By Matthew Mosk and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 21, 2006
The hallways were decorated with the green and white of Martin O'Malley's campaign, but more important was what was happening inside the Prince George's County ballroom: thunderous applause from a thousand supporters, most of them African American women.
The Baltimore mayor converted the rostrum into a pulpit.
"Turn to your neighbor and say, 'There's a lot of power in this room,' " O'Malley preached.
" There's a lot of power in this room ," the women cried out.
Four years ago, Democrats headed into the final stretch of a heated governor's race without much of a message to get their supporters to the polls, and there was a pointed lack of enthusiasm from black voters, the party's most loyal supporters. The Democrats got clobbered.
"We didn't really do our job in '02, and we saw what happened," said Donna Edwards, a Democratic Party activist and former congressional candidate who attended the rally.
Democrats are determined to make this year different, said Edwards and others supporting O'Malley's bid to retake the governor's office from Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. This time, both Ehrlich and O'Malley have elaborate plans, in the works for more than a year, to maximize turnout that are the centerpiece of a two-week sprint to Election Day.
For O'Malley, the focus is on what campaign manager Josh White calls "drop-off voters," those who turn out when presidential candidates are on the ballot but stay home in intervening years.
"We're, in a sense, trying to expand our base," White said. "These are people who need a push out the door. But once they get there, we know they'll be with us."
For Republicans, the task is more complicated. Because Democrats hold a nearly 2 to 1 edge on voter rolls, Ehrlich can't afford to merely try to drive more people to the polls. He needs to motivate his supporters to show up Nov. 7 while doing nothing to energize those backing his opponent.
To accomplish this, his aides said they have been brewing their own turnout recipe -- one that depends on the science of "microtargeting" and on many of the same formulas that helped propel George W. Bush to victory in 2004. Information about every potential Ehrlich voter, down to the magazines they read and the church they attend, will drive the strategy for lighting a spark under them on Election Day.
"Every race is about turnout, but this one especially so for Ehrlich," said one of the governor's top aides, who discussed internal campaign strategy on the condition that he not be named. "Last time, we won partly because I think we had a superior air game -- television ads, radio ads, direct mail. This time, in my opinion, we win by having a better ground game."
While each campaign will spend the next two weeks working several fronts -- O'Malley will launch a bus tour; Ehrlich will begin a barrage of television ads -- the strategy that could ultimately decide the outcome of this year's hotly contested race is the one that succeeds at driving the right voters to the polls.
A crucial piece of the effort for Democrats will involve black voters, who traditionally have been the party's most loyal constituency but who stayed home in large numbers in 2002, when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend became the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate to lose in Maryland in 34 years.
Census records show that although 50.5 percent of registered black voters turned out to vote in 1998, that number dropped to 41.3 percent in 2002.
This year, many Democrats are still waiting for signs that black voters will take an interest in O'Malley, said former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D).
"I think this is going to be the biggest single challenge, because the excitement and the enthusiasm is really not at the level that it needs to be to get a really good, strong turnout," Glendening said, adding that he believes interest will climb as the election approaches.
The Democrats have some obstacles within the black community. For one, Republicans fielded the state's first African American to be elected statewide, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, and he is now on the ballot in the race for U.S. Senate.
And there is also unease about the complexion of the Democratic statewide ticket: All but one of the candidates is white. But that is a "longer-term problem," Edwards said. "I don't think that's going to be enough to keep people from voting."
Democratic Party officials have tried to address those issues by producing a series of door-hangers and brochures aimed specifically at black voters, including one that pictures an African American woman on the front and the words, "Why I am a Democrat . . ."
O'Malley recruited an African American running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown (Prince George's), and has brought in well-known black figures to help, too. Basketball great-turned-movie theater mogul Earvin "Magic" Johnson is promoting the Baltimore mayor on the radio. Former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have joined him on the stump.
"Bill Clinton is like the Energizer bunny for Democrats, and especially the key groups we need to make sure come out, African American voters especially," Edwards said.
Today, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) will kick off a two-week canvassing effort in black neighborhoods that will involve passing out 10,000 postcards reminding residents of their voting rights. O'Malley himself will be knocking on doors of targeted voters in Montgomery and Howard counties tomorrow.
The party has also recruited three to four times as many volunteers as they had four years ago to phone the drop-off voters, White said. It's a strategy that might have yielded little in years past but could prove vital in taking advantage of a national climate that appears to favor Democrats heavily.
That climate has forced Ehrlich's campaign to direct more attention to independents and his own base of support, the state's rural Republicans, to make sure they don't decide to stay home. Part of Ehrlich's success in 2002 stemmed from bringing out 191,000 more Republicans than voted in 1998 for Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Ehrlich said he is not concerned by the national mood, noting that in two weeks, events in North Korea or elsewhere could shift attention away from the series of GOP scandals in Washington. And he believes the microtargeting effort will overcome any unease about voting.
"You saw in 2004 what it can do," he said, referring to Bush's successful turnout effort.
At the same time, he has been writing to supporters to persuade them to cast absentee ballots. The stated purpose has been to ensure a secure ballot in the face of possible problems with electronic voting. But because he'll know that those ballots have been cast and can scratch those voters off of contact lists, he can improve the efficiency of his turnout operation come Election Day, he said.
When asked what effect surrogates such as Clinton will have on the outcome of the race, the governor laughed. Yes, the former president probably helps energize some Democrats, he said. "But he helps me with my base, too."