The Invisible Campaign
As political choreography goes, it would be difficult to top the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 Republican National Convention in New York City. Preceded by a bevy of leading party moderates -- from former Gotham Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York Governor George Pataki to California phenom Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator John McCain of Arizona -- President George W. Bush was poised to cap a star-studded spectacle in Madison Square Garden by returning to the compassionate themes that swept him to office in 2000.
Certainly, Bush's footlight parade got off to a smooth start, since talk of Kulturkampf was as scarce as Veterans for Kerry banners in the hall. In remarks prepared for delivery on Sept. 2, Bush planned a mainstream address aimed at reminding Americans of the economic and national-security challenges that the nation has faced since the September 11 attacks and stressing the role that tax cuts played in reviving a wounded economy. In a second term, the President vowed to expand the middle class, promising private investment accounts within Social Security, a streamlined tax code, a boost in student test scores, and broader access to health insurance -- a bundle of reforms that underpin his new Ownership Society.
BELOW THE RADAR.
Is Bush suppressing his inner conservative in order to campaign solely in the middle of the road? Yes and no. While pasteurized pageants such as the New York convention are important, there are too few uncommitted voters left -- only 1 in 13 say they could still be swayed -- to assure victory. That's one reason why he and Democratic rival John Kerry have been deadlocked all summer.
To win, the President has rolled the dice on a bold plan to boost the turnout of Republican-leaning voters by adding millions of supporters to the rolls -- especially evangelical Christians, small-business owners, elderly investors, and military families.
In essence, Bush's fate now rests on an invisible campaign: a battle fought below the radar by partisans poring over computerized census data and by legions of volunteers trolling shopping malls and knocking on doors. But stealthy as the plan may be, it still poses problems for White House über-pol Karl Rove, the field general behind the mobilization drive.
ON FAITH ALONE.
With a larger potential voter pool and an army of grassroots organizers supplied by labor unions, Democrats are past masters at the turnout game. This year, they're bankrolled by well-heeled 527 committees -- new groups that can accept soft money -- so their ground blitz could negate Republican efforts.
Moreover, while Bush has done a far better job than his father when it comes to tending to the Right, he is not the iconic figure that Ronald Reagan was. So his decision to tone down the red-meat rhetoric and campaign as a pragmatist complicates any base-activation strategy. That means the President will have to energize many of the party faithful on faith alone.
One thing Bush has going for him is the intensity factor. Polls find that many GOP voters -- influenced by the constant skewering of Kerry as a flip-flopping Massachusetts liberal in ads and speeches -- are more ardent in their backing for Bush than Democrats are in support of their champion. Still, despite the fact that 92% of Republicans are lined up behind Bush, the conservative base is not monolithic. The President has a complex task ahead as he crafts differing appeals to turn out partisans in record numbers. Among the challenges:
It's the Deficit, Stupid. Economic conservatives love tax cuts but are upset by an estimated $425 billion deficit and want Bush to draw the line on pork-barrel spending. But he has been reluctant to butt heads with GOP Hill barons. "Bush needs to get the budget under control," says one outside adviser.
This isn't just an abstract problem, because many mainstream Republicans do not buy the White House line that deficits have no link to economic growth. "If you are an economic conservative from a Midwestern battleground, you don't have anything to talk about on the fiscal side," says one GOP consultant. "We're being asked to defend a huge deficit that we cannot defend."
The Social Divide. Social conservatives give Bush credit for pushing right-to-life judges, a Constitutional ban on gay marriage, and a partial-birth abortion bill, along with restrictions on stem-cell research. But on the whole, they think he has been more compassionate than conservative. "A lot of people at the grass roots aren't motivated," says conservative leader Paul M. Weyrich.
What's the beef? Activists want Bush and his team to stump aggressively for the gay-marriage amendment and to take the Culture Wars to Hollywood and other purveyors of popular culture. But Bush & Co. "are allergic to anything that spells controversy," Weyrich fumes.
To spur turnout by the 4 million-plus evangelicals who sat out the last election, the Bush campaign is relying on fundamentalist Christian leaders to quietly spread the gospel of St. George with personal visits to church groups, direct-mail flyers, Web appeals, and "nonpartisan" voter guides. One message that will be passed sub rosa will stress a reelected Bush's ability to name a pro-life majority to the Supreme Court.
The Live-and-Let-Live Set. Although most Republicans these days are conservative on social and economic issues, a band of culturally tolerant moderates can't be ignored, especially in swing states such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Ohio. Their complaint is the opposite of that voiced by social conservatives. The mod squad fears the Administration is in thrall to the Religious Right on issues ranging from scientific research to gay rights to gun control -- a course that could mark the party for slow irrelevance in the Northeast.
"It's smart to use McCain, Schwarzenegger, and Pataki in New York, because Republicans need a moderate face," says one GOP strategist. "Rove's turn-out-the-base strategy won't be enough. You need moderates to win."
Of course, simply identifying the issues and personalities that will rev up the various elements of the party is just a start. Getting them to storm the polls in record numbers poses a further challenge. So despite some misgivings from the ranks, Rove is barreling ahead with a base-mobilization operation that, he is convinced, will vault the President to a second term.
But Rove doesn't have the playing field to himself, since Democrats are launching a parallel turnout drive that's every bit as ambitious. That's where the invisible campaign comes into play. It's a behind-the-scenes struggle that's being waged, precinct by precinct, by both campaigns and political parties, business groups, unions, environmental organizations, and the new 527s. Political experts say as a result of the two parties' exertions, turnout, which was only 51% in 2000, could hit 1992's 55%, and maybe even the 61% tally of 1968.
Despite concerns about the role of 527s, an election that centers on neighbor-to-neighbor buttonholing is a healthy development after years of voter malaise. It also is a frank admission of the limited role that TV advertising plays in a campaign where Red Zone and Blue Zone warriors have fought to a standoff. Through August, Bush has spent $120 million and Kerry $80 million barraging swing-state voters with TV appeals, with an additional $60 million spent by outside groups, mostly on Kerry's behalf.
The result has been rising negatives for both combatants, more confusion about each man's governing agenda, and a statistical deadlock in the horse-race polls. "Paid media won't do it for you, so whoever does the better job of getting their supporters to the polls will win," says Ralph Reed, who, as Bush's Southeast regional chairman, helps oversee turnout in the crucial battleground of Florida. "It's that simple."
CASH TO CRY FOR.
Grassroots mobilization is not new, of course. What's novel this year is the intensity of the effort and the megabucks being spent. And thanks to the 2002 campaign finance reform law, a large chunk of this year's turnout effort is privately financed by such liberal 527s as America Coming Together (ACT). Campaign laws bar political parties and candidates from raising unlimited soft dollars. But ACT operates under no such restrictions and plans to spend $120 million on voter recruitment in 15 swing states.
At least 50 other independent groups also have turnout projects, ranging from the labor unions to Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) to PunkVoter, which aims to register punk-rockers. "The old party bosses would weep to have that kind of money" to spread around their wards, marvels John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. Adds Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 race: "I've never seen anything like it."
Unlike many past campaigns' slapdash operations, which gave out "walking-around money" with little accountability, this year's methods are more sophisticated -- and measurable. Bush campaign headquarters, for example, has assigned every key state a voter-registration goal, a block-party goal, and a voter-turnout target. In precincts that went 60% for Bush in 2000, says Reed, the aim is to boost that number to 80%.
"AN ABSOLUTE BARGAIN."
Compared with every other form of voter outreach, spending on turnout is money well spent, according to studies by David C. King of Harvard University. He finds that leaving literature on voters' doorknobs boosts the probability of voting by just 1.3%, at a cost of $29 per vote. Phone calls aren't much better: They increase the likelihood of voting by 3.5%, at a cost of $24.
But face-to-face contact increases the chances that a person will vote by 18%, at a cost of $28. "In an expensive media market, that's an absolute bargain," says King. "People are waiting to be asked to vote by a person who seems similar to them."
In battleground states where one candidate has pulled ahead, get-out-the-vote programs are do-or-die. Take Pennsylvania, a swing state that Al Gore won by four percentage points in 2000 but that Bush hopes to recapture this year. An Aug. 2-15 Keystone Poll, a nonpartisan statewide poll conducted by Franklin & Marshall College, showed that 11% of Bush's 2000 voters say they're defecting to Kerry, while just 5% of Gore's voters plan to switch to Bush. The only way Bush can do better this time is by turning out more of his base -- especially anti-abortion Catholics.
EXPECT A CALL.
Indeed, Bush's strategy across the country is to edge Kerry by turning out more committed conservatives in counties where he's already strong. He is targeting Christian evangelicals who didn't vote in 2000, conservative Catholics who respond to a family-values message, and small-businessfolk who like the President's anti-tort lawyer pitch.
He has charged "people of faith" team leaders with the task of identifying churches whose congregants are likely supporters. His ground troops are asking churchgoers, Rotary Club officials, and Knights of Columbus leaders to send in membership directories, which are then compared with voter registration rolls. Anyone who isn't registered can expect to get a call from a volunteer. And like Kerry, Bush has his sights trained on some 7 million non-Cuban Hispanics and 2.7 million military personnel and their families.
While both candidates' goals are equally ambitious, their tactics differ. The GOP model is the 2000 Bush campaign's 72-Hour Task Force, designed by Rove and current campaign manager Ken Mehlman. The project, which took months to plan but was unleashed in the final three days of the campaign, combined last-minute phone calls, leafletting, and rides to the polls. For the 2002 midterm contests, the party assigned 72-Hour directors to all 50 states.
And the program produced some surprising winners. One was Saxby Chambliss, now a Georgia senator thanks in large part to turnout efforts led by then-Georgia Republican Party Chairman Reed.
A onetime chief political operative for the Christian Coalition, Reed is credited with helping to harness the Religious Right's emerging might. He recruited 3,000 volunteers and 500 paid workers to knock on some 150,000 doors in Republican-leaning Georgia counties. While midterms normally draw about one-third of the voting-age population, Reed boosted turnout to 60% in GOP precincts, sweeping Democratic incumbents out of the governor's office, the U.S. Senate, and the state legislature.
The lesson for the GOP was that face-to-face appeals work better than phone banks, leafletting, direct mail, and even TV. "We had gotten away from using person-to-person contact," says Blaise Hazelwood, political director of this year's 72-Hour Program. "Talking about issues with someone from your church or neighborhood really makes a difference."
The GOP is getting lots of help from business groups. BIPAC is coordinating turnout efforts among dozens of member trade associations and hopes to reach 20 million employees before Nov. 2. "In an election that's going to be determined by turnout," says BIPAC CEOo Gregory S. Casey, "this seems the smart way to go."
The 10,000-strong American International Automobile Dealers Assn. has its "Drive the Vote" campaign. Voter guides, while officially neutral, stress Bush's call for cuts in tariffs on imported cars and trucks and suggest that Kerry would push to unionize workers at foreign auto plants. "We want to make sure [dealers' employees] understand this election is not without consequences," says Ed Patru, an AIADA spokesman. And the National Federation of Independent Business is sending out election tip sheets that steer its 600,000-plus members to vote for Bush and other candidates the NFIB considers pro-enterprise.
Kerry's appeals are directed at a more diverse group. He's eyeing union members, minorities, single mothers, and young adults between 18 and 24. He's also aiming for the sliver of the electorate that is still undecided and for less ideological Republicans.
The pool of potential backers is certainly deeper, but the Democratic Party's bedrock of support -- African Americans and other minority voters -- historically have low turnout rates. So Kerry's challenge, much like Bush's, is to avoid alienating his base while wooing middle-of-the-road suburbanites.
To keep the core motivated, Kerry is relying largely on ACT, which has opened 55 offices and hired 540 full-time organizers along with 1,300 paid canvassers. The model is Big Labor's turnout program, until 2002 led by AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal. In his new role as ACT's executive director, Rosenthal has put together a national turnout effort that clearly has Republicans worried.
Rosenthal tested his ideas -- early and frequent contact with potential voters to discuss issues, not necessarily to push a candidate -- in the 2003 Philadelphia mayoral race. There, he registered 85,000 new voters, of whom 38,000, or 44%, cast ballots. While slightly lower than the 49% overall turnout, the additional support was crucial: Democratic incumbent John F. Street turned around a faltering campaign to win by 78,000 votes.
Any way you slice it, Campaign 2004 looms as a fateful showdown between sharply divergent approaches to foreign policy and the economy. And for once, it doesn't look like the outcome is going to be determined by glossy TV spots that generate more heat than light. Instead, the election seems certain to be decided on front porches, in community centers, and in individual encounters all across the land -- a struggle, to paraphrase George Bush, that can only be won "one heart, one soul at a time."