President Bush and challenger John F. Kerry unleashed the biggest and most aggressive voter-mobilization drives in the history of presidential politics yesterday, tapping hundreds of thousands of volunteers and paid organizers in a final effort to tip the balance in a handful of states where the election will be decided tomorrow.
Mixing sophisticated techniques to identify their potential supporters with old-fashioned shoe leather and face-to-face contact to woo loyal and sporadic voters, the two campaigns will contact millions of Americans -- many of them more than once -- in the final hours of the campaign and then track their movements throughout Election Day to ensure they have gone to the polls.
The unprecedented efforts underscore the conviction of officials in both campaigns that with the race so close in so many states, the key to victory depends more than in any recent campaign on their ability to win the battle of the streets. In Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico, opposing armies fanned out under blazing sun or cold, drizzly skies to reach as many voters as possible.
Both campaigns hope that no potential voter is likely to escape the net cast by them in the final days. In Green Bay, Wis., Mayor Jim Schmitt tried to take a nap on Saturday afternoon, only to be interrupted by a knock on his door from a Kerry canvasser. Just as he fell asleep again, another canvasser appeared at his door, this time from the Bush campaign.
In the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth on Saturday, two GOP voters reported that the Bush campaign had already contacted them three times. In Ohio, Democrats said they had 27,000 people working phone banks and on Saturday night made 399,446 calls. A Bush campaign official said they were contacting 400,000 people a day in Ohio as well. In Pennsylvania, the Bush campaign planned to contact 2 million voters between Friday and Election Day.
The weekend blitz represented the culmination of many months of preparation by the campaigns, which along with their outside allies will spend $300 million and perhaps much more on targeting and turning out their voters. Longtime organizers say they have never seen so much money available for such an effort.
Bush's budget for voter mobilization is about $125 million, at least triple that of four years ago, a knowledgeable official said. Kerry's field operation, run out of the Democratic National Committee, will spend nearly $60 million, more than doubling what the Democrats spent in 2000, campaign officials said.
Supplementing the campaigns and party operations are outside groups, the biggest and potentially most important being America Coming Together, a pro-Kerry organization funded with "soft money," that is likely to spend $100 million to $125 million. Organized labor also will spend tens of millions to reach union members.
Bush can count on help from conservative and business organizations, although none comes close to the scale of ACT. "We are going to have 45,000 paid people out on Election Day," said Harold M. Ickes, ACT's executive director.
With passions running high, the campaigns have tapped volunteers with no previous involvement in politics to supplement campaign veterans. In Wisconsin, union foremen from Atlanta are working out of a storefront office in Appleton. In Iowa, Kathleen Jorgensen, 37, a mother of two, has spent hours of her weekends going door to door. In Florida, Wallace Klussman, one of 1,500 members of the Texas Strike Force that has fanned out to the battlegrounds, spent the weekend canvassing for Bush.
Republicans say the battle on the ground represents a test of opposing theories of how to reach voters in an era when attention spans are limited and information sources plentiful. Both sides are using a mix of paid staff and volunteers, but the GOP is far more dependent on a volunteer corps of organizers more than 1 million strong. Democrats, with ACT's help, have a more professional operation to turn out their loyalists.
Democrats have about 250,000 volunteers, compared with 90,000 four years ago, and contest the GOP suggestion that they mainly rely on paid professionals. But Karen Hicks, national field director for the campaign at the Democratic National Committee, said Democrats have far more experienced organizers than the Republicans, noting that one county in Florida is being managed by someone who ran the entire state of Pennsylvania for Bill Clinton in 1992. "We have a very deep bench in the Democratic Party who have done this before and know how to do it," she said.
Both campaigns have made bold claims about the strength of their get-out-the-vote operations, and while they have produced reams of statistics to tell them how many calls have been made, how many doors knocked on and how many supporters they have state by state, neither can tell until tomorrow who has the edge in effectiveness. Four years ago, it was the Democrats; two years ago, it was the Republicans.
Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman said yesterday that Republicans built their operation on the belief that neighbor-to-neighbor or colleague-to-colleague contact is far more persuasive than relying on paid canvassers who have no personal connections to the voters they are wooing. "Our effort will be larger, it will be more credible and it will be targeted," he said.