It’s a new ground game in Nevada
Walter Munch, 65, voted on a sunny afternoon last week, entering his choices on a computer screen at an Albertsons grocery store in suburban North Las Vegas. Munch didn’t know it, but his early vote made him part of a huge experiment in political engineering.
For weeks, the retired heavy equipment operator said, his telephone had been ringing with calls from both political parties. His mail bulged with literature from candidates of every description. Canvassers knocked on his door almost every day.
“I just wish it would stop,” he said emphatically.
In fact, now that he’s voted, he’s likely to get his wish. Clark County’s sophisticated electronic balloting system keeps automated track of who has voted, day by day, and both parties have access to that information. With Munch no longer up for grabs, neither side will want to spend more money or time wooing him.
The ability to focus only on voters who are still available is just a small part of the increasing complexity of what political professionals call the ground game — the expensive and sometimes annoying efforts campaigns employ to identify supporters and get them to the polls. The ground game is no longer simply a matter of earnest volunteers calling voters and walking precincts, although those old-fashioned exercises still happen. Instead, the most important pieces of the ground game borrow ideas and technology from retail businesses and telemarketing to target and persuade individual voters.
Most of the money in political campaigns still goes to television advertising, and most of the attention, it seems, goes to the candidates’ gaffes. But in a close, high-stakes contest like Nevada’s U.S. Senate race, which pits Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid against “tea party” Republican Sharron Angle, the ground game may well determine the outcome.
If Reid can turn out as many Democrats as voted for Barack Obama in 2008, he should be able to win, because Democrats outnumber Republicans in Nevada by a significant margin, 42% of registered voters to the GOP’s 37%.
The problem is that Democrats historically don’t turn out in midterm congressional elections as strongly as they do in presidential election years. Republican voters, on the other hand, are more consistent — and, this year, more enthusiastic.
That’s why Reid and the Democratic Party have devoted years of planning and millions of dollars to a get-out-the-vote operation that they say will be the most sophisticated ever mounted in a non-presidential election.
They refuse to say exactly how much they are spending or exactly what they’re doing. But inside a nondescript commercial building near the Las Vegas airport, hundreds of volunteers and paid personnel man a telemarketing center that makes thousands of phone calls to voters whose names and allegiances pop up automatically on computer screens. And in more traditional style, hundreds of union members and other volunteers have been deployed to knock on doors and ferry reliable Democratic voters to the polls, relying on computerized voter lists that are updated every night after the polls close.
Needless to say, Nevada’s Republicans are competing in this game as well. But Nevada’s GOP has a problem: The official party organization is weak and poorly funded, and its leadership splintered when Angle, an insurgent, won the Senate nomination in June.
But the GOP does have at least two advantages: the fervor of the tea party and the seemingly unlimited resources of newly minted “independent expenditure” organizations that have sprung up to raise money for conservative causes this year. Without those groups, the Angle campaign would be behind Reid in fundraising, but when the independent organizations are added in, the GOP led as of last week by roughly $31 million to $29 million.
In Nevada, several of the independent groups have banded together to fund a ground operation outside the official Republican Party, run by an organization called Americans for New Leadership. Its backers include American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, fundraising organizations founded in part by Republican strategist Karl Rove, which have said they plan to pour at least $10 million into the ground game in Nevada and other states.
Republican organizers in Nevada say they won’t have to spend much time persuading traditional GOP voters to go to the polls this year; they’re self-motivated. Instead, they plan to devote most of their time to wooing independents and “soft Democrats” to try to give Angle the margin she’ll need.
Both sides are focused on “microtargeting,” a marketing technique that Rove pioneered in political campaigns when he worked for then- President George W. Bush. Democratic women get calls about abortion rights, elderly voters get calls about Social Security and Latinos get calls that are bilingual.
All that electioneering comes with a high price tag: With only 600,000 likely voters, Nevada appears on the way to breaking the U.S. record for dollars spent per vote.
This year’s Nevada ground game will resonate far beyond the state’s borders, and not just because of its impact on the Senate. At least some of the techniques honed in this race will soon turn up in an election near you.
It would be nice if the renewed importance of the ground game signaled a return to old-fashioned politicking, when neighbors met with neighbors to make the case for the candidate of their choice, and volunteers could help swing an election through enthusiasm and persistence. But that’s not what’s happening this year in Nevada.
Instead, what we’re seeing is a triumph of chilly professionalism, on both sides. Most of the money is from out of state. Most of the messages are negative. Now even the grass-roots part of politics looks and feels like telemarketing.
It’s progress, and it’s mostly irreversible. But it doesn’t feel like much of a step forward.