Republicans and their allies are vastly outspending Democrats on the air these days, but a less noticed contest could help level the midterm playing field: the ground game.
Despite signs of disengagement among Democratic voters and donors, Democrats have invested early and heavily in a get-out-the-vote machine powered in part by the same unions and progressive activists that ginned up record turnout in 2008.
They'll have a much heavier lift this time around. One recent Gallup survey shows that Republicans' 3-point edge among registered voters turns into a double-digit lead when likely voters are polled. (The GOP advantage was just 46-43 percent among registered voters, but a full 53-40 percent among likely voters, Gallup found.)
But Democrats and their supporters have proved formidable opponents when it comes to boots on the ground, some Republicans warn.
Some Republicans fret that the scandal-plagued RNC won't be up to the task this time around.
"The labor unions and a cornucopia of center-left groups spent more than $400 million in advertising and get-out-the-vote activities to elect Democrats in 2008," said Jonathan Collegio, communications director for the pro-GOP political group American Crossroads. "And there's definitely concern that there's a reservoir of strength there."
Of course, Republicans and their supporters have their own high-dollar voter mobilization campaign under way. American Crossroads itself will spend more than $10 million on a targeted get-out-the-vote drive in 8 states, the group has announced.
Altogether, American Crossroads and its affiliated nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, plan to spend more than $50 million on the midterms. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also devoting a chunk of its projected $75 million campaign investment to voter turnout.
Still, Democrat-friendly groups are also poised to invest tens of millions in the race, and some liberal activists argue that they're better equipped to engage in direct, in-person voter contact -- the gold standard of a successful GOTV strategy -- than some of their GOP counterparts. MoveOn.org can't match Republican players in ad dollars, say its organizers, but the liberal powerhouse is urging its 5 million members to make calls, host "phone parties" and knock on doors.
"I'm very worried about the influx of corporate money that is flooding the airwaves right now," said MoveOn.org political director Adam Ruben. "But the thing that we have that I think they'll struggle to compete with is volunteers -- lots of them."
MoveOn.org expects to spend between $27 million and $30 million this cycle, roughly the same as in the previous midterm, with a heavy focus on field operations in 55 key House and Senate races. Fewer volunteers are stepping forward than in 2008, Ruben acknowledged. But in tight races, a few hundred votes may make the difference, he stressed, as they did in 2008 for Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who won by just 312 votes, and Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., whose winning margin was 727 votes.
"This election isn't about enthusiasm, it's about turnout," said Ruben. "That's what it's going to come down to. There are dozens of races that are going to be close, where turnout can make the difference."
Also helping lead pro-Democrat get-out-the-vote activities are labor unions and progressive organizations such as the liberal umbrella group America Votes, which according to the Center for Responsive Politics spent $14 million in 2006 and more than $24 million in 2008. President Obama's campaign operation, Organizing for America, is also working to fire up liberal activists, and the Democratic National Committee is reportedly spending $50 million on GOTV.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have drawn big crowds to college campuses, but youth turnout is still a question mark. A record 23 million 18-to-29-year-olds turned out in 2008, but polls show younger voters are paying far less attention to this midterm than, for example, seniors. Democratic Party officials say they've made unusually large investments in voter turnout efforts this year.
"This level of voter contact this early is unprecedented," said Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In 75 targeted districts, the DCCC's neighbor-to-neighbor voter contact program has generated 4.9 million personal GOTV phone calls, 2.2 million volunteer recruitment calls, and 1.8 million door knocks since June 1, Rudominer said.
Some Republicans fret that the scandal-plagued and cash-strapped Republican National Committee, which made a splash in 2004 with its 72-hour voter turnout effort, won't be up to the task this time around.
"There's definitely concern whether the national party, which traditionally did an extraordinary job of turning out Republican voters, will be able to spearhead a robust effort in 2010," said one GOP operative.
RNC spokesman Doug Heye countered that the committee has made more than 20 million volunteer voter contacts thus far, some 6.5 million more than at this point in 2008. The RNC recently took out another $5 million line of credit in part to ramp up its GOTV operation, Heye said. He noted that early voting, which is also up this year, is forcing voter mobilization efforts to start much earlier.
Both camps tout their GOTV drives, but for dispirited Democrats outgunned on the airwaves, the ground war may prove their only hope. Said Ruben: "We do think the ground game is key to this election."