Democrats are praying their ground game will save them from a crushing defeat in next month's midterm elections.
Party leaders have invested heavily in their field operations to try and break the historical trend of the party in control of the White House losing seats.
“The big meta-question out of all of this is can the Democrats use voter mobilization to overcome the inherent difficulties they have in midterm elections?” said University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald, who runs the United States Elections Project.
High turnout might be Democrats’ only hope, with recent polls showing Democrats trailing slightly in the states that will determine the Senate majority: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and Louisiana.
Republicans need to win a net of six Senate seats to seize control of the upper chamber, and most election models give them the edge. Republicans are also targeting a number of swing House districts carried narrowly by Obama that have leaned Republican in non-presidential years.
Democrats argue they’ll outperform the polls by at least one to two points in a number of races by turning out voters who typically stay home in midterm years.
Every time one of their candidates has fallen behind in public polls, Democratic strategists have pointed to the ground game as the difference-maker.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has combined with state parties and coordinated campaigns to spend more than $60 million on field operations and is employing 4,000 paid field staff.
The DSCC has had the luxury of spending heavily on turnout operation due to a nearly $30 million fundraising advantage over its rival, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also used its cash edge to throw millions of dollars into its field program. Officials say the program has registered 80,000 new voters overall, a big number considering how small the playing field is in House races. The total includes 6,000 new voters in Rep. Michael Grimm’s (R-N.Y.) Staten Island district, a top Democratic target.
“From day one, we knew that turnout would be one of our biggest challenges, that’s why we’ve put a bigger emphasis on our ground game than ever before,” said DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin.
Outside groups aligned with Democrats such as the League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood Action Fund have also been spending heavily to help bring Democrats to the polls.
While Democrats are spending more, Republicans say they have an aggressive turnout operation of their own.
The Republican National Committee has been investing all year in its ground game, and while party officials give Democrats an edge, they believe they are catching up.
“In target Senate states the RNC has devoted over $105 million, has hundreds of offices, over 1,400 paid staffers and over 20,000 volunteers who have been recruited over the past year and a half, earlier than ever before,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told The Hill. “We have new technology, new techniques and are emphasizing neighbor-to-neighbor contact.”
Americans for Prosperity, the group affiliated with conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, also has more than 500 paid field staff nationwide.
NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins said Republicans are making great strides.
“While we may not have equaled Democrats in technology yet… we’ve made a major cultural change in how we run our ground games, “ he told reporters Thursday, pointing to decisions to hire paid staff rather than rely on volunteers and spending on technology.
Democrats are touting early-voting numbers in Iowa, one of the few states with substantial votes tallied, as signs that their grassroots machine is roaring to life.
The state is on pace to shatter its early voting record, with more than 170,000 votes cast, a 63 percent increase from this point in 2010 — and 7,000 more Democrats than Republicans have voted. The total includes 31,000 voters who didn’t cast ballots at all in 2010, according to the DSCC — and they say that roughly two thirds of those are Democrats, based on registration and turnout models.
Iowa Republicans are voting in higher numbers as well, but it’s unclear whether the GOP is adding new voters or just “shifting around the furniture” from Election-Day voters to early ballots, McDonald said.
“Democrats have made unprecedented levels of investment in the largest and most sophisticated turnout operation that Senate races have ever seen because getting our voters to the polls is critical to our success,” DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky said. “We're already seeing our efforts pay off with encouraging data coming from Iowa.”
In another key Senate battleground, Georgia, more than 200,000 people have registered to vote this year, including roughly 90,000 registered by the pro-Democratic New Georgia Project. The majority of the sign-ups are from a trio Democratic-leaning counties in metro Atlanta.
Voter registration and early voting numbers in North Carolina also look promising for Democrats, and in Colorado, where ballots are now mailed to every voter, Democrats say they’ve tripled the size of the field operation that helped DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet win election in 2010.
“The patterns in North Carolina and Georgia do seem to support what the DSCC is claiming — among people who don't have a record of voting in 2010, Democrats are doing much better with those folks, they're voting at higher percentages,” McDonald said.
Some anecdotal evidence matches Democrats’ bullish descriptions.
Alaska Republican strategist Marc Hellenthal recently told The Hill that Democrats had knocked on his door in Anchorage four times to identify whether anyone in his family might back Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), while Republican Dan Sullivan’s campaign hadn’t been by once. Still, Republicans have actually increased their voter registration edge in Alaska since Begich won in 2008.
In Arkansas, early registration numbers show a big jump in new voters from Pulaski County, a Democratic stronghold, and a spike in the heavily African American Delta region.
“In my two decades covering politics, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Arkansas Talk Business editor Roby Brock told The Hill on Thursday about Democrats’ operation.