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November 4, 2012

Campaign volunteers scramble to get out the vote

Focus remains on undecided or sporadic voters.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana candidates and their backers have spent millions to woo voters — including more than $28 million in the U.S. Senate race alone — but in the final days, some of the most valuable assets are the call-making, door-knocking volunteers who will help get out the vote.

In scores of field offices across the state, thousands of volunteers are engaged in intensely targeted efforts to get the people the campaigns have identified as supporters to cast their ballots.

“There’s no way to underestimate the value of what they’re doing,” said Michael Edwards, a Democratic field organizer in Indianapolis. “They’re reminding people that every vote counts.”

That’s become even more apparent in recent days, as some key races appear to be still up for grabs or much closer than expected.

According to the independent, non-partisan Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll released Friday, Democrat Joe Donnelly has surged ahead of Republican Richard Mourdock in the U.S. Senate race, with 11 percent of voters still undecided; and in the governor’s race, the double-digit lead that Republican Mike Pence had in September over Democrat John Gregg has been cut in half, and now down to just 7 points, with 9 percent of voters still undecided.

The Howey/DePauw poll also showed the closest statewide contest is an unexpected one: the race for superintendent of public instruction, in which incumbent Republican Tony Bennett, who has a 4-to-1 campaign cash advantage, leads his much lesser known opponent, Democrat Glenda Ritz, by only 4 points.

The critical GOTV — the political acronym for “get out the vote” — is “what it all comes down to,” said political scientist Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“You can spend a boatload of money,” said Downs, “but if you’ve got no plan for getting voters out to the polls, you’re going to lose.”

Indiana Republican Party spokesman Pete Seat said GOP volunteers had made more than 1.6 million phone calls at the party’s 12 “victory centers” around the state since voter identification and get-out-the-vote efforts began this summer.

Democratic volunteers in 20 field offices around the state have made more than 1.4 million calls. Like the GOP, they’re focusing not just on reminding party loyalists to vote, but nudging along those “sporadic” voters who don’t vote in every election, and working on convincing independent voters to see things their way.

For Republicans, those calls are being made by people like Jodi Smith, a Hendricks County mother of five who volunteered with her teenage children to work on the Pence campaign this summer.

She’s known Pence for years — long before he was U.S. congressman — and likes both him and his conservative politics.

“We’re staunch Republicans anyway,” Smith said. “But when he decided to run for governor, I thought, ‘This is a campaign we could really get involved with.’”

Smith alone has made more 25,000 calls, with a goal of 1,000 calls a day in the final days of the campaign. Her value as a volunteer isn’t just the quantity of calls she makes; it’s the content of the message she delivers to the so-called “Lugar Republicans.”

Those are the GOP voters who’ve been reluctant to support Mourdock, who capitalized on tea party support to beat longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary. “I talk to them about how important the race is and what’s at stake,” Smith said.

It’s a similar approach that Democratic volunteer Doris Fields has been taking in the hundreds of calls she made from an Indianapolis field office. Her calls have been targeted less to reliable Democratic voters and more to the unlikely voters — independents and people who’ve voted sporadically in the past.

“I just tell them, ‘every vote counts,’ said Fields, a grandmother of five and longtime campaign volunteer. But she doesn’t just stop there.

“I tell them: You should vote. It’s your civic duty,” Fields said. “If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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