Campaigns Cope With Voters Who Aren't Fired Up

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

After millions of dollars, hundreds of barbecues, coffees and fish fries and five debates, this is what the men running for the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia are struggling with a couple of weeks before the primary:

"I saw one knocking on my door," said Kurtis Dowtin, 29, who lives near Tysons Corner Center, where he was shopping on a recent afternoon. "I didn't open. I thought it was Jehovah's Witness."

"Now, what's the guy? Tim Kaine? He's the governor, right?" asked Riadh Mejri, 32, of Springfield, who had the rare experience of personally hearing from one of the candidates when former Alexandria delegate Brian Moran visited his mosque a few weeks ago. Still, Mejri said he is unlikely to vote in the June 9 contest among Moran, Terry McAuliffe and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds.

Predicting turnout for Virginia primaries has always been tricky, but never more so than this year -- the first with a contested party battle for governor in more than three decades, the first to follow a monumental year of politics that got millions of new voters involved, and the first after George W. Bush retired to Texas, taking with him a key motivation for Democratic Party engagement.

Dowtin and Mejri said they followed developments during last year's presidential election closely, sometimes hourly. But both said that after that consuming experience, they were ready to focus on other things.

"You know what it was like?" Mejri asked. "A wedding. After the wedding, it's over. Everybody goes home."

An unprecedented 980,000 Virginians voted in the Democratic presidential primary in February 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the start of a campaign season in which the state emerged as a nationally watched battleground. But there are signs that the excitement of those days has faded.

Several special elections in Virginia since November have been marked by low turnout and, worrisome for Democrats, a strong showing by Republicans in areas thought to be Democratic strongholds.

Nationally, a Senate runoff in Georgia in December, a special congressional election in New York in March and a congressional election in Illinois in April attracted voter turnout not just lower than 2008 presidential numbers, but lower than average for those areas.

"I'd love to believe that what happened in the general election in 2008 would carry forward. But I don't see it," said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. The passion of 2008 was driven largely by anti-Bush sentiment and an outpouring of support for Obama, Gans said.

"The media and the political operatives, I think our assumptions were a little off," said Joe Abbey, Deeds's campaign manager. "We saw what happened last year with Obama and Hillary. It whets the appetite. You get excited about what can happen next year. But I think we're looking at more of a [typical] Virginia turnout."

And a typical Virginia turnout is low. Fewer than 156,000 people came to the polls to give James Webb the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2006, which was about 3.5 percent of the electorate. A similar percentage came out for a contested Democratic lieutenant governor battle in 2005.

All three gubernatorial campaigns said they believe that attention on the race will drive up the numbers from 2006. There are signs that suggest predictions of low turnout are premature. Requests for absentee ballots are up from 2006, the voter rolls have swelled by 45,000, even since the 2008 presidential election, and the candidates are drawing larger crowds at recent campaign events. Figuring out which ones will come to the polls and how to reach them could, more than any other factor, determine the victor on election day.

McAuliffe has brought a sophisticated, data-driven presidential-style campaign organization to bear on the primary, in part aimed at picking up Obama activists who have become interested in local politics. He has opened 14 campaign offices, eight of them spread across Northern Virginia. His campaign says that more than 4,000 volunteers are calling thousands of voters every night and knocking on hundreds of doors. The effort is led by 40 paid organizers, many of them veterans of Obama's campaign in Virginia.

"Overwhelmingly, our staff has found that even though we've only been in the race for five months, when our organizers and volunteers call the people who were involved last year, the overwhelming response we get is, 'Hey, great -- I haven't been contacted by anyone else,' " said Mike Henry, McAuliffe's campaign manager.

McAuliffe has the money to flood media markets in the final days before the vote. His strategists said they believe that turnout could be as high as 350,000, a number they are confident would mean victory for their candidate and a Democratic jump-start for the fall general election against Republican Robert F. McDonnell.

Strategists for Moran, a 12-year veteran of the House of Delegates who spent years campaigning for Democrats across the state as his party's caucus chairman, said they view that kind of operation as a waste of resources on voters unlikely to come out for a June primary.

Local officials who have endorsed Moran have brought with them lists of volunteers and loyal supporters who can be counted on to show up, said Steve Jarding, Moran's chief strategist.

"If you're targeting wrong, you're throwing money away," said Jarding, who predicted no more than 200,000 voters at the polls June 9.

In the 2006 Senate primary, in which neither candidate aired a television advertisement and both hailed from Northern Virginia, the Washington suburbs were king -- accounting for more than 40 percent of all votes cast.

It is not yet clear whether any of the Democrats running this year will spend the half-million dollars or more a week necessary to buy significant broadcast time in the Washington market. But all of them have television and radio ads in Hampton Roads and Richmond. McAuliffe and Deeds are on TV in Roanoke and Bristol, as well.

Turnout could be higher outside Northern Virginia than it was in 2006, making a battleground of Hampton Roads and Richmond, two populous areas that are not a natural base for any of the hopefuls.

Deeds will concentrate on southwest Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville, areas he believes he can carry handily. He will target supporters with mail and phone calls in other parts of the state. But campaign manager Abbey said he has not figured out how to combat the fatigue of voters such as Mejri, who said that after all the attention he paid last year, he is ready to move on.

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