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Election volunteers in big last-minute push for turnout

After tens of millions of dollars spent to sway Pennsylvania voters, the high-stakes campaigns rest on the shoulders of armies of volunteers charged with getting supporters to the polls Tuesday.

It’s the last bulwark for Democrats, whose voters outnumber Republicans by 1.2 million in the state. For Republicans, it’s the final step in a comeback that began after crushing defeats in 2006 and 2008 and could culminate in regaining control of governorships, state legislatures and Congress.

The parties’ operations transformed in recent years into sophisticated, technology-driven enterprises.

President Obama’s former campaign, retooled into an arm of the Democratic Party, combines teams of neighborhood volunteers with databases, bar-coded address lists and smartphone applications to direct canvassers to the homes of likely supporters whenever they have time.

Republicans integrated their voter database with a voice-over-Internet phone system that allows volunteers to rate likely supporters in need of an extra nudge to get out on Election Day.

“We are putting together the biggest and most effective grassroots operation in the history of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania,” said Luke Bernstein, executive director of the state party. The party opened 25 offices across the state and spent the summer compiling lists of likely supporters.

“We made more than 2 million contacts,” which is more than in 2008, the party’s previous record year, Bernstein said. “In an off-presidential year, it’s amazing. We are shattering internal grassroots records.”

The voter contacts take place with the help of a centralized computer system. Volunteers call a voter in the computer’s database using a voice-over-Internet service that’s routed through the same computer system.

They ask a series of questions to gauge the voter’s level of support for Republican candidates, and record that support level with the push of a button. That information is automatically uploaded into the computer system with the voter’s phone number so canvassers can target the homes of voters who support the GOP, but might be wavering on whether to come out to vote. About 5,000 volunteers are expected to work election day.

“It is really becoming more of a science than an art,” Bernstein said.

Democrats collect similar information from supporters, but the organization is set up differently.

Obama’s campaign created the Democratic canvassing model in 2007 and 2008, recruiting volunteers to run phone banks and canvasses in neighborhoods. During 2009 and 2010, strategists used the organization to advocate for initiatives such as the health care overhaul. This year, about 13,000 volunteers have contacted nearly 1.5 million voters.

The idea behind the neighborhood-level organization is that voters trust people they know.

Tina Henderson’s neighbors might not know the Democratic or Republican candidates, but they know her.

“They feel as though they have a relationship — a personal relationship,” said Henderson, 49, of Stanton Heights. The first person she spoke to during a canvass one recent Saturday morning was a woman she met because their children go to school together. She asked her neighbors if they know where their polling place is, and whether they’ll need a ride on Election Day.

As Henderson made her way down Hawthorne Street in Stanton Heights, she walked up to the same house as Bett Beeson, 66, of Indiana Township. Beeson, a Sierra Club member, was working off the same street list as Henderson, but handing out literature solely for Senate candidate Joe Sestak, a Democratic congressman from Delaware County.

Sestak’s homemade voter turnout operation beat the Democratic Party once this year, when he won the primary election over party-backed Sen. Arlen Specter. He kept the operation in place — with 25 offices and 15,000 volunteers — instead of relying on the party.

Both sides are focusing on voters who typically don’t vote in midterm elections. Republicans are trying to capitalize on GOP enthusiasm this year to drive up turnout, and Democrats are trying to energize the mass of voters they registered during 2008 to make sure those gains aren’t squandered.

Unions, such as the Service Employees International Union and AFL-CIO, are trying to close the gap in enthusiasm between Republicans and Democrats, reflected in polling.

“Kitchen table issues — you’re worried about paying for your health insurance, paying your rent, paying your mortgage bills — when you’re struggling with those things, it creates a lot of apathy around the electoral process,” said Gabe Morgan, the SEIU’s state council president.

A personal contact from a fellow union member can change that, Morgan said. About 1,000 SEIU members were expected to hit the streets during the campaigns’ final days.

Tea Party activists mobilized to put up yard signs in three targeted congressional districts for GOP candidates Mike Kelly of Butler, Keith Rothfus of Edgeworth and Tim Burns of Eighty-Four, said Patti Weaver, organizer of Pittsburgh Tea Party events. The group teamed with American Majority, a Virginia-based group that trains conservative activists, to set up canvassing operations.

“We’re encouraging people to make calls and be involved in their neighborhoods,” Weaver said. “We are doing everything we can do.”


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