In the battle for control of Congress, Democrats hope enthusiasm trumps Republican efficiency.
Otherwise, they concede, they will have problems on Nov. 7 as a party still struggling to catch up with the GOP's ability to turn voters out of seeming thin air.
"Makes me green with envy," says Ellen Malcolm, the president of EMILY's List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights. She was speaking of the Republican Party program that relies on reams of polling data, publicly available information and consumer choice records to identify likely GOP voters in even the most Democratic precincts.
Republicans most recently put their prowess on display in California, where they turned out enough conservatives in June to elect Brian Bilbray to the House, and a few months later in Rhode Island, where they motivated moderates and independents to vote for Sen. Lincoln Chafee (news, bio, voting record) in a primary.
Democrats hope technology is not the deciding factor in the upcoming election that will determine the majority party in the House and Senate. Democrats need to gain 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to knock Republicans from power.
"They don't have some secret stash of voters," says Karin Johanson, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"If the Republicans are less enthused, the independents are breaking our way, and the Democratic base is highly enthused, then we're in very good shape," she said.
For now, at least, polls indicate Democrats have momentum on their side.
(snip)As recently as the 1990s, the Democratic Party consistently won the turnout battle, relying on aggressive work by precinct captains and labor leaders in urban areas home to Democratic base voters.
Republicans started to retool their efforts after 2000 when Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by 543,895 over George W. Bush. Bush won the electoral vote and the presidency, and his top strategist, Karl Rove, was determined to change how the party turned out voters.
"The Republican Party kind of stared death in the face and said if we don't figure out how to do better, we're going to lose," said Terry Nelson, the RNC's deputy chief of staff in 2002 and the Bush campaign's political director in 2004.
So, Republicans built a massive database of voters.
They compiled information about individuals that is available in public records and in consumer data that the GOP buys from vendors. Voter profiles contain everything from a person's age, address and voting frequency to their magazine subscriptions, preferred drinks and vehicles owned.
With an expansive voter file, Republicans then can use computer modeling to parse out individual voters in Democratic precincts whose consumer habits indicate they may lean toward the GOP. Republicans then can tailor messages to them based on their lifestyle habits and voting behaviors, and personally reach out to each of them to vote.
A final push comes just before an election, when volunteers with detailed voter lists make phone calls, knock on doors and send mail to encourage people to turn out — specifically those identified as most likely to side with Republicans but also most likely to stay home.
The system helped the GOP keep majorities in Congress and the White House in 2002 and 2004.
"The Republicans have about a four-year head start on where the Democrats are now," said Michael McDonald, a Brookings Institution expert on voter turnout. "The good news for the Democrats: You can catch up pretty quickly."
Democrats have been scrambling to do just that. But progress in setting up a party-centered operation like the RNC's has been slow, leading to disputes within the party and prompting allied groups to set in motion their own turnout efforts.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry drew 16 percent more votes than Gore had in 2000. Republicans did even better — Bush's votes increased by 23 percent.
Karen Finney, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said Chairman Howard Dean has invested $8 million in the party's voter file this year, committed $12 million to get-out-the-vote efforts and is using the same voter identification and turnout techniques as Republicans in six states.
"The Republicans were further ahead of us last cycle. They just had much better data and were able to do more sophisticated things with it," Finney said. But this year, she said, through the combined efforts of the DNC, the House and Senate committees and the party's allied groups "we will have the resources we need to get our voters out."
Absent a large-scale party-driven program, the House and Senate Democratic campaign committees set up their own voter identification and turnout initiatives using the same techniques Republicans rely upon.
Additionally, labor and progressive organizations started a turnout campaign similar to the GOP's. Coordinating the effort is America Votes, a nonprofit group that played a similar role in 2004.
This time, America Votes is supplying coalition members voter data compiled by a new firm founded by Harold Ickes, a former White House aide under President Clinton. The America Votes effort, estimated to cost $25 million, is targeting Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Colorado and Wisconsin.
Labor unions have pledged to spend $40 million on turnout operations, and MoveOn.org, the liberal group, says it has budgeted $12 million.
The RNC planned to spend $60 million this fall on both advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts to protect the GOP's narrow majorities.