Reporting from Las Vegas and San Francisco — On a recent Saturday, Ken Adams and Ronald Ramsey went door-to-door in Las Vegas, canvassing for Harry Reid.
They carried a map of Democratic households and a set of poll-tested talking points, including the senator's achievements ("$540 million for a brand new VA hospital") and jabs at Republican rival Sharron Angle, who spoke of privatizing the Department of Veterans Affairs (on public radio in May, if anyone asked).
A woman in pajamas promised to cast a straight-party ballot. "Right on!" said Adams, giving her a fist bump as Ramsey marked her intent down, for tracking in a statewide database. Others will follow up to make sure the pajama lady votes.
With his approval rating stuck around 40%, Reid is in serious peril. But with a strong turnout operation — coaxing, pushing and pestering Nevadans to the polls — the embattled Senate majority leader could slip past Angle, a favorite of the fervid "tea party" movement.
Nationally, other Democrats are trying the same thing.
Facing a listless economy, a dispirited political base and a highly energized opposition, the party and its allies seek to minimize Democratic losses by spending $50 million — nearly three times the sum in 2006 — on a vigorous get-out-the vote drive. The hope is that superior organization can offset whatever is lacking in voter enthusiasm.
Chris Redfern, head of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the tea party may have inspired "a bunch of summer rallies, with people waving signs… and shouting down congressmen. I'm focused on finding my people and getting them to the polls."
It is, in short, a struggle between passion and mechanics, a dynamic perhaps best illustrated in Nevada, where Reid's campaign has blended with the state Democratic Party to form a seamless operation, with a legion of paid staffers and a database pinpointing not just a person's voting history but such details as the car they drive, the magazines they read and the credit cards they use. (All signal political propensities and make outreach easier.)
Union allies and groups targeting women, Latinos and conservation-minded voters are also plugged into Reid's operation, applying the senator's broad message — that Angle is "just too extreme" — to specific issues: abortion, immigration, the environment.
By contrast, the Republican effort seems improvisational at best, a hodgepodge of conservative activists, independent expenditure groups and fired-up, if poorly funded, local party branches. No carefully calibrated script for canvassers. Fewer phone banks. Less targeted communication.
Still, the conservative hunger to rid Nevada of its four-term senator is evident. It is visible in the thousands of tea party faithful who showed up to rally in Reid's hometown last spring, in the mostly small-dollar donations pouring into Angle's campaign via the Internet ($1.8 million in September alone) and the "Anyone Butt Reid" and "Dump Reid" signs blooming like desert flowers in the rural reaches of the state.
"If there's any year Republicans can get away from the top-down model, it's this year," said GOP strategist Steve Wark. "The Republicans have a grim determination to turn out and make a difference."
The ground game, as political professionals call it, is crucial for every election. This time, it may be even more important for Democrats, who can't count on the lure of a popular president or legislative achievement to overcome the midterm losses typically suffered by the party in the White House.
"There's no question we've been aware of some historic headwinds," said Lynda Tran, a national party spokeswoman, referring to the traditional drop in Democratic voting in nonpresidential elections. For that reason, she said, the party launched its earliest get-out-the-vote drive ever, with a June 5 day of nationwide door-knocking and phone-banking, followed by canvassing every weekend.
The party is placing a particular emphasis on turning out the 15 million first-time voters — mainly blacks, Latinos and young people — who backed Obama in 2008. The president held the first of several planned rallies this week at the University of Wisconsin, hoping to rekindle the youthful enthusiasm surrounding his White House bid.
Republicans declined to put a price tag on their turnout operation, but fundraising problems — a backlash resulting from the shaky leadership of party Chairman Michael Steele — have forced the national GOP to scale back its efforts. (Both parties are counting on outside help. Democrats are relying on their traditional foot soldiers in organized labor, while several independent groups have sprung up to boost Republican candidates.)
But the GOP's disadvantage on the ground may be more than offset by an edge in voter interest.