Get me to the polls on time: Both parties are revving up their get-out-the-vote drives | St. Louis Public Radio

Get me to the polls on time: Both parties are revving up their get-out-the-vote drives

Oct 30, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 30, 2008 - Welcome to the final few days before Election Day -- the World Series for grassroots political organizers. Or, perhaps a better sports analogy: the sprint at the tail end of a grueling campaign marathon.

Television and radio ads are saturating the airwaves. Mailers and robocalls are aplenty. But perhaps most telling about how -- pardon one last sports reference -- campaigns execute during crunch time is the effectiveness of their ground operation.

The storyline is by now familiar. Democratic nominee Barack Obama's campaign, with its vaunted "grassroots army" of organizers and volunteers, has blanketed Missouri for months, signing up thousands of new voters and promoting the Illinois senator across the state. GOP challenger John McCain's team has operated with far fewer paid staffers and field offices (16 to the Obama camp's 44) but is relying on the state's recent history of leaning Republican in presidential elections and the party's proven "72-hour push" to pull out a victory here.

The campaigns' get-out-the-vote efforts already appear to be bearing fruit. St. Louis County residents who want to vote absentee have reported long lines -- out the door at some hours -- at the Board of Elections headquarters in Maplewood, the only county location where "early" voting is taking place.

Lines have been shorter at the St. Louis Board of Elections headquarters, according to Matthew W. Potter, deputy Democratic director for the city of St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners. He said the average wait time has been 10 or 15 minutes since early voting began.

About 13,500 city residents have requested an absentee ballot this year, Potter said. Four years ago, roughly 7,500 people voted absentee. (He said it's hard to make a direct comparison yet, given that a small percentage of people who request the ballots never vote.)

In the days before Nov. 4, the presidential campaigns are targeting the vast majority of Missourians who have yet to cast ballots. Democrats are relying on a massive field operation that regional press secretary Jean Weinberg said "is going to be what puts Obama over the top," as well as what she called "the most sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort this state has ever seen."

That effort starts with 2,500 volunteers (so-called "team leaders") who are overseeing canvassing and phone banking operations in their communities. In addition to the field offices, Obama's Missouri staff has set up more than 150 temporary offices, many of which are in Republican strongholds.

Last weekend, the campaign sent thousands of volunteers into cities such as Joplin, Independence, Lee's Summit and Kirksville, as well as traditional Democratic areas like St. Louis and Kansas City. The campaign reports that volunteers knocked on 100,000 doors across the state last Saturday alone.

"We're still trying to blanket every neighborhood possible," said Melissa Nitti, regional press secretary for Obama in Kansas City.

Nitti said the campaign's presence in her region illustrates a new strategy for Democrats. In past years, volunteers spent their pre-election days operating out of a Kansas City office to the exclusion of the suburbs and other less traditionally Democratic areas. This time around, campaigners are hitting those suburbs and also focusing on places like Platte County, which was strongly in the Bush column in 2004.

"Even if we don't break 50 percent in those areas, if we get close to 50 percent it's huge for us," Nitti said.

In the final few days, volunteers are focused less on persuading voters and more on identifying those who have indicated that they support Obama to make sure they actually vote, she added.

Weinberg, whose area includes Springfield, Joplin and Cape Girardeau, said the campaign is sticking to its ground strategy in the final days, asking more volunteers to take shifts calling and canvassing. On Election Day, the volunteers will be following up with likely voters to find out if they know where to cast ballots and whether they need a ride. In Kansas City, for instance, the Obama campaign struck a deal with a taxi company to help with transportation to the polls. (The Republicans also have a free-ride program on Election Day.)

While the McCain campaign acknowledges Obama's advantages in paid staff and offices across the state, aides are confident that the GOP's efficient voter turnout strategy will work again.

"We've run this program now for three presidential cycles, and it has won elections in the past," Tina Hervey, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Republican Party said, pointing most recently to President Bush's victory in Missouri in 2004.

Like the Democrat's get-out-the-vote effort, the "72-hour" campaign is fueled by volunteers. Republicans from non-swing states, in particular, have already descended upon Missouri to help in the last-minute voter turnout campaign. (Hervey said the operation is no longer just taking place in the last 72 hours - volunteers have been in high gear for days already.)

It's not just hotly contested presidential election states that get an influx of volunteers. Hervey said if there's a key congressional contest in, say, Connecticut, the Republican National Committee will send people there as a way of "helping the entire party down ticket."

Volunteers coming to Missouri will largely be doing traditional phone banking and door-to-door shifts. Individual offices will ramp up the number of home visits and calls made each day, and focus on contacting traditional Republican voters.

Hervey said that while Obama's campaign is "deploying an ungodly amount of people," it's not necessarily about number of canvassers but "more about engaging voters and knowing your next door neighbor."

Nitti said the Obama campaign is aware of the potential pitfalls of oversaturating the state with unfamiliar faces. That's why it's relying on team leaders who live in communities and have been building relationships with voters for months, she said. Weinberg said the campaign has also made an effort to leave alone voters who didn't respond favorably to their calls and visits before.

But for those who were receptive?

"Following through the last couple of days is crucial," Nitti said. "None of our work does any good if people don't get out on Election Day."

Added Hervey: 'You don't stop knocking on doors and making phone calls until the polls close." 

Need a ride to the polls? GOP: Call the Missouri Republican Party's main line at 573-636-3146 for information. 

Democrats: Call 1-877-662-4264, follow the prompts to find a ride to the polls.

Elia Powers is a freelance writer in St. Louis.