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Originally published Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 8:18 PM

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How state Democrats overpowered GOP in governor's race: data and doorbelling

The Democratic Party's robust ground game — which combined sophisticated data tracking with old-fashioned doorbelling — played a significant role in Jay Inslee's gubernatorial victory this month, leaders of both parties said.

Seattle Times political reporter

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To many political watchers, the end of the gubernatorial race between Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna felt like a nail-biter.

But Timothy Anderson, the state Democratic Party's chief get-out-the-vote strategist, had seen a probable Inslee victory looming for weeks.

Two weeks before Election Day, Anderson punched up a computer analysis of people who'd already mailed in their ballots. It showed the Democrats' voter-turnout campaign was right on target — barring a major catastrophe, Inslee was headed for a win.

The theory was validated on election night, when the vote results rolling in came within 0.2 percent of what Anderson's computer model had foretold. "We were confident in the outcome," said Anderson, director of the Democrats' state coordinated campaign for 2012.

The Democratic Party's robust ground game — which combined sophisticated data tracking with old-fashioned doorbelling — played a significant role in the outcome of one of the nation's most-watched gubernatorial races, leaders of both parties said in interviews.

"McKenna didn't know who was going to vote, and we did," boasted state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz, who credited a campaign that focused on persuading 400,000 Democratic-leaning but sporadic voters to mail in their ballots.

The campaign began more than a year ago, built on the Obama campaign's organizing prowess in 2008, and culminated with a million phone calls and 300,000 doors knocked on in the final five days before the Nov. 6 ballot deadline, Democrats said.

"They did a great job. I give them credit," acknowledged state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur, who argued the state GOP's turnout efforts were hobbled by the national party's decision to not compete or spend money in Washington.

"Was Romney here? No. Was the RNC here? No. We started from behind to begin with," Wilbur said, complaining that his office even ran out of Romney yard signs. "Given what we had, we did a pretty good job."

Some basic numbers tell the story of the Democrats' advantage. The state Democratic Party ran a $2 million get-out-the-vote effort with 40 paid field organizers, in addition to the Inslee campaign's 15 organizers, led by field director Emily Walters, according to party officials.

The state Republican Party counterpart was a $300,000 campaign with about 20 paid field organizers, including those on McKenna's campaign payroll, GOP officials said.

The state GOP was left to fend for itself after the Republican National Committee reversed an earlier plan to spend $400,000 on a get-out-the-vote campaign here, Wilbur said. The national Republican Party also declined to spend significant money in Washington's U.S. Senate and House races.

"This get-out-the-vote stuff is not rocket science, but you cannot do it without money," said former state Republican chairman Chris Vance, who said the lack of national GOP spending here was a big change from previous elections.

With counties completing their vote counting Tuesday, Inslee led McKenna by more than 95,000 votes statewide. The Inslee win was built on his huge advantage in King County, where the former congressman received 234,000 more votes than McKenna, easily erasing the Republican's edge in Eastern and Central Washington.

Voter turnout statewide was 81 percent — significantly lower than the record 85 percent turnout in 2008, according to Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed's office.

But turnout reached 84 percent in King County, and was even higher in some of the most densely packed Democratic strongholds of Seattle.

It's impossible to know what motivated every voter — the campaigns to legalize marijuana and gay marriage, and enthusiasm to re-elect President Obama, undoubtedly played a part. But Democrats credited their turnout effort for playing a big part in boosting their candidates up and down the ticket.

Aided by an army of union volunteers in addition to paid workers, Democrats repeatedly urged Seattle voters to mail their ballots, with as many as seven phone calls as well as doorbell reminders from volunteers.

"We didn't let people in Seattle not vote," Pelz said.

Republicans, too, had packed volunteer phone banks and pushed to drive turnout in more conservative parts of the state, say party officials. Randy Pepple, McKenna's campaign manager, said he was happy with the campaign's field effort, touting it as the best GOP gubernatorial organization in a generation.

But in the end, turnout lagged in many Republican-leaning counties in Eastern and Central Washington. The lowest turnout in the state was 73.7 percent in conservative Yakima County. GOP leaders said they were still not sure why.

Wilbur said the Republican Party nationally had "stagnated" in its get-out-the-vote efforts, pointing to the well-publicized failure of the Romney campaign's vote-tracking software, which left the campaign "flying blind" compared with Obama's smooth operation.

The GOP, locally and nationally, must do better next time, Wilbur said. "We're smart and we learn, and we'll be back," he said.

But Democrats said they'll only take their ground-game commitment to the next level as Republicans play catch up.

"If Democrats know who is going to vote, and how those voters are going to break down, and our data is better, that bodes very well for us going into the future," Anderson said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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