Democrats Pouring Resources Into Ground Game

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Melisa Synness is among a small army of volunteers helping Democrats put unprecedented resources into their election-year drive to register and get voters to the polls.

She has spent evenings and weekends organizing other volunteers to knock on doors and make telephone calls, part of a huge ground game of calls and door-to-door visits that Democrats hope drives higher turnout and helps the party across the ticket.

“It’s the least I can do to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard,” Synness said Sunday, working with a dozen others at Obama’s Helena headquarters.

Barack Obama has 19 full-time offices around the state, and dozens of paid staff members organizing get-out-the-vote drives in at least 70 different neighborhoods over the closing days of the election. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who has broken campaign finance records for a Montana congressional race, has 50 paid campaign staff members helping get Democrats to the polls.

It is perhaps the largest Democratic get-out-the-vote effort the state has seen, and Republicans concede probably the largest either party has ever done. Republicans say they are countering with a more focused effort.

The GOP worries the well-funded drive could filter down ticket and help Democrats in all sorts of races.

“It does have an affect, of course it will,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, whose own re-election is considered safe.

Both parties planned to work through the weekend and up until Election Day, even though early voting in Montana means that a large percentage of voters have already cast ballots.

Over at the Republican Party in Helena, a smaller group is making calls than at Obama’s Helena shop. But the focus is the same: Find friendly voters and persuade them to vote.

Betty Pohlman said she decided to volunteer because she strongly believes McCain needs to win — and is not dispirited by recent polls that show he could be behind.

“It’s an important election,” she said. “We need to keep going to get Sen. McCain elected. I would never say Sen. McCain is beat. He’s a real man of strength and conviction.”

Obama has spent more time and money in the state than any other presidential candidate in memory. His offices are using a computer program to track who has yet to vote, and volunteers are following up with those people to help persuade them to do so.

“Turning out a Democratic voter doesn’t just help one candidate; it is going to pay dividends for the rest of the ticket,” said party spokesman Kevin O’Brien.

Republicans are hammering Obama in a series of radio advertisements on the issue of gun control, where the GOP thinks McCain holds a big advantage. One print advertisement took aim at Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who openly touts his opposition to gun control, and hoped to weaken the governor over his endorsement of his party’s presidential candidate.

Republicans are countering with a voter identification system, about 20 paid coordinators and a volunteer organization that in past elections has been seen as more effective than Democratic programs.

But they don’t have nearly the amount of out-of-state money the Democrats have this campaign season, and the GOP has less than half of the roughly $6 million raised by its opposition. So their get-out-the-vote drive, they say, does a better job of focusing on likely Republican voters.

University of Montana Political Scientist Robert Saldin said the results produced by the big Democratic ground game will become apparent Tuesday, especially if a Democratic effort to motivate young people does prompt more of them to vote.

“The youth vote routinely turns out in very small, unimpressive numbers, but I think this year could be a little different with the youth vote,” he said, citing what he called an unprecedented ground game.

Saldin said Baucus doesn’t need to deploy huge resources in a ground game in order to secure his own re-election, which appeared safe. The longtime incumbent faces Bob Kelleher, who has not been embraced by the Republican Party and has raised little money.

But Baucus benefits by helping other Democrats by using his resources to drive turnout, Saldin said.

Republicans and Democrats are fighting for control of a closely divided Legislature, and for statewide offices such as attorney general.

“It could make a difference in some of the down ticket races if Baucus and Obama supporters are getting to the polls,” Saldin said. “These people are more likely to vote Democratic further down the ticket as well.”