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Stakes High but Interest Low at Polls

November 04, 2002|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE — The rhetoric was fiery and the audience enthusiastic at a National Rifle Assn. get-out-the-vote rally here late last week.

But the crowd still filled only about half the ballroom in the Opryland convention center. And there was a distinct note of concern in the message from the podium.

"Some gun owners think they can sit this one out," said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute of Legislative Affairs. "That's what [liberals] ... want you to do."

This fall, the NRA is hardly alone in worrying that its supporters lack the motivation to vote. Candidates, the national parties and interest groups across the political spectrum are all struggling to drive voters to the polls in a year when few issues have caught fire.

"I don't remember a more difficult set of conditions for getting people to vote in any election," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Yet precisely because voter interest is so low this year, the stakes are high for these get-out-the-vote drives. In an election when relatively few Americans are expected to participate, the efforts that move even relatively small numbers of voters could tip dozens of close races.

"This is a year when the ground game matters more than ever," said Maria Cardona, the Democratic National Committee's communication director.

Both national parties are putting their money behind that sentiment, investing in expensive efforts to identify their supporters and then move them to the polls. Democrats say they have put unprecedented sums -- about $15 million -- into the coordinated get-out-the-vote campaigns run by state parties.

That effort has ranged from a massive drive to update the state parties' lists of Democratic voters to the systematic use of former President Clinton to encourage turnout in the minority community. Clinton has campaigned extensively and recorded radio ads and phone call messages aimed at black voters. Last Friday, he conducted a conference call with almost 2,000 African American ministers urging them to turn out the vote.

"In the 2000 [presidential] campaign, we were sitting around the last three weeks debating whether to use Bill Clinton; now we are debating where we can use him because we have so many requests," says Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's election bid and now is directing the Democrats' African American turnout effort.

Republicans have revamped their get-out-the-vote efforts this year, spending at least $20 million after the party concluded in an internal review that the "Democrats did a better job of motivating and turning out their voters" in 1998 and 2000.

This year, under the banner of the "72-hour task force," Republicans have shifted their focus from paid phone banks and mailings toward matching the Democratic success at recruiting volunteers to knock on doors and make calls. In tests the Republican National Committee conducted in 2001, it found communication from volunteers increased turnout much more than calls from professional phone banks.

"When there is so much television advertising going on, and people are getting tons of mail, this one contact -- going door to door, having a volunteer call up on the phone -- really cuts through," says Blaise Hazelwood, the political director of the RNC, who was knocking on doors in Colorado on Sunday.

Besides the personal touch, Republicans also are banking on President Bush's nonstop appearances in the campaign's final weeks to push their partisans to the polls. Bush is on a swing that is taking him to 17 cities in 15 states in the last five days of the campaign.


Lack of Motivation

All this effort may be critical in tilting the needle toward one party or the other in close races. Yet it appears unlikely to increase the overall level of participation.

In some states with particularly engaging races -- such as the tight Senate contests in South Dakota and New Hampshire -- analysts expect large numbers of voters to turn out.

But overall, most experts are expecting a meager national turnout. Based on national polling released Sunday, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, projects that about 35% of eligible voters will show up Tuesday.

That would produce a turnout similar to the level in 1998, which was the smallest showing for a midterm election since 1942, according to the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

"People are not compelled to turn out for either party," Kohut said. "We have all of these big issues, yet they haven't been translated into any political point of view. People are not angry, and they are not finger-pointing, and that's what it takes to get people motivated."

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