November 20, 2004


Who Lost Ohio? (MATT BAI, 11/21/04, NY Times Magazine)

By Election Day, ACT claimed to have registered 85,000 new voters in Ohio, while the rest of the America Votes coalition -- groups as large as the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and and as small as Music for America -- had registered another 215,000. If you were an Ohioan registered by ACT or one of its partners, Bouchard told me, you were contacted as many as a dozen times after you registered, by phone or by mail or by a live canvasser at your front door. ACT claimed to have knocked on 3.7 million doors and held more than 1.1 million doorstep conversations in the state; in contrast, the Kerry-Edwards campaign, which had its own significant turnout effort under way, had arrived in Ohio months after ACT and reported having knocked on about 595,000 doors. ''There's no way a party or a campaign could put on the ground the resources that we have,'' Bouchard told me. ''The sheer numbers of doors we knock on and phone calls we make are just astounding.''

Earlier in the year, I had spent weeks on the other side of the lines in Ohio, writing an article for the magazine about the Republican plan to vastly increase turnout using an all-volunteer network, modeled on a multilevel marketing scheme like Amway, that would focus on the new and growing exurban counties around Ohio's major cities. Democrats, traditionally the masters of field organizing, had dismissed the Republican effort as an exercise in self-delusion, insisting that volunteers could never build a turnout model to compete with professional organizers. In ACT and its partners, Democrats told me, they were building the most efficient turnout machine in political history. I returned to Ohio in the final days of the campaign to see the power of this grass-roots behemoth in action. I did -- and I came to understand its limitations as well. [...]

After breakfast, I called Steve Rosenthal on his cellphone. Rosenthal, ACT's chief executive officer and Bou-chard's boss, had been lent a private jet for the closing days of the campaign by one of the group's wealthy donors. He touched down the night before in Cincinnati, and now he was driving his rental car from Dayton to Columbus. ''I'm just blown away by what I see everywhere I go,'' he told me. ''It's raining, but our people aren't deterred. They're voting. They're organizing. They're canvassing. It's amazing. I really think we could win by a substantial margin.''

ACT represented Rosenthal's vision more than anyone else's. Ellen Malcolm, the influential president of Emily's List, had done the most to raise the money, but it was Rosenthal, the former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and a labor department official in the Clinton administration, who was known inside the party as a brilliant, almost legendary field strategist. Perpetually rumpled and self-effacing, more studious than brazen, Rosenthal wasn't the kind of guy given to bold pronouncements. But everything in his experience told him the election was well within reach for Kerry. He had taken to repeating a football analogy that came from Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, who had dispatched thousands of the union's members and employees to work on ACT's behalf: ACT, Stern said, had assembled the best field-goal unit ever. All the candidate had to do was get them into range, and they would do the rest.

''For the life of me, I can't see how we could lose Ohio,'' Rosenthal had told me over lunch in Washington the previous week. ''The only way they win Ohio is to steal it like they did Florida four years ago.'' [...]

Lindenfeld and Bouchard were back on the road, checking out target precincts to make sure they were being canvassed. We rolled slowly through poor, all-black neighborhoods in Lindenfeld's rented Ford Explorer, eyeing front porches for Post-it notes and ACT flyers.

This is how white Democrats have always won elections in close states like Ohio -- by cajoling every last black urban voter to go to the polls. In Ohio, Republicans have been able to count on winning somewhere around 75 of the state's 88 counties in any statewide election. The traditional Democratic formula for victory centered on a handful of counties with a heavy concentration of minority voters: win the critical stronghold of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, by a margin of more than 150,000 votes; stay close in Franklin County, which contains Columbus and its suburbs; and hold the Republicans to a margin of victory of fewer than 60,000 votes in Hamilton County, the area that encompasses Cincinnati. (As it turned out, Democrats in 2004 would easily meet these criteria, and then some. Kerry won Cuyahoga by more than 217,000 votes, narrowly won Franklin, and in Hamilton lost to Bush by fewer than 25,000 votes.)

Our S.U.V. passed by polling places where people waited in line around the block, umbrellas perched over their heads. ''Look at that,'' Lindenfeld motioned to me. ''Out the door and around the block. It's a beautiful thing.'' The rule of politics had always been the same: the more people who turned out, the better it was for Democrats. [...]

What gnawed at Bouchard was that nowhere we went in Franklin County, a vigorously contested swing county, did we see any hint of a strong Republican presence -- no signs, no door-knockers, no Bush supporters handing out leaflets at the polls. This seemed only to increase Lindenfeld's confidence. He didn't believe in the Republican turnout plan. ''What they talked about is a dream,'' he told me at one point. ''We've got the reality. They're wishing they had what we've got.'' For Bouchard, however, the silence was unsettling. How could there be such a thing as a stealth get-out-the-vote drive? [...]

As night fell, we reached the city of Delaware and found a polling place at a recreation center. The only people in the parking lot were a drenched couple holding Kerry-Edwards signs. Inside, the polling place was empty. ''Look at this,'' Lindenfeld said to me triumphantly. ''Does this look like a busy polling place? Look around. There's no one here.'' He repeated this several times, making the point that turnout in the outlying areas was tailing off, while voters were lined up around the block back in Columbus. ''Do you see any Republicans?'' he asked me, motioning around the parking lot.

In fact, a quick investigation of the voter rolls, taped to the wall outside the voting area, indicated that the polling place was dead for a less encouraging reason: most of the voters in the two precincts assigned to the recreation center had already voted. The officials in charge told me that 1,175 of the 1,730 registered voters on the rolls had cast their ballots. In other words, turnout in those precincts was up to an impressive 68 percent, and there were still two hours left before the polls closed. (When it was over, Delaware County as a whole would post an astounding turnout rate of 78 percent, with two out of three votes going to Bush.)

I was beginning to understand that the rules of the game were changing, confounding even the experts who seemed to have this business of voter turnout all figured out. For decades, Democratic operatives had been virtually unchallenged by Republicans when it came to mobilizing voters, and during that time, they had come to rely on a certain set of underlying assumptions, all of them based on experience in urban areas. One was that the volume of activity at a polling place was a reliable measure of turnout; long lines meant higher turnout, and no lines meant disaster. Another was that the strength of a get-out-the-vote program could be gauged by the number of people canvassing city streets, the people holding signs in the rain, vans carrying voters to the polls.

But Ohio, like much of the country, was undergoing a demographic shift of historic proportions, and Republicans were learning to exploit their advantage in rapidly expanding rural areas that organizers like Lindenfeld, for all their technological innovation, just didn't understand. In shiny new town-house communities, canvassing could be done quietly by neighbors; you didn't need vans and pagers. Polling places could accommodate all the voters in a precinct without ever giving the appearance of being overrun. In the old days, these towns and counties had been nothing but little pockets of voters, and Republicans hadn't bothered to expend the energy to organize them. But now the exurban populations had reached critical mass (Delaware County alone had grown by almost one-third since the 2000 election), and Republicans were building their own kind of quiet but ruthlessly efficient turnout machine.

Even on the outer edges of the cities, long lines were not necessarily the indicators of Democratic muscle that they used to be. Returning to the headquarters in Columbus, we passed a polling place at the local fish and wildlife office, where a line of voters stretched around the building, even though the polls were closing. ''You see that?'' Lindenfeld exclaimed admiringly. To him, it was another sign of Democratic enthusiasm. When I walked over to the line a little later, however, the man who was administering the site told me that, judging from his precinct lists, the majority of voters standing in line lived in new town-house developments across the highway, and they had stopped in to vote on their way home from work. Most of them, he said, were Republicans. [...]

Why wasn't it enough? In the days that followed, theories circulated claiming that Republicans had stolen votes from Kerry by messing with the results from electronic voting machines. But the truth was that the Bush campaign had created an entirely new math in Ohio. It wouldn't have been possible eight years ago, or even four. But with so many white, conservative and religious voters now living in the brand-new town houses and McMansions in Ohio's growing ring counties, Republicans were able to mobilize a stunning turnout in areas where their support was more concentrated than it was in the past. Bush's operatives did precisely what they told me seven months ago they would do in these communities: they tapped into a volunteer network using local party organizations, union rolls, gun clubs and churches. They backed it up with a blizzard of targeted appeals; according to the preliminary results of a survey done by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, one representative home in Portage County, just outside Cleveland, received 11 pieces of mail from the Republican National Committee.

This effort wasn't visible to Democrats because it was taking place on an entirely new terrain, in counties that Democrats had some vague notion of, but which they never expected could generate so many votes. The 10 Ohio counties with the highest turnout percentages, many of them small and growing, all went for Bush, and none of them had a turnout rate of less than 75 percent.

For Democrats, this new phenomenon on Election Day felt like some kind of horror movie, with conservative voters rising up out of the hills and condo communities in numbers the Kerry forces never knew existed. ''They just came in droves,'' Jennifer Palmieri told me two days after the election. ''We didn't know they had that room to grow. It's like, 'Crunch all you want -- we'll make more.' They just make more Republicans.''

And they're not done making more...

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2004 11:28 PM

Go figure. The Silent Majority exists.

Posted by: Timothy at November 21, 2004 1:01 AM

What they missed is that the Republican base was probably as energized as any time since 1980 to turn out, and part of the reason is the actions of the Democrats leading up to the election. In '80, it was just revulsion for Carter, but the results were similar, in that a ton of Republican votes were cast early on Election Day for Reagan (which in turn helped lead to the early calls in the election and the West Coast blowout). With early voting nowadays covering two weeks before the election, many of those same voters can take care of business without having to make any special scheduling on the first Tuesday of November.

Posted by: John at November 21, 2004 1:11 AM

That would be "more of us, fewer of you." Keep this up and we'll make The Wife edit your posts.

Posted by: joe shropshire at November 21, 2004 2:57 AM

How do starry-eyed liberals react to the cruel fact that their cause was pushed by professional pollsters and conscripted union labor, whereas their opposition's was led by volunteers?

Posted by: Moe from NC at November 21, 2004 7:43 AM

Joe -- not if OJ meant working hard to restrict Democrats to only one vote per ;-)

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 21, 2004 8:41 AM