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Democrats bank on early voting to bridge enthusiasm gap

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 12:33 AM

LAS VEGAS - Walter Grimsley woke up Saturday morning and remembered he had an errand to run. He had to go vote.

The government retiree's phone had been ringing every few hours with reminder calls from Democratic volunteers. Canvassing teams appeared at his door at least 10 times. At a voting booth set up next to the produce section of his neighborhood grocery store, Grimsley cast his ballot for Sen. Harry M. Reid and the rest of the Democratic ticket, just as he had always intended.

The way the Democrats see it, it is worth all of the effort to lock in surefire voters like Grimsley as early as possible. He is one more supporter they don't have to worry about pushing to the polls Nov. 2. That frees up party operatives to badger reluctant voters who need even more coaxing and who are crucial to saving Reid and other imperiled Democrats in the House and Senate.

There's something in it for Grimsley, too. "Now the phone calls will stop," he said.

Democrats across the country know they face a daunting enthusiasm gap that veteran politicians such as Reid can't possibly overcome. What they can do is try to outperform their Republican opponents by taking advantage of the longer window to get folks to the polls.

Election analysts expect more people to cast early ballots this year than in any previous midterm election. A decade ago, early voting was an obscure practice allowed in just a handful of states. This year, the District and 32 states, including Maryland, allow some form of early voting.

Transforming campaigns

Increasingly, states are making it easier for people to vote early, allowing "no excuse" mail-in ballots and automatically sending ballots to voters who voted by mail in the past. Overall, 30 percent or more of voters could make their choices before Election Day, experts predict. In some states that make early voting especially easy - such as Nevada, where voting booths can be found in health clubs, libraries, supermarkets and shopping malls - it could be much higher. In the last election, 60 percent of Nevadans voted early.

The practice has transformed the way candidates plan the final weeks of their campaigns. The usual barrage of big-name endorsements and negative ads has come much earlier, as campaigns are trying to capture the attention of early voters before it's too late.

In Nevada, GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle canceled her second debate with Reid, saying it wasn't worth the effort since it was set to take place after polls had opened.

It's not clear which party will benefit most from early voting this year, given how much the political landscape has changed since 2008, when Barack Obama's campaign established it as an essential campaign tool. But Democrats more than Republicans are counting on early votes to give them an edge in an otherwise lackluster election season.

The Democratic National Committee has committed $30 million to turning out Obama supporters who might otherwise take a pass on a midterm election. That's on top of spending by state parties and individual Democratic candidates.

The GOP hasn't made a similar coordinated effort, but it may not need to. Preliminary returns from key early-voting states suggest that Democrats are outpacing Republicans, or at least holding their own, in initial returns in some key states. Two large Democratic counties in Ohio have reported a surge in early ballots.

But in other states, the early votes could line up on the Republican side. In North Carolina, white men - who constitute the largest bloc of early voters and tend to vote Republican - are turning out at twice the pace of 2006. In 2008, when Obama carried North Carolina, the dominant early-voting group was African American women, according to the nonpartisan group Democracy North Carolina.

In Nevada, where the party is making a big push for Reid, Democrats are slightly ahead of Republicans in raw early-vote totals, although Democrats are trailing slightly in turnout percentage. Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston said that the numbers may translate into a slim Democratic lead on Election Day, provided the momentum doesn't shift.

Nevada GOP officials said they may need to bump up their efforts. "This election will be incredibly close, and while we are pleased with the high energy and enthusiasm in our Republican volunteers, there is more work that needs to be done before we fire Senator Harry Reid," said Jahan Wilcox, spokesman for the Nevada Republican Party.

Test of voter mobilization

Campaign analysts have debated for years the extent to which elections can be won on the ground. Contests such as the Nevada, Washington and Colorado Senate races, the Ohio and Oregon gubernatorial races, and House races in Iowa and North Carolina will measure how much organization can trump weak candidates and a well-financed, highly motivated opposition. It will also reveal the durability of President Obama's 20008 campaign operation, which relied heavily on early voting and is leading turnout efforts in most of this year's competitive states.

"This is the big test election to see if voter mobilization really has an effect on turnout." said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University government professor who has tracked early voting for several election cycles. "And at least according to the very earliest early-voting numbers, people who thought the Democrats were going to roll over and play dead, that's not what's happening."

Early voting in Iowa started Sept. 23, and the state is beating its 2002 and 2006 totals, with a third of the electorate projected to vote by mail or in person before Nov. 2. So far, 128,000 Democrats have requested mail ballots, compared with 105,000 Republicans and 50,000 independents. The GOP number is an improvement from previous years, but Democrats are also returning their ballots at slightly higher rates.

Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro, a Democrat, said his party is targeting students and minority voters who supported Obama in 2008 but don't usually show up for midterm elections. Spot checks with county auditors suggest the tactic may be working.

"I don't know if the pundits have missed this, but I think there's more engagement than we were expecting," Mauro said. "There was a belief that Democrats would stay home - but they're coming out."

The Democratic operation in Nevada, built to save Reid and freshman Rep. Dina Titus, is a juggernaut of presidential-campaign proportions. On Saturday, the first day of early voting, organizers established 60 staging areas around Las Vegas, in grocery stores, parking lots and beauty salons, to prep three shifts of canvassing teams. Hundreds of Democratic foot soldiers, both paid staff members and volunteers, dispersed into neighborhoods to try to turn out early voters.

Reid spent the weekend rallying troops at a Las Vegas union hall, a Hispanic middle school, an African American community center and an Applebee's, where seniors gathered to meet the senator and special guest Wayne Newton. At each event, buses were provided to take people to nearby polls. The pace will continue until Election Day and will include early-voting rallies with Obama and Vice President Biden, who is scheduled to appear with Reid in Reno on Wednesday.

The other Democratic incumbent facing a tough battle in Nevada is Titus, who rode the Obama wave into office in 2008, beating incumbent Rep. Jon Porter 47 to 42 percent. The same forces led to the defeat of her opponent, physician Joe Heck, in his 2008 bid for reelection to the state Senate.

Heck doesn't have a slick organization backing him up, but he has something Titus lacks: a flock of tea-party supporters who arrived from California to go door-knocking for early voters.

Tom and Maureen Lennon, from Santa Clarita, Calif., had never participated in politics until this year. "We wanted to be more proactive and make a commitment, rather than rant," said Maureen, clutching her clipboard in the courtyard of the group's hotel. "So we came here."

Heck said he has sought to replicate the Obama model of identifying supporters and steering them to the polls well in advance, a methodical approach that allows campaigns to winnow their target lists through Election Day.

"We believe we have a much better turnout machine this year," Heck said. "We're doing exactly what the Democrats did in '08. We're using their recipe for success."

Nevada is one of three states, along with Washington and Colorado, where Democrats think early voting can save Senate seats. In Colorado, in-person early voting began Monday, and in Washington, which relies mainly on mail ballots, returns are starting to trickle in.

Tough sales pitch

In all three states, Democratic incumbents are facing tough Republican competition and disgruntled independent voters who typically swing outcomes. That means Reid, along with Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), must turn out Democratic voters in droves.

Jamila Fowler is the type of Democrat who put Obama over the top, and she may be key to Reid's reelection as well. Retired from General Motors, she owns a popular spa in an African American neighborhood in North Las Vegas. During the 2008 campaign, Fowler and her relatives and co-workers registered hundreds of black voters. She even created an "Obama pedicure" that features the president's image on the big toe.

This year, the sales pitch is more difficult. Fowler's friends are confused by the health-care bill that Reid muscled through the Senate, frustrated by Las Vegas's high unemployment rate, and worried about the attack ads they're seeing from Reid's opponent, Angle, including spots that depict Reid as soft on illegal immigration.

On the wall of Fowler's salon is a Reid campaign poster - but the photo shows the senator with his back to the camera, embracing a beaming Obama. That sums up her argument. "If Harry Reid is going to help Obama, then we better vote for him," Fowler said.

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