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Get-out-the-vote initiatives take center stage in final days

ST. PAUL -- Candidates for offices up and down the Minnesota ballot have spent millions of dollars convincing voters to pick them. In the campaign's final hours, before polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday, candidates are crisscrossing the state trying t...

ST. PAUL -- Candidates for offices up and down the Minnesota ballot have spent millions of dollars convincing voters to pick them.

In the campaign's final hours, before polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday, candidates are crisscrossing the state trying to shore up their supporters and convince undecided ones to go their way.

But the real work is going on behind the scenes, as people ring doorbells, dial telephones and talk to potential voters. It's called getting out the vote.

The bottom line is, it doesn't matter who Minnesotans support if they don't vote. And getting out the vote these days is not a hit-and-miss effort as it was not long ago when volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, dropping literature everywhere.

Today, most Minnesotans are listed in computerized Republican and Democratic databases so they can receive very specialized information, tailored to issues that matter to them.

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"These days, micro-targeting can get you down to the household level," state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Brian Melendez said. "We have the most sophisticated system of looking up names."

Republicans also have well-honed databases. On Saturday, for instance, Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, went door-to-door in his district. But he didn't stop at every door. He went just to the homes where such a last-minute stop may help convince someone to swing his way.

Zellers said today's GOP campaign efforts include lists of individual voters identified by labels such as "strong Republican," "swing voter," "strong Democrat," and so on. There is no need to stop at a "strong Democrat" door, but a "swing voter" probably would get a visit. The same was true when he sent flyers; they went to those who might vote for him, not people who never vote Republican.

Campaigns and parties also can target voters in other ways. For instance, Republicans could have sent a mailing or made calls to corn farmers late last week to take advantage of the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate's apparent failure to know about E-85, a corn-based fuel.

State Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey said that after Judi Dutcher's slip-up, targeted Republican efforts could even move some strong Democrats into GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty's column.

Carey called about 80 percent of voters at this stage of a campaign "rock solid." The remaining 20 percent are those who are getting the most attention from about 10,000 Republican volunteers and 14,000 Democrats. In addition to the parties, organizations such as labor unions are conducting their own voter drives.

"The biggest issue right now is voter turnout," Democratic governor candidate Mike Hatch said. "That is absolutely going to be the issue."

In Hatch's challenge to Pawlenty, polls generally have showed the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate slightly ahead, but within polls' margins of error. That means getting the right voters to the polls will spell the difference Tuesday.

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Until last week, Republican voters were depressed over low popularity rankings of President Bush and congressional scandals.

But Republicans say that switched -- and more volunteers began showing up -- last week when past presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John Kerry botched a joke so that it appeared he was insulting American soldiers in Iraq. In Minnesota, the GOP became even more invigorated after Dutcher's E-85 gaffe and Hatch's defense of her, which included calling some in the media "Republican hacks" or a "Republican whore."

Just as the Dutcher-Hatch flare-up was beginning, Melendez was optimistic about his party's chances.

"It is a bad year to be a Republican, it is a good year to be a Democrat," Melendez said. "But being lucky is not good enough. You have to be sophisticated enough to take advantage of the rising tide."

The party chairmen didn't want to talk about specific methods they are using.

"We are trying newer, smarter things," Melendez said. "Both sides learn from the other. It is like a poker game -- you don't want to show your cards until you have to."

The get-out-the-vote effort is the second costliest part of an election, behind only television advertising.

Efforts began early in the year when those computer databases were updated with information about nearly very voter. For instance, the databases may include things such as a person's job, car, income and magazine subscriptions in an attempt to figure out how he or she would vote.

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Micro-targeting may be effective at persuading voters to side with a particular candidate or party, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will boost turnout on Election Day, Robert Richie said.

Richie is executive director of the nonpartisan FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy. He said political parties and other groups encouraging voters nationwide to cast a ballot in advance of Tuesday's election could do more to affect the outcome than other strategies. Some states have seen absentee balloting double this year, he said.

"We're seeing a big jump in that," Richie said, adding that some voters are being told that absentee voting is a way to avoid the potential of long lines at polling places and problematic electronic ballots.

Minnesota normally has the nation's highest voter turnout, but it varies during years when the presidency is not on the ballot.

Forum Communications reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

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