Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Grass roots, high tech

Campaigns mix old-style tactics with new tools

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Thousands of voters around the state got phone calls from President Bush last week.

"Hello, this is George W. Bush," says the recorded message. "I'm asking for your vote. It's important. Please look for your absentee ballot request form in the mail and return it as soon as possible."

Two days later, it arrives in the mail. "You can defend America's Freedom. VOTE TODAY."

Melanie Buford, 16, makes phone calls to find out who might vote for president if the election was today.
(Enquirer photo/ERNEST COLEMAN)
At the same time, Democratic phone banks around the state are staffed with hundreds of volunteers. They target swing voters - say, independent suburban women between 18 and 40 - and find out what issues they're interested in. Those responses get put in to a computer database, and the party quickly follows up with targeted mailings, more phone calls and a knock on the door.

Decades after television transformed presidential campaigns from party-based grass-roots efforts into volleys of 30-second negative ads, grass-roots campaigning has returned to Ohio. This time, technology is making old campaign methods much more sophisticated.

"We're going back to a style of campaigning that is pre-television, pre-Internet - but we're using the Internet as a way to tap into that old-style politics," said Robert Paduchik, Bush's Ohio campaign manager. "We expect this to be a tight election, and when you have a tight election, the details matter even more."

Paduchik said the absentee ballot program isn't sexy and doesn't get much attention. Still, "Not having an absentee ballot program is like running statewide and not having TV. It's that fundamental."

Using the Internet

Both campaigns say the Internet has revolutionized campaigning - but not in the same way people predicted it would eight years ago.

Few swing voters are going to candidate Web sites for information, but the campaigns are able to communicate with and mobilize their volunteer base quickly and cheaply. That kind of communication will be critical in the last 72 hours of the campaign, as both sides try to deploy armies of volunteers into the field.

One of those volunteers for Bush is Christa Criddle of Finneytown. She's signed up 23 of her friends to the campaign, ranking her the 11th most active e-mail recruiter in the country. (Ranking volunteers on the campaign Web site is another way the Bush campaign uses the Internet to motivate and organize grass-roots activists.)

"I have a list of over 100 people - I call it my personal Bush list - that I send updates about what's going on with the campaign," said Criddle, who also wears a Bush T-shirt and carries bumper stickers wherever she goes. She does the same thing the campaigns do.

She keeps track of what issues her undecided friends and neighbors are interested in, and passing along information from the campaign about those issues.

Person-to-person contact is still the most persuasive, veteran campaigners say.

"You've still got to talk to people. How we talk to people have changed," said Jim DeMay, the director of the Ohio Democratic Party's "coordinated campaign," a grass-roots effort to bring out Democratic voters and persuade undecided independents. "The technology just helps us target people better. I can sit here right now and pull up lists of Democratic women 62 and older by precinct."

Using technology to find loyal supporters is one thing. Using it to identify swing voters can be trickier.

The Bush campaign called - and sent an absentee voter application to - 75-year-old Constance Elsaesser of Hyde Park. She voted in a Republican primary years ago - "to vote against some kook," she said - but has a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car.

"How they got my phone number, I don't know," she said. "They certainly are doing their best. How thorough they are! It's really amazing how they're going after every last vote. They must think six or seven people in Ohio or Pennsylvania will decide the whole thing."

Indeed, the most recent Ohio poll put the number at 4 percent of likely voters.

Pollster Frank I. Luntz, who spent two days of the Democratic and Republican conventions in Cincinnati leading focus groups of swing voters, had to kick some voters out of the group because they'd already made up their minds.

"What are you hearing about how the number of swing voters who are out there? It's even smaller than that," he said. "They're gone already."

A broader view

So while the national media seem obsessed with interviewing the average Ohio undecided voter - preferably a swing voter in a swing precinct in a swing county like Clark, Franklin or Stark - the parties take a broader view.

"Ohio is a state of city-states. You can't take that one voter from Canton and summarize the whole state. The real story behind this election is not who that independent voter is," Paduchik said. "We're not taking any voter or any part of the state for granted."

Even candidate visits are carefully planned to provide the greatest grass-roots impact. "I'm here to fertilize the grass roots," President Bush told a rally crowd at Cincinnati Gardens in May. He includes at least a paragraph on voter registration in every Ohio stump speech.

The speeches themselves are often followed by volunteer recruitment efforts. And both parties have found that a candidate visit - especially in a small town - can lead to big surges in registrations.

Clark County Democratic Chairman David Farrell said he sees a strong correlation between Kerry's first visit to Springfield last month and 1,500 new registered voters in the week that followed.

The Kerry campaign plans to import volunteers from neighboring states starting Sept. 18 to supplement its corps of local doorknockers. But the Kerry campaign downplays the out-of-state volunteers, saying it's "not going to be a mass of people floating over the borders."

"A handful of good precinct captains are better than a whole busload of door-knockers," DeMay said.


E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com

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