The GOP’s Road to 51: GOTV

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This is the fifth in a series of articles looking at the races most likely to determine whether Republicans capture or Democrats hold the majority in the U.S. Senate after Election Day.

In Nevada, where Majority Leader Harry Reid is defending his U.S. Senate seat and his son is running for governor, 70 paid staffers have been on the ground — in some cases for months — ginning up support and organizing efforts for the final weeks of the campaign.  Another 3,000 volunteers have been deployed throughout the state to knock on doors, distribute leaflets and make phone calls.

Now that early voting has begun, a shuttle service will operate all along the Las Vegas Strip to transport hospitality workers to the polls.  Unions will provide not only the shuttle service but thousands of workers who will spend their off-hours — and in some cases their working hours — assisting Democratic candidates in what the Las Vegas Review-Journal has called the largest get-out-the-vote (GOTV) program in Nevada history.

And what unions can’t contribute, Democratic-allied organizations, such as MoveOn.org, Organizing for America (OFA) and others, will.  These organizations, experienced from the fight that delivered the White House and both houses of Congress to Democrats in 2008, will deploy highly trained canvassing operations that understand the importance of person-to-person contact.

So, when polls show Sharron Angle, Reid’s Tea Party-backed Republican challenger, even in the race, it doesn’t actually mean she’s even.  It means, of those who haven’t answered the door to a campaign worker, haven’t received a call from a phone bank and haven’t had any other personal contact with either campaign…of those people, roughly half say they will vote for her.

Voter enthusiasm is nice — and Angle’s supporters seem uncommonly motivated.  But enthusiasm won’t be enough unless Angle’s campaign can match her opponent’s GOTV efforts.  And that won’t be easy.

Why?  There are a number of reasons.  One is philosophy.  As progressive political organizer Robert Creamer notes, Democrats rely on face-to-face, door-to-door communications.  Republicans, meanwhile, “are much more prone to rely on paid telephone contacts and mail,” Creamer says.

Creamer claims to have research to show the Democrats have this right — “one knock on the door within 72 hours of the election can increase turnout by 12.5%.” He goes on to report that another knock can boost it almost as much again, but a live phone contact nets only a 2.5 percent to 3 percent increase in turnout.

Another reason: The Republican National Committee (RNC), which traditionally handles GOTV for House and Senate candidates, basically announced early on that it was punting this cycle.  It is low on money and will spend much of what it has on TV ads and other last-minute items, such as mailings and electronic outreach.

So, when it comes to money for get-out-the-vote operations or to bring in Hill staffers and others who traditionally join campaigns for the stretch run — the RNC will be close to a no-show in 2010.  Other Republican groups are attempting to fill in these gaps, but that means candidates will be turning to groups and personnel new to the process, which means inexperience, which will further hamstring the Republican effort.

And it’s not just Angle.  It’s also Ken Buck in Colorado, Mark Kirk in Illinois, Dino Rossi in Washington and John Raese in West Virginia — not to mention dozens and dozens of Republican House candidates — who are locked in close battles with incumbents or entrenched Democrats and will find themselves largely on their own when it comes to get-out-the-vote coordination.

“We will lose races because of this,” one senior GOP Senate aide said.

It’s probably already too late for Republicans to address these problems in early voting states, and all five of the most closely contested Senate races are in states with some form of early voting.

But even in states without early voting, Democrats will realize a huge advantage because of their get-out-the-vote planning.  Not only do they have a chance to close the enthusiasm gap with massive numbers of boots on the ground, they will square off against Republican GOTV operations that are just now gearing up.

Republicans have a golden opportunity this year.  Less than a third of Americans think the country is moving in the right direction.  More than half say they want to repeal Obamacare, the president’s signature legislative achievement.  Tea Party enthusiasm has given the GOP a bevy of fresh faces, both as candidates and as supporters.  And more people identify themselves as conservatives — and fewer as liberals — than at any time since such polling has been conducted.

This all would be great for Republicans if they could harness this positive energy.  But with only a shell of the ground game that Democrats will deploy, Republicans will be hard-pressed to retake the Senate and may miss out on capturing a few House seats that might have been available with a little extra push.

“This election isn’t about enthusiasm,” said MoveOn.org political director Adam Ruben.  “[I]t’s about turnout…[t]hat’s what it’s going to come down to.  There are dozens of races that are going to be close, where turnout can make the difference.”

And right now, Democrats will have the GOTV edge in nearly all of them.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are the co-founders of ProjectVirginia and CivicForumPAC, and the co-creators of TurnNevadaRed.com.