Environmental group targets swing states

Environmental groups have long been able to call people like Joni Ashbrook to action.

Stuck in President Bush’s home turf of Texas, the Austin schoolteacher rode a bus 23 hours to Orlando, Fla., in hopes of persuading residents there to vote for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

Ashbrook called the experience of riding the bus with 20-some like-minded volunteers “life-changing.” She stayed in Florida a few extra days to help canvass Orlando neighborhoods.

But while groups such as the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), which sponsored the bus trip and is coordinating much of the environmental community’s election efforts, can summon dedicated volunteers such as Ashbrook to a good cause, the effectiveness of their efforts has been mixed at best.

Long a concern of voters, environmental policy nevertheless usually doesn’t rise to the level of being decisive for them.

Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, said that fact could be especially true this year.

“The plate is full with really big issues,” he said, mentioning the war in Iraq, national security, the economy and health care as the major drivers in the election.

The LCV says it’s a operating off a new election playbook, however, that could add the environment to the list of secondary issues that might end up giving Kerry the final push he needs to win this dead-heat election.

The campaign, called the environmental victory project, is summed up in one flier Ashbrook left on Floridians’ doorknobs, said Mark Longabaugh, the group’s campaign coordinator. The words “some things were never meant to be recycled” form a circle around the president’s face.

Instead of spending large sums on national advertising campaigns, the group is targeting $6 million in a few key counties in five key battleground states and coupling ads with aggressive door-knocking, phone-banking and other get-out-the-vote initiatives, Longabaugh said.

“We want to go right into the teeth of the battle,” he said.

The five targeted states are Oregon, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Of those, Democratic nominee Al Gore won all but Florida in 2000, although he just barely squeaked out wins in Wisconsin and New Mexico. Bush is pushing hard again in those three states.

Not surprisingly, LCV volunteers are paying particularly close attention to Florida voters, who amount to 27 electoral votes. The group said last week it would spend $3 million on a last-minute effort in the Sunshine State, focusing on Bush’s support for drilling offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The president eventually backed away from plans to lease an area 30 miles off the coast of Pensacola.

The LCV’s main focus has been on such swing areas as Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties, where the group identified voters with high “persuade-ability” rankings. These voters might have voted for Gore in 2000 and the president’s brother, Jeb, in the 2002 Florida gubernatorial race.

The “GOTV” goal is to knock on 150,000 in each area. According to the LCV’s website, so far 851,899 households have been visited by LCV volunteers.

“We are trying to be much more thoughtful in how we run campaigns,” Longabaugh said.

Will it make a difference?

Sabato called LCV’s strategy “smart.” But the group isn’t the only one operating on a higher plane this year.

“A thousand other groups are doing the same thing,” he says. With the election this close, “every organization in America is out there.”

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