Elections

Turnout will be crucial in tightening North Carolina Senate battle

Senate candidate Thom Tillis (left) and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul talk to the assembled media as Sen. Paul makes a campaign appearance with Tillis at Big Ed's City Market Restaurant in Raleigh on Oct.1, 2014.
Senate candidate Thom Tillis (left) and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul talk to the assembled media as Sen. Paul makes a campaign appearance with Tillis at Big Ed's City Market Restaurant in Raleigh on Oct.1, 2014. McClatchy

. Jordan DeLoatch, a Duke University senior from Cary, set out on a recent Saturday with a clipboard to knock on doors for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, ready to talk about whatever voters had on their minds.

Most people, if they’re home, are willing to open up, he’s found.

“People do care about the issues. This affects them every day,” said DeLoatch, a public policy major who also knocked on doors for President Barack Obama in 2012. “A lot of people are really supportive, and even people who are undecided _ they’re all willing to listen.”

There’s no script.

“It’s about connecting with each voter,” he said. “It’s about getting them to care about the election.”

Volunteers for both Hagan and her Republican opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, hope to connect with enough voters to win. Some have been going door-to-door for months. Now those efforts are ramping up as early voting begins on Oct. 23 and the Nov. 4 election draws closer.

With the race tightening, both campaigns say turnout is the key. But what will work? North Carolinians are inundated with ads and mailers. You can mute the TV and toss the mail, but a friendly face on the doorstep is different, especially if it’s a local volunteer, a neighbor even.

Tillis, joined by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., visited several of his campaign’s field offices last weekend, where volunteers made calls and fanned out to knock on doors.

National Republicans and Democrats are using sophisticated databases to direct their volunteers to the people who already have indicated they’re supporters, or are at least leaning that way. Outside groups allied with them also are using data to target the voters they want to turn out.

Democrats claim an advantage, built on the success of Obama’s presidential campaigns. They say their big investment in voter turnout dwarfs what Republicans are doing. But Republicans this year say they also have developed the technology for effective canvassing.

What’s more, the hurdle for Democrats is higher. Republicans generally show more enthusiasm in midterm elections. A national Gallup Poll in September found 44 percent of Republican respondents were extremely motivated to vote, compared with 25 percent of Democrats.

And an Elon University poll in September found that 38 percent of Republicans said they have given “quite a lot” thought to the election, compared to 29 percent of Democrats.

That’s typical for a midterm election for the party that doesn’t control the presidency, said Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll. “Republicans are more angry than Democrats are enthused,” he said.

Hagan says turnout will make the difference for her. She has been going to her party’s 35 field offices around the state since August, encouraging her volunteers. A big team of young workers, meanwhile, works behind the scenes on logistics at the campaign’s headquarters in a Greensboro office park.

Neither side will detail its strategy, except to say they’re spending millions of dollars with thousands of volunteers to motivate their supporters. Democrats go out with clipboards, printouts of names and addresses to contact, and brochures. Volunteers enter the information into computer databases. Republicans door-knockers often have a mobile phone app that lets them punch in the data and send it directly.

“But at the end of the day, regardless of the tools being used, it’s people,” said William Allison, a spokesman for North Carolina Republicans. “The willingness to go out there and pound the pavement and talk to people; that’s what gets the job done. We’ve done a good job of that so far and we’re going to push ahead with that in the last few weeks.”

Republican field staffers started to set up their mobilization effort in the summer of 2013, the earliest they ever started in an election cycle. The party now operates more than a dozen offices. Other groups, operating independently of the campaigns, also are on the streets to get out the votes for their favored candidates.

The Congressional Black Caucus, Planned Parenthood’s political action fund and organized labor have all hit the streets to solicit support for Hagan, while Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that promotes small government has been countering their message.

The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, was in North Carolina earlier this month. She also plans to be part of a bus trip by members of the caucus who will be going to campuses and churches in North Carolina and five other states considered crucial to Democrats’ hopes of holding on to power.

Democrats want to identify voters who voted in the 2012 presidential election, but not in the 2010 midterms. Just a one percent increase in turnout among African Americans could make the difference for Hagan, said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, vice chair of voter registration and participation for the Democratic National Committee.

Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund also had people going door to door, targeting supporters who typically don’t vote in midterms. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the group’s action fund, said women voters tended to tune out political ads, but they trusted Planned Parenthood, a health care provider in the state for many years.

“We’ve seen the issue of women’s health and equal pay; these are very motivating issues for women,” she said. “But we can’t count on them getting this information from traditional news sources.”

Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, has put canvassers in the Triad area, reaching as far as Raleigh, Salisbury and Winston-Salem. Matt Morrison, the group’s political director, said they’ve logged 4,000 conversation at doors in the state per week and plan to reach 50,000 people by the election. The goal, Morrison said, “is helping Kay Hagan win.”

Canvassers report that the top issue in North Carolina is education, followed by jobs and the economy and health care, he said.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, which has been funded by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, has been pushing its anti-Hagan message. AFP has not endorsed Tillis, but organized a “Call out Kay” series of rallies last month that echoed Tillis’ criticism that Hagan has supported many of Obama’s policies.

AFP canvassers are knocking on doors in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and Wilmington, attacking Hagan on the health care law, government spending and a proposal to reduce carbon pollution, which the group describes as a carbon tax. It was one of the first to target her, spending $8.3 million on ads against her early. It’s the biggest spender among outside groups.

The drive to get people to vote only works because Americans have become so partisan. Today there’s an overwhelming probability that people will vote with the party they identify with, said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University. But it was common in the 1960s and ‘70s for as much as one-third of the members of each party to vote for the presidential candidate of the other, Rohde said.

“If you just focused on party and tried to turn somebody out, you couldn’t be sure they were going to vote for the candidate of the party,” he said. “It raised real mobilization difficulties.”

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