It's up to the ground armies

Four years ago, I was leaving an early-morning Election Day breakfast when I ran into Haley Barbour, who had left the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee some three years earlier.

The race between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush was very close, according to virtually every indicator, and we were all expecting the outcome to be determined by the get-out-the-vote effort the rival campaigns had put together.Four years ago, I was leaving an early-morning Election Day breakfast when I ran into Haley Barbour, who had left the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee some three years earlier.

The race between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush was very close, according to virtually every indicator, and we were all expecting the outcome to be determined by the get-out-the-vote effort the rival campaigns had put together.

I asked Haley if the Bush campaign and his successors at the RNC had fielded an army capable of delivering a majority that day. He answered wryly, “Well, they’ve spent something like seven and a half million dollars more than they did last time.”

I looked at him and said, “Haley, that wasn’t my question.” He smiled, winked and responded by saying “No, but that’s my answer.”

It was a good answer. The Democrats did a better job on the ground that year, and, as a result, we didn’t know for a long time who had been elected. Indeed, turnout among “core” GOP voters actually dropped by a few points, and Bush almost lost.

Karl Rove vowed it wouldn’t happen again, and Republicans began laying plans for what became the GOP’s “72 Hour” program in 2002 and the unprecedented organizational effort Bush Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman and RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie assembled this year.

The new program worked in 2002, allowing Republican candidates to outperform election-eve expectations and giving Republican professionals the feeling that they could not only compete with but beat their Democratic counterparts on the ground, if they really worked at it.

And they have worked at it. The Bush campaign has spent heavily and given much greater priority to recruiting volunteers, contacting voters and constructing a mechanism to register the president’s supporters and get them to the polls.

The relative advantage they enjoyed two years ago, however, has vanished. The Democrats, working with such folks as George Soros and various groups he and like-minded liberals have funded, have spent millions of dollars to build an army to register new Democratic voters and deliver them to the polls. They have gone about the task differently than the Bush people and spent a whole lot more money on it.

Both sides were confident as voters go to the polls today that their approach will make the difference in what promises to be one of the closest elections in our history.

We’ll know by the time the polls close which approach worked. If they prove equally competent, we may not know for some time who won some of the most closely divided states, but given the fact that the closing polls show an essentially dead-even race, if one side outperforms the other at the polls today we will know who built the most effective ground army.

Those two ground armies are out there as I write this. They’ve brought this political war home in a way that the media consultants and rally organizers never could.

Voters in battleground states haven’t been able to sit down to a peaceful dinner for months because when their phone hasn’t been ringing they had to get up to answer the door to yet another Kerry or Bush volunteer. These volunteers haven’t changed many minds, but they’ve registered an awful lot of new voters, know which ones favor their candidate and are now working to make sure they actually vote.

The remarkable thing about this election campaign is that if one averages the poll results over the past few months, there has been very little real movement. Neither external events nor the various issues on which the candidates have engaged either in debate or on the stump have made all that much difference. The candidates began the race running roughly even, and that’s the way they’ve finished, demonstrating that in a political sense the nation is as deeply and evenly divided today as ever.

If history is correct, the undecideds will divide fairly evenly and any margins that develops will result from the efforts of the tens of thousands of Kerry and Bush volunteers now prodding, driving or even dragging their candidate’s voters to the polls.

When it’s over, it won’t have been the debates or the ads or the rallies. It won’t even be the dead goose that John Kerry may or may not have shot or the munitions in Iraq that may or may not have vanished on Bush’s watch. It will be, instead, about which ground army does a better job today.

For what it’s worth, I am convinced that if the Bush ground army that the president’s managers have labored so hard to put together works, they’ll win. If it doesn’t, George Soros will elect our next president.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).