Get Them All Out: Colorado Dems bet big on ground game
Democrats have invested in an historic get-out-the-vote effort. Can they really remake the swing-state’s midterm electorate or have they already hit the wall?
TEN miles west of Denver, Shawna Fritzler’s upper-middle-class development blooms on a rural two-lane road peppered by occasional crumbling farmhouses. This conservative hamlet in West Arvada is part of suburban Jefferson County, a relatively populous swing section of political swing-state Colorado, the county where election campaign pundits and strategists believe the state’s top-of-the-ticket races will be decided this year, as they have been in years past.
Fritzler spreads out a week’s worth of campaign literature on her granite kitchen counter. She says she receives a campaign mailer and a few election-related phone calls every day. She says roughly two canvassers knock at her door each week. It’s mostly from Republican campaigns, which makes sense given that Fritzler is a registered Republican with a history of volunteering for the party’s national committee.
“It’s an invasion,” she says. “If you’re not a friend who has come for coffee, you better get off my property.”
But they keep coming.
Fritzler is a woman voter and the running theory is that female voters tip the scale. She’s also frustrated with this year’s Republican candidates and no fan of most Democratic candidates, which she knows makes her a ripe target for canvassers. Fritzler is an undecided, genuinely unaffiliated voter who doesn’t register as an unaffiliated voter only because she wants to avoid being pursued by both sides.
This year her strategy may not work. Democratic campaigns and allied groups are dedicating historic levels of effort and resources to spur sympathetic voters to cast their ballots. And Republican campaigns and allied groups are working harder than ever to counter Democratic ground-game advances.
The Ultimate Weapon
Campaign spending in Colorado will very likely top $100 million this cycle, but that’s on television ads alone. The spending has smashed all records, much of the money pouring in from special interest groups, freeing up candidate campaigns to dump similarly record-breaking sums into get-out-the vote machinery.
For Democrats, at least, the ground game has become the ultimate weapon.
Research conducted on and off for decades has refined get out the vote efforts. Data nerds — so-called quants — and marketing wizards have bent digital-era information-gathering to new ends, landing on new techniques and refining them, delivering them to door knockers and campaign strategists in real time. As Sasha Issenberg documented in his 2012 book “The Victory Lab,” today’s ground-game research is transforming an industry formerly run on vague gut instincts and untested assumptions.
Focusing on the new-style ground game worked for long-shot-candidate Barack Obama, the onetime community organizer, when he defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2007-2008 Democratic primary. And it worked in Colorado, when U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a man who had never before run for political office, defeated Weld County Republican DA Ken Buck in 2010. Bennet won a squeaker against great odds in a purple state during the Tea Party wave-year. The Democratic party noticed and acknowledged Bennet’s remarkable success when it asked him to head up the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“The 2010 Senate race was sort of like the first cycle where the GOP out-of-state groups really spent like crazy on ads following the Citizens United decision,” says Justin Barasky, communications director at the committee. “Democrats everywhere were very concerned about balancing out what they were doing on TV, so we poured money into TV and for the most part forgot the turnout problem. Only two campaigns ignored that tactic — one was Bennet’s campaign. They spent a lot of money on field organizing believing they couldn’t win if they didn’t turn out the vote.”
Four years later, Bennett’s former campaign manager, Guy Cecil, is executive director at the DSCC and another campaign staffer, Paul Dunn, is the organization’s field director. They call their data-driven direct voter-contact approach to winning close elections “The Bannock Street Project,” referring to the address of the Denver campaign office where Bennet’s campaign was headquartered. This year the Bannock-style ground game has taken over as the party’s principle campaign strategy, exploding into a $60 million, 4,000-person, nationwide effort.
“The project is aimed at turning out all voters who would vote Democratic and persuading those who aren’t sure,” said Barasky. “Without a doubt, especially in a state like Colorado, we’re talking to women, particularly single women, minorities — African Americans and Latinos — and folks who voted in the last presidential election but not in the midterms.”
Colorado pollster and longtime politics watcher Floyd Ciruli says this election season here will be a real test for the Bannock Street model.
“They’re really pushing at the outer edges of what is possible with this,” he said. “This whole myth about turning people out and remaking the electorate, it’s based in reality. Democrats have become so superior at knowing what’s going on on the ground… Mitt Romney in 2012 hadn’t even prepared a concession speech and Karl Rove was still looking for voters in Ohio when the whole thing was over. Now Democrats are investing millions and millions on the ground here.”
The big race to watch in Colorado is the U.S. Senate race. Republican Congressman Cory Gardner is working to unseat incumbent Democrat Mark Udall. The state’s registered voters are essentially divided in three equal sections among Democrats, Republicans and Unaffiliated voters. In a midterm election like this year’s, the electorate leans right. Udall is down a point or two in the polls and is leaning on voter turn out to pull off a victory.
Gardner’s campaign is a fundraising juggernaut. It has opened 14 field offices and, according to Fox 31’s Eli Stokols, it intends to spend another $400,000 in these last weeks of the election season on get-out-the-vote efforts.
But the Udall campaign is dwarfing those efforts.
“We have 25 field offices, more than 100 full time field organizers, and in the past weeks we’ve had 3,200 people volunteer,” said Udall spokesman Chris Harris, adding that this year’s effort is about triple the size of Bennet’s 2010 operation.
“There’s no way Republicans are doing anything anywhere near this scale,” said Barasky. “We know we’ll be outspent by Republicans in a lot of races and as a result we have to win on all the other metrics — we have to out-work them and out-organize,” he said.
In fact, it looks like Democrats will outspend Republicans, if only on ground game, by a ratio of eight to one in Colorado.
“We’re not just confident, we’re sure that our on the ground efforts will put us over the top,” said Harris.
Viewing the race from the national level, Barasky agreed, despite the general view from analysts that Gardner holds a slight lead.
“We’re winning in Colorado right now.”
In fact, it’s hard to gauge the competing efforts accurately. Republican candidates in Colorado and their allies are talking almost not at all about what they’re doing on the ground.
“They’re not not doing groundwork,” says Ciruli. “They’re playing that close to their chests, especially by comparison with Democrats, who are playing up their efforts, in part to push back against narratives that see them fighting a losing battle this year.”
If what’s happening in other states is any measure, the Colorado GOP has likely stepped up its efforts significantly. As Molly Ball reported for the Atlantic in August from battleground Arkansas, Republicans there have invested more money and time than ever before into creating a greater presence on the ground, setting up more field offices over the course of the last year across the state, upping staff numbers and recruiting hundreds of volunteers.
Ciruli said Republicans looking at the ground game rightly have a different goal in mind than do Democrats. He said that Republicans are likely working just to prevent any drop in right-leaning voter turnout. He said, on that score, the party has done a good piece of the work merely by selecting better candidates than in past years.
“This year it looks like they have a shot… Candidates [like Gardner] can fire up the base without alienating more moderate voters.”
In a number-crunching report on the race published Tuesday, Nate Cohn at the New York Times, argued that Udall will have to do much better turning out voters this year than even Bennet did in 2010. Setting voter-file data against past turnout trends and recent voter-survey results, he writes that, in order to win, the Udall campaign and its allies probably need to turnout “at least an additional 50,000 Democratic-leaning voters to the polls.”
But Ciruli said it’s hard to talk numbers with even the usual degree of semi-confidence this year. Bennet won by 2 points in 2010, he said, but that was among 1.8 million voters. The state’s 2013 election refrm law put into place an all-mail ballot system and allows registration and ballot casting through Election Day.
“Colorado ballots went out to 3 million people,” he said. “Democrats are looking to bring out 100,000 of the occasional voters that might otherwise not vote this year and that happen to be young people, single women and Latinos who will vote in large percentages for Democratic candidates. Maybe they can find 40,000 to get the 2 points they need to win, maybe they’ll need more. We’ll see.”
The Koch Brothers and the Unions
The campaigns aren’t going to be knocking doors alone.
At least some conservative organizations, such as the oil-billionaire Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, say they’re investing heavily the the ground game, too. AFP is planning to spend $125 million nationwide, focusing on pivotal races like the Gardner-Udall race in Colorado. The AFP effort, which includes 500 full-time staffers, is part of a plan to catch up with left-leaning ground game by the 2016 presidential election.
But Phil Hayes, the campaign and legislative director i Colorado for the mega-union AFL-CIO, says thousands of union members knocking on doors in Colorado have seen literature from AFP but not much else. He said he doubts the group has a substantial number of volunteers on the ground.
“I think the AFP ground game is a lot of hot air.”
Colorado is home to 310,000 union household members. Hayes said that 45,000 members and volunteers will be walking door to door in Jefferson County alone.
He said that this year union turnout efforts are double those expended in any previous election year. He added that member-to-member contact has always been effective — especially workplace outreach, where carpenters talk to carpenters and firemen talk to firemen, for example — but that this year the unions are trying something new.
For the first time, the Colorado AFL-CIO is reaching out not just to its own members but also to “a select group of neighbors.”
“In the past we’d go out and talk to union members, skip five houses, go to the next union house,” said Liz Shuler, the group’s national secretary-treasurer. She adds that, in a post-Citizens United world, the union affiliate has formed an independent expenditure committee, a Super PAC called Workers Voice, which has changed their approach.
“Now we’re out talking not just to union members but also to working-class voters in general,” she explained. “We’re targeting households that make less than $50,000 a year because those households are the ones that dropped off in 2010, the last midterm election.”
In addition to walking Jefferson County, the AFL-CIO plans to talk to sympathetic voters in swing sectors of the state like Arapahoe County and the working-class cities of Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Hayes says his state organization has quadrupled the scale of its efforts this year compared to years past.
“We’ve done 20,0000 to 30,000 doors before,” he said. “This year we’ll knock 140,000 doors and make roughly 120,000 phone calls. We’re up to our ears in voter contact.”
Hayes noted that his operation alone rivals Obama’s 2012 ground game in Colorado, adding up to something like 3,000 individuals, all of them volunteers, knocking doors in their own communities.
“Quality is always better than quantity and we train our people up to have the conversations as human beings,” he said. “Voters are persuaded by volunteers with whom they share something in common, not by paid canvassers.”
Shuler emphasizes that for the ALF-CIO, the motivation to talk to these voters is more about issues than parties.
“The Labor movement represents 6.5 million women,” she said, adding that about two-thirds of those women are minorities. “We’re the largest women’s organization in the nation if you think about it this way. So we’re absolutely talking economic issues that matter to women — paid sick days, family leave, affordable child care and raising the minimum wage.”
Hayes echoed the point.
“It feels to us like a clear choice we’re putting to all working men and women this year,” he said. “The battle that’s raging across the country and the state is about whether the economy should work for every American or just for some Americans… At the neighborhood doors, we’re talking about hiring locally, paying fair wages, improving workplace safety.”
Issues and More Issues
Nonprofits and political advocacy groups of all stripes have also leapt into the game, looking to demonstrate to legislators that they can exert electoral power.
Statewide environmental group Conservation Colorado, a partner with the national League of Conservation Voters, which is spending a record $25 million this election cycle, is perhaps the leading force in the nonprofit ground game here.
“We are a different animal than 2010,” said Conservation Colorado’s Chris Arend, referring to their targeted voter outreach in the last midterm elections.
Conservation Colorado has split its staff, devoting a few people to run “soft side,” or independent operations not connected to any candidate campaigns.
On the soft side alone, Conservation Colorado’s political director Josh Phillips says the group will spend $42,000 knocking 15,000 doors in an effort to speak with 22,000 voters. The rest of Conservation Colorado’s employees have been cordoned off onto what’s called “hard side” or campaign coordinated work. Those efforts are centered on getting out the vote in state legislative races with a seven-week campaign that will see thousands of doors knocked. Director Becky Long says the campaign is triple the size of any of their previous efforts.
“On the hard side, we’ve got 15 employees who can help in this coordinated fashion and our ability to have a consistent base of people who can knock doors is huge, because it takes a lot of time to recruit volunteers,” she said. “Seven people can talk to several hundred people in a few hours.”
Organizations also knocking doors on the left include reproductive rights groups and gun control groups.
“Colorado has the only pro-choice majority [in the state legislature] between the coasts right now. We’re very focused on protecting that,” said Karen Middleton at NARAL Pro-choice.
Middleton said NARAL’s ground game is significant, though she wouldn’t give exact figures.
“We’re certainly focusing on women voters and voters that don’t typically come out during off-year elections,” she said.
NARAL has also joined the “Vote No on 67” campaign to oppose Colorado’s latest proposed anti-abortion “personhood” amendment along with groups like Planned Parenthood and the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights. Those groups have worked together to defeat personhood measures in the past. But this year, Middleton says NARAL is upping its game.
“It is a much larger campaign than we’ve ever done and it’s a much more challenging campaign, based on early polling and focus groups,” she said, adding that many voters don’t understand that 67 is, in fact, a personhood amendment.
Colorado Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is also knocking doors. Although the group is not coordinating directly with candidates, it is opening two Colorado campaign offices — one in Colorado Springs and another in Jefferson County — from which to rally the thousands of voters enrolled this summer through their national affiliate Everytown for Gun Safety.
“For the first time moms are able to get out there and show support and get involved and make their voices heard on gun-violence prevention,” said Jen Hope, chapter leader in Colorado. “Voters want to hear that. They want to hear from their neighbors, the person who sits with them on the playground watching their kids.”
As the Washington Post reported last month, all the door knocking and phone chats goes into databases so campaign teams can call their likely voters constantly until clerk records show a ballot has been turned in.
“I don’t think anyone really knows what to expect with mail-in ballots,” said Steve Fenberg, the director of New Era Colorado, an enormously successful youth-voter registration group. “My hope is that it will increase turnout for all groups, regardless of party affiliation.”
“It will be fascinating, and scary, to watch returns,” said Long.
Fritzler surely can’t wait for the campaign season to end. The Democratic groups and their supporters have a week to win her over.
[Images: top: Canvassers via Google; bottom: Shawna Fritzler by Tessa Cheek.]
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