News Analysis: Grassroots battle for every US vote

The former APCO UK managing director and staunch Democrat is in the US campaigning for John Kerry, but the negative battle has left a bad taste in his mouth. Nixon's the one.' I hate to admit it, but these were the first words I ever uttered in a political campaign.

God knows what psychological damage was done to me by that experience - if nothing else it probably explains why I ended up a staunch Democrat working for Ted Kennedy in the US Senate.

What I do remember from those nights going door to door and parroting my father's pitch for 'Tricky Dicky' was how much real politics is done one-to-one.

Vital election

Eighteen months ago I decided I had to be involved in some small way in the 2004 campaign. This is the most important election for a generation or two in terms of the direction of my native country. The two candidates offer starkly different visions of how best to take America forward, and as an expatriate who has lived in the UK for 20 years I admit to being afraid of what another four years of the Bush administration would do to the fabric of American society, the role of the US in the world and the very idea of democracy, justice, fairness and opportunity.

Back when I was a kid and my dad was a ward leader and manager of many campaigns, he would tell me a very obvious truth: 'Elections are won by the guy who gets his people to the polls.' 2004 will be no different.

When this campaign is over it looks set to be the first billion-dollar presidential election. The two campaigns have reported that they are on target to spend about $320m each. Consultants, pollsters, speechwriters, field operations directors and PROs have taken their fair share of this pie.

And what is the result of all that spending? Where are we in terms of public opinion after the most negative TV ads ever, the staged events only vocal supporters are allowed to attend, all those press conferences and speeches and the three debates. Too close to call.

So that's why I'm in Florida with tens of thousands of other Americans from all over the country - this election will be decided by turnout.

The 2004 campaign will be remembered as the fiercest grassroots battle ever. Historically, the Democrats are much more effective at getting the vote out. With their urban base they generally out-perform Republicans at physically transporting voters, which is why Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000. In Ohio, Bush led by ten percentage points on the Saturday before the election. When the votes were counted, Bush won by three percentage points because the Democrats got more voters to the polls.

Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist and the architect of all his election victories, promised that would never happen again. Since January, Rove has put in place a hierarchy of more than 50,000 volunteers on the ground in Ohio, from precinct captain up to state chairman, to ensure as many people vote as possible. 'Likely voters' have been called every two weeks for the past six to ensure they are still intent on supporting the President. Transportation offers will be made by phone to all likely supporters who might need it this week.

In Florida there are at least 30,000 Republicans and at least that many Democrats at work. The same applies in Pennsylvania. The resources constantly shift: in Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Iowa - the other key battleground states - staff and volunteers from the other nine 'swing' states that are now considered not worth fighting over (the Kerry camp is claiming Washington, and Bush seems sure of Arizona) have closed down offices and headed to where it matters.

The efforts to register new voters ended in early to mid-October. The courting of the media is winding down. All that is left is voter mobilisation, and the success of this final mobilisation effort is down to numbers of volunteers, organisational skills, resources and commitment. Each campaign is built around the idea that the best people to motivate others are friends and family.

For example, in 2000, 22 million single women did not vote. 'Take 5' is an effort run by the 'Women for Kerry' team (and, yes there are also 'Catholics for ...' and 'Veterans for ...' and 'Kids for ...') to get mothers to take their daughters to the polls, older friends to take younger ones, sisters to go with each other. Female volunteers are being asked to commit to naming five women they will get to the polls, name them and report back when they have voted.

These efforts have become particularly important in states such as Florida, where, after the 2000 debacle, the law was changed to allow 'early voting' for 18 days before the election.

Another such Democratic effort is '10 x 10'. Each of the 537 precincts in Florida has a captain, picked by regional field directors and responsible for two or three communities each. Those captains are responsible for organising teams of ten who are then responsible for 100 'likely or sporadic' voters each. In the last ten days of the campaign it is up to the team members to call, visit, charm or cajole those individuals and get them to the polls.

Each night before 12.30am, the team members report on how many of their 'lists' have voted and those numbers are fed into a state-wide database that allows Kerry campaign operators to monitor how many 'early votes' they have collected.

Evenly split

About 1.5 million new voters have registered in Florida since 2000. According to the Miami Herald's analysis, they are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Conventional wisdom says the candidate who wins two of the prize swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida will be president.

Ohio could be leaning toward Bush and Pennsylvania toward Kerry, so those new voters in Florida will be getting lots of attention.

With ten days to go as I write, spirits are high; my side is optimistic we can win. But if I'm honest, I have found the campaign dispiriting.

The relentless attack ads, the screaming on cable news programmes masquerading as analysis or debate, the ubiquity of lawyers hired by the parties (5,000 in Florida alone), ready to sue someone at a moment's notice, and the varied state election systems (from paper ballots to touch-screen computers) add up to a electoral dynamic that is simply worrying.

All of this will seem a little bit better, from my perspective that is, if Senator John Kerry wins the presidency on 2 November. But no matter who wins, my experience here reminds me that we Americans need to be a bit more humble when we brag about our democracy. I hope the next president will focus on getting our own house in order before heading off to fix the rest of the world.

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