Parties in final push for voters

Turnout is key to races for governor, U.S. Senate

Maryland Votes 2006

November 06, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

With Maryland's close gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races likely to hinge on voter turnout, political parties and interest groups are orchestrating what might be the state's most extensive get-out-the-vote efforts in a midterm election.

From church-organized precinct walks in West Baltimore to elaborate suburban phone bank operations, thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into Maryland's vote-flushing armies, each fighting for the same elusive - and potentially decisive - prize: the voter who needs a push to make it to the polls tomorrow.

The state GOP, for the first time, is using a complex outreach model developed nationally to produce votes for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and others.

"The Maryland Republican Party has fully implemented the 72-hour program," said state party spokeswoman Audra Miller, referring to the three-day turnout plan, established by the GOP in the 2004 presidential election, that put micro-targeting in the political lexicon.

The term refers to the practice of using consumer data to make educated guesses about prospective voters' propensity to back a candidate or party.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, a Pikesville native, said the national party is paying for the consumer research. A party spokeswoman said the national GOP has invested $700,000 in Maryland's get-out-the-vote effort, with the goal of making hundreds of thousands of voter contacts in the final three days.

Maryland Democrats insist that they will match, if not beat, the effort. "We have a 120-hour program," said Derek Walker, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "That's five days, not three days."

Walker said the Democrats are also micro-targeting prospective voters in the campaign's final hours. " It's kind of standard procedure now for sophisticated campaigns," he said.

Sophisticated, but untested, said Donald Green, a Yale University professor who has studied get-out-the-vote initiatives. Research shows that face-to-face contact by volunteers is the best way to motivate prospective voters, he said.

Both parties say their emphasis in the final days will be on such contacts, and they have been trying to motivate their activists with pep talks from national leaders.

On Friday, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney stopped by the United Steelworkers hall in Dundalk to thank about 40 union leaders and activists for their volunteer efforts.

Predicting a "great victory" for progressive candidates nationwide, Sweeney said, "We've got 100,000 workers like yourself doing the precinct walks and the phone banks."

That night, Mehlman swung by a hotel in Hanover to rally about 40 out-of-state volunteers, most in their early 20s, who are among the 120 who have been ferried into Maryland by the Republican National Committee. The volunteers will split their time knocking on doors and making phone calls, said John Gibson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.

Democratic officials derided the use of out-of-state activists as proof that Republicans lack the in-state base to mount an effective get-out-the-vote effort.

"They have this traveling band of activists that goes from place to place," said Walker. "They haven't really done anything to build their party here."

Managers of the grass-roots operations all claim to have the most energized foot soldiers and sophisticated strategies, but experts say the state's history of lopsided elections poses daunting organizational challenges for the parties and their allies, particularly in a nonpresidential election in which turnout is typically low.

"The Democrats haven't customarily really needed one in order to get their candidate elected, so they haven't got too much of a grass-roots base in place," said University of Maryland political science professor James Gimpel, a former consultant to the GOP. "And the Republicans are renowned for having pathetically weak organization, except in the places where they least need them."

Turnout, analysts say, is especially important this year, with races for governor and U.S. Senate tightening.

The gubernatorial race between Ehrlich, a Republican, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, is a statistical tie, according to the most recent Sun poll. O'Malley's 10-point lead in an earlier Washington Post survey of likely voters assumed a higher black turnout, underscoring the potency of voter turnout in the race for Maryland's top public office.

The national stakes are even higher in the Senate race between Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Steele, the Republican lieutenant governor. A Steele victory could be critical in maintaining GOP control of the Senate. Cardin's 6-point lead, according to the poll for The Sun, is about half what it was in September.

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