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Monday, November 01, 2004 - Page updated at 10:03 A.M.
Parties vie to get out the vote
But neither Republicans nor Democrats in Washington state are spending much time looking for that person in the closing days before the most contentious election in decades.
Instead, both parties have poured their efforts into massive drives to get core supporters to the polls. Using sophisticated voter databases, thousands of volunteers have been phoning, knocking on doors and generally pestering people nonstop to grab every last vote in tomorrow's election.
Already, it appears voter turnout may set records. Secretary of State Sam Reed has predicted state turnout at 84 percent, the highest in 60 years.
Elections officials last week reported a surge in early returns of absentee ballots.
Through Thursday, King, Pierce and Snohomish counties had mailed out about 1.2 million absentee ballots, 53 percent more than the 786,000 sent in 2000. Some 450,000 completed ballots had been returned, far more than at the same time in 2000.
Most political scientists expect a heavy turnout, but the question is which party has a better operation to get its voters to the polls.
Get-out-the-vote drives traditionally have been the strength of the Democrats, aided by unions and activist groups that have organized such door-to-door efforts for decades.
After the 2000 election, national Republican leaders said they were stunned by the effectiveness of Democratic Party efforts in driving up Democratic turnout in key states. They decided the GOP needed its own turnout drive. The strategy was put to the test in the 2002 congressional elections and was largely deemed a success, contributing to Republican victories in several key races.
Buoyed by that experience, Republican Party leaders this year ordered every state party to develop a "72-hour plan" to motivate voters in the final three days before the election.
"If we win on Tuesday, this is going to be why," said Chris Vance, state Republican Party chairman.
The GOP has 20 paid staff members organizing voter-turnout drives statewide, in addition to the staffs of individual Republican candidates, he said. Over the weekend, Vance said, 5,000 volunteers called or rang doorbells at 200,000 homes.
He conceded Democrats will probably have an even greater number of volunteers.
"They're going to do what they've always done. They're good at this; I don't take that away from them," Vance said. "What's different is what we're going to do this time."
Democrats have marshaled 91 paid staff members statewide, said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. They also have more than 9,000 volunteers signed up for Election Day, twice as many as four years ago.
Democrats recently sent volunteers door-to-door in each of the state's 49 legislative districts as part of what party leaders billed as their biggest get-out-the-vote effort in state history. The volunteers targeted known Democrats, as well as members of demographic groups such as single women and minorities who are more likely to vote Democratic.
Democrats in Bellevue
Aaron Brown and Rod Such were among the dozens of volunteers who showed up for the turnout drive at the local Democratic Party headquarters in Bellevue.
The pair, who had never met, are wide apart in age but share strong views about the importance of tomorrow's election.
Brown, 18, lives in Bellevue and recently graduated from Seattle's private Northwest School. He's eager to vote in his first election but wanted to do more. Even if the Democrats lose, Brown said, "At least I'll be able to look back and say I made an effort."
Such, 58, is a Microsoft employee who said this is the first time he has campaigned door-to-door for candidates since he volunteered for Chicago's Harold Washington, who was elected that city's first African-American mayor in 1983.
The pair targeted a precinct in the 48th Legislative District, in the heart of Bellevue's swing-voter territory. The neighborhood was once safely Republican but has gradually shifted, electing its first Democratic state legislator, Ross Hunter, two years ago.
It is among the most heavily targeted areas in the state, thanks in part to the close 8th District congressional race between Republican Dave Reichert and Democrat Dave Ross.
Such and Brown spent a couple of hours ringing doorbells, working from a precinct map that graded homes from "A" (for hardcore Democratic voters) to "E" (for hardcore Republicans). They ignored the Republican houses, focusing on making sure Democrats vote.
In addition to the party volunteers, Democrats also are getting help from liberal, though nonpartisan, interest groups such as Washington Citizen Action. Its 30 paid staff members and 150 or so volunteers are working mostly low-income neighborhoods whose residents are some of the least frequent voters. Many are newly registered following massive drives that signed up 330,000 new voters statewide this year.
The volunteers encourage people to vote even offering rides to the polls but don't mention candidates, parties or issues.
Republicans hit Eastside
For their part, a big group of Republicans, including 60 high-school students, fanned out across the Eastside on Saturday morning.
And yesterday, a handful of Republican volunteers worked the 48th District on behalf of James Whitfield, who's challenging Hunter for the state House seat.
Molly Kidwell, Whitfield's 21-year-old campaign manager, has made what appears to be a smart strategic decision: Republican efforts to turn out the base have been so intensive and well-coordinated that Whitfield is able to focus on "soft" Republicans and swing voters.
She walked a Redmond neighborhood with her sister Olivia Kidwell, 19, who said she's volunteering for the GOP because her boyfriend is a Marine in Iraq and she thinks President Bush is more likely to win that war than is John Kerry.
The pair carried a list of names, addresses and a ranking system much like the one the Democrats used, categorizing people from "hard Republican" to "hard Democrat." They got this vital information from the GOP's "Voter Vault," a massive database.
Republicans collected the data over time through what Kidwell called the "elephant hunt," in which volunteers tried to learn about voters as they went door-to-door for candidates and the party.
Republicans are convinced that personal contacts could be the key to this election.
That seemed to be true of Meg Washburn. The Kidwell sisters approached her with literature about Whitfield, and she said he had already knocked on her door.
"It was pretty cool," Washburn said of the face-to-face contact, though she added she hasn't committed to voting for him yet.
As Molly Kidwell noted, the personal-connection angle can cut both ways: "We try to not to be too in-your-face because there's been such saturation, and people get sick of it."
That was certainly true of one woman who answered her door and declined to give her name.
"I'm sick of it," she said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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