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Election 2012

The difference between winning, losing: getting voters to polls

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On the eve of Election Day, suddenly folks on both sides of the political spectrum pick up the same talking point.

“It’ll all come down to turnout.”

And while it’s a cop-out cliché for pundits asked for an electoral prediction, the reality for campaigns at all levels is that the difference between victory and defeat can come down to a voter mobilization plan.

Get-out-the-vote efforts begin in earnest once ballots hit mailboxes, and carry through the close of polls on Election Day. As on the national scene, the local get-out-the-vote captains tout theirs as the final piece of a winning campaign.

“We consider this a critical advantage over the other side,” said Ryan Clumpner, campaign manager of Republican mayoral candidate and Councilman Carl DeMaio. “We’re far more sophisticated than anything [labor is] doing.”

“In all honesty, we think we do it best,” said Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, whose voter mobilization for union causes is a boon to local Democrats, including mayoral candidate Rep. Bob Filner.

Some of any conversation about getting out the vote, whether local or national, is surely gamesmanship. Political operatives aren’t in the business of talking up their opponent’s strategic advantages.

And those willing to comment for this story did so in a general sense. None would quantify the size of their effort or discuss their specific areas of focus, worried of possibly giving away a perceived strategic advantage.

But recent political science has begun to quantify the effects of voter mobilization, and establish whether certain parties or candidates truly have an advantage.

Research by Seth Masket published in Public Opinion Quarterly, for instance, found the presence in 2008 of a field office for President Barack Obama correlated with a nearly 1 percent uptick in support in that district, and as much as 3 percent in some states. It found as many as three states cast their electoral votes for Obama than otherwise would have been the case.

That compares to conventional wisdom among consultants that a good ground game could be worth a 2 percent swing in the vote, and that the effects of a get-out-the-vote initiative grow larger as you move down the ticket.

Other research has demonstrated which types of voter contacts have the most effect.

Robocalls — automated phone calls of endorsement for one candidate — have virtually no effect. A personal phone call from a paid staffer has some effect, or a volunteer is better. Literature left at the door or in the mail box has some effect. A face-to-face conversation with a canvasser is best of all — bonus points if it comes from the candidate him or herself.

“More personal is always best,” said Barret Tetlow, the executive director of the San Diego County Republican Party.

But prior to those forms of voter outreach, campaigns mine registration, voter history and consumer data to come up with a better sense of where to deploy their volunteer resources.

And within the coalitions on each side of the political spectrum, labor is divided to make sure work isn’t being duplicated.

Both the local GOP and Democrats have volunteers spend their time talking to voters registered with the party. That frees up the candidates or surrogate groups to focus their time and effort on undecided voters.

Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego Republican Party, said they adopted that approach in 2002. Before then, it hadn’t been clear what the party’s role was.

He said there’s a reason for the divided responsibility beyond simply avoiding duplicated efforts.

“Someone choosing not to register as a Republican, they’ve actively chosen not to associate with our party, for whatever reason,” he said. “We’re not here to argue with them. But they haven’t rejected George Plescia [running against Marty Block for the 39th state Senate seat]. They’ve actively rejected our party; fine, we’ll go talk to Republicans. But they haven’t rejected George Plescia or [Councilwoman] Lorie Zapf.”

At San Diego Democratic headquarters in Kearny Mesa, volunteers call registered Democrats and depart for precinct canvassing where they’ll once again remind like-minded voters that like-minded candidates need their like-minded votes.

“We get to victory by having a good ground game, and making sure we have enough of those one-on-one interactions with Democrats, which has been shown with volunteers are the most effective way to reach out,” said Jon Wong, a 25-year-old Democratic field organizer from Rancho Penasquitos. “I did my job if we’re recruiting and retaining enough volunteers so they have a good time and we talk to as many Democrats as possible.”

There’s also the fear that a volunteer could create a backlash with a potential voter. By talking only to those with whom they share a party, volunteers can encourage people to vote without consultants needing to worry about any negative effect.

At a first-time volunteer training session 10 days before Election Day, Tetlow explained to a crowd of more than 100 soon-to-be canvassers how to envision their role. If a given precinct has 35 percent or 42 percent registered Republicans, it’s their job to mobilize every last one. The campaigns can then focus on the remaining percent of voters, whether Democrats or no party preference, to win their vote.

That leaves the campaigns to mine through data to identify persuadable voters, and feed them the professionally vetted information that is likely to push them toward a particular candidate.

Using software from companies like Political Data Inc., campaigns can cross reference the registration information and voting history of individuals with the broader national or local trends in an election year to create an informed guess of how each individual has previously voted, and therefore whether they’re persuadable this year.

It’s not perfect, but it allows them to identify with relative certainty whether a voter is in danger of not voting, or if they’re likely to vote but are unlikely to have made up their minds.

When talking to the latter group, getting out the vote isn’t about advocacy. Mobilizing voters doesn’t mean debating your candidate’s merits in someone’s doorway multiple times a day.

“With persuadable voters, it’s just about getting the information in their hands,” Clumpner said.

Gonzalez said her labor council’s ground operation is focused on the top priorities of its members — in this cycle, that’s Proposition 32, which would limit union influence by eliminating payroll deductions from union members for political causes — but is also reaching out in favor of Filner as well as Democratic Port Commissioner Scott Peters in his bid to win the 52nd California congressional district, from Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray.

“I’m not sure what [the GOP’s] ground effort is to be quite honest,” she said. “We do our own thing in areas where our base voters are. Their priority isn’t Prop. 32. We have a different strategy in that sense, and I can’t speak to what they’re doing.”

Gonzalez said the mayoral race directly affects a relatively small number of her members, although it has symbolic significance even to those who don’t work for the city of San Diego.

“The media has an obsession with the mayor’s race, but from a pure ‘things that affect my daily life,’ there are different things on [volunteers'] minds,” she said.

Based on a relatively small sample of interviews with volunteers, motivation to participate overwhelmingly comes from the presidential race, which in California will be handily won by the president.

Jose David Testa, a 26-year-old artist who just moved to San Diego from Spain, is a conservative Christian who showed up to the Republican training session to help Romney win the presidency.

“During the first presidential debate, I saw a strong Romney, and a President Obama that wasn’t altogether there,” he said. “I had thought it would be an Obama and Democrat election all the way. I saw courage on Romney’s part. A feeling that, you don’t have to give up. That motivated me to show up at one of these.”

On the local races, he said he needed to do some background research before casting his ballot.

“I’ve read a bit, but I just don’t feel I can say I understand the issues,” he said.

Likewise, Leslie Peculbia, a 68-year-old Tierrasanta resident who is a regular volunteer at the Democratic headquarters, said she became politically involved for the first time in her life when she saw her children’s commitment to Obama’s election campaign in 2008. She started registering voters in May and has been knocking on doors and participating in phone banks ever since.

“I really believe in Obama and what he can do,” she said. “I thought, I have the time and the desire to do it. I feel like I’ve done all I can do. I don’t know what else I could do. It’s something that I want very badly, to see a certain outcome in this election.”

She identified herself as a Filner supporter and is excited about the prospect of a Democratic City Hall in San Diego, but nonetheless said it’s the top of the ticket that motivates her involvement.

Tetlow said voter enthusiasm is the last piece of a get-out-the-vote network, and mentioned it usually comes from the top of the ticket. This year it largely came after the first debate; in 2008 he saw it after then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention.

“We have the bones in place — the headquarters, the community locations and the veterans — and then as everybody gets the skeleton in place, new people flock to it,” he said. “When new enthusiasm comes, we have the skeleton in place they can latch on to.”

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1 UserComments
Gayle Falkenthal 9:39am November 6, 2012

Andrew, my compliments on a well-researched, well-written story depicting the work going on day to day within political campaigns. You have captured the grind and the detail work beautifully. I can't imagine anyone coming away not having learned something and enjoyed doing so after reading your article.