For example, after the Tester-Burns Montana Senate race in 2006, I drove to San Antonio to help Ciro Rodriguez in his December 12 special election TX-23 runoff against incumbent Henry Bonilla. Every poll in that race, including the final poll released on election eve, had Bonilla winning by a comfortable 4-5 point margin.
Stunningly, Rodriguez won by almost 9 points. Organizing helped tip the balance. The DCCC poured late money into the race and a huge field effort with an assist from a Bill Clinton Dec. 10 appearance in the district helped spike the energy. The pollsters didn’t catch the under-the-radar movement.
In many ways this election was anomalous because special elections are low turnout affairs. In fact, turnout was only a 28% fraction of 2004 turnout. But it still shows that polling models can be well off (pollsters know that special elections are low turnout affairs and adjust their likely voter models accordingly) because they fail to capture the force multiplier of a far more energized turnout machine on one side versus another.
As a result, it’s a key topic in the presidential race, particularly when one side is going to the mattresses and setting a ridiculous precedent for organizing.
On Monday, a must-read piece in the Washington Post discussing Virginia specifically calculated the mathematical edge Obama hopes to leverage on Election Day through new voters. This example can be extrapolated to each state, since the campaign's field team in each state has its own voter registration goals.
Here are Virginia's numbers: the addition of 151,000 new voters by the registration deadline of October 6. Based on experience, the campaign believes about 75% of these new voters will show up on Election Day, and 80% of those newly registered will likely be Obama voters. (Mostly this is because the people out there registering voters are wearing Obama T-shirts and stickers, or sitting behind tables with Obama banners taped to their front that naturally attract undecideds and those inclined to support Obama.)
In Virginia’s case, that translates to nearly 68,000 extra votes for Obama uncaptured by pollsters in current polling. Given that Virginia’s general election turnout was 3.2M in 2004 and projecting turnout of 3.5M in 2008, banking 68,000 new votes means Obama would start out with a 1.9%-to-0 structural advantage.
It’s important to stress that this is not a hypothetical advantage. If the organizers and their recruited volunteers can hit their daily quotas (perhaps something like 20 per organizing pyramid per day as a broad guesstimation) in each state, this new voter edge will happen, and so will the 1.9%-ish bumps. It’s not an accident that tickets to the Invesco Field nomination acceptance speech are predicated on showing up to field offices and registering new voters.
The silver lining for Republican partisans is that nothing besides their own campaign choices and base enthusiasm is stopping them from matching Democratic partisans new voter for new voter, in which case the bump would be canceled out. In 2004, despite an intense effort on the Democratic side, Republicans had the better ground game and it made the difference. George W. Bush’s team saw the merit in investing big on the ground, and it paid off. The problem for them this time is lack of base enthusiasm and choices the McCain camp is making about resource investment.
Hildebrand said that to ensure that the campaign fills the stadium, the application process becomes in and of itself a recruiting tool.
"Every single person is going to be a level of seriousness," Hildebrand said. "You know, 'Tell us how you're going to get there from Maine. Tell us how you're going to get there from Florida. Give us a sense of whether or not you're really serious about this. If you're not, we're going to provide someone else with this.' "
Those who want a seat will begin the process at their local Democratic Party office. While demonstrating their ability to attend, they also will be encouraged to sign on to the campaign as volunteers.
"They fill out a form; there's a conversation," Hildebrand said. "We ask them and encourage them to register voters and to get out the vote and those activities that are important to us. It's not a requirement, but it's going to be an encouragement."
Moreover, until those new registration goals are reached, they aren’t reached. That seems like an obvious point, but a fair number of blogosphere-based Democrats seem to be caught up in appointing themselves amateur campaign advisers instead of bearing down on the work that has to be done, a point I made in a partisan post here today following on Al Giordano’s lead. I had more than one person tell me during the 2006 Montana Senate race that they didn’t need to pull a volunteer GOTV shift because I was needlessly worrying since Tester had it in the bag based on his consistent polling leads. (For those that don’t remember, the race wasn’t called until 10:30am local time on Wednesday morning, moments before Donald Rumsfeld resigned.)
As the election wears on, we’ll be staying on the organizing beat, looking for updates on numbers, reports from the ground, and insider tips about where the rival campaigns are in voter registration. Feel free to email pocket99s-at-gmail with confidential tips and general observations about the state of the ground game in your area.