King Features Syndicate