Wall Street Journal: Activists Pour Cash Into Voter Turnout
DENVER—In a tight election where voter turnout could be crucial, a new force is sending people door to door to try to get conservatives to the polls.
Conservative groups, most notably Americans for Prosperity, are spending millions of dollars to ensure that as many supporters as possible cast a ballot. Their efforts, echoing voter drives by unions and other Democratic-leaning groups, represent a new X-factor in the presidential race. Many of the groups barely existed in 2008 and until now had largely focused their spending on television ads.
Americans for Prosperity, founded by the industrialist Koch brothers, says it now has more than 100 paid field workers nationwide and about 5,000 volunteers to go door to door. The group plans to spend $130 million this year on all activities, up from $14 million four years ago.
That makes it one of the biggest conservative interest groups involved in the election, boosting the combined get-out-the-vote effort of Mitt Romney’s campaign and the Republican National Committee, which together have 600 paid staffers.
In 2008, Americans for Prosperity—which promotes less regulation and lower government spending—had two full time employees in Virginia focused on the election. This year, it has seven. In the key states of Florida and Ohio, the group employs more than 30 workers combined.
The effectiveness of official party voter-turnout operations is hard to assess amid competing claims. President Barack Obama’s campaign won’t detail its number of paid staff but says it has more offices in key states than the Romney camp. The Romney campaign, in turn, calls the Obama operations inefficient.
Polling suggests the two sides aren’t far apart in their ability to reach voters. According to the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, about 38% of people said they had been contacted by the Obama campaign to vote for the president, while 34% said they have been asked by the Romney campaign to vote for the Republican.
That leaves outside groups on both sides as potential game changers. In prior elections, labor unions helped Democrats by sending workers and volunteers to the doors of millions of union employees to encourage them to vote. This election, most unions say they are focused more on campaigns for Congress.
Groups on the right are moving in the opposite direction. In the 2008 campaign, Americans for Prosperity didn’t have much of a ground operation. This year, it says its field operation has 2.1 million active members and hopes to reach out to some nine million individuals
Throughout 2012, the group’s political hands have gone door to door to visit both its own members and people it believes might be open to its message of opposition to Mr. Obama’s economic policies. Beginning this week, they will encourage their members to vote by sending mailings and making phone calls.
“I look at them as an emerging powerhouse in American politics,” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.
On a recent day in Denver, volunteer door-knocker Debbie Brown found an undecided voter at home. Holly Byers, who used to work in financial services, told her: “I have a problem because the economy is really important to me, but I have to balance that with women’s issues, which are also important to me.”
Ms. Byers said she gets 10 phone calls a day from campaigns and interest groups and too many mailers to count. Still, for Ms. Brown and other volunteers from Americans for Prosperity, she spent 10 minutes talking on her front step during a chilly rainstorm. Ms. Byers in the end remained undecided, but Ms. Brown saw a chance to win her over. “It was a really good positive touch,” Ms. Brown said later.
Americans for Prosperity is one of dozens of conservative and liberal groups targeting voters in battleground states with calls, mailings and visits.
These groups have played a growing role since a 2002 law curbed the ability of the parties to raise big sums for voter turnout work.
On the Democratic side, labor unions are targeting working-class men, among others, by sending hundreds of volunteers to their homes in states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. On a recent day in Cleveland, volunteers from unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO knocked on doors in support of Mr. Obama and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters visited a steel plant to campaign to their members during a lunch break.
Due to a change in election rules, unions now are permitted to use a greater amount of their election spending on contacting individuals who aren’t members. In the past, they focused more on union households.
Meantime, Naral Pro-Choice America is looking to woo back women dissatisfied with Mr. Obama. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters also are targeting people to vote for Democrats.
Groups on the right are just as aggressive. In Ohio, some conservative voters are getting a one-two punch from the fiscally conservative FreedomWorks and the socially conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Gary Marx of the Faith & Freedom Coalition said the goal is to boost the number of Ohio social conservatives who vote by as much as two percentage points. In 2008, Mr. Obama won Ohio by 4.6%.
Topping them all is Americans for Prosperity, which in some ways is an unlikely Romney ally. In the past, the group has opposed GOP candidates as well as Democrats who don’t adequately oppose government spending and promote free markets.
Because Americans for Prosperity was created as a tax-exempt organization it is prohibited from telling people to vote for Mr. Romney or other candidates, or to vote against Mr. Obama. Instead, it has identified people who likely oppose Mr. Obama’s economic policies. It has spent more than $60 million on ads and social media criticizing these policies and those of other Democrats. Now it is trying to get backers to the polls.
“All we are doing is urging people to do their civic duty and vote,” said Tim Phillips, the organization’s president.
On Wednesday, nine volunteers gathered at the group’s Denver office on the first floor of an office park. “We’re not holding water for the Republican Party,” Leslie White, a field director, reminded the group before sending them off with rosters of households to visit. “We do not promote Mitt Romney; we promote the failed policies of the current president.”
The volunteers, all female that day, wore white T-shirts with green block lettering that read “FREEDOM FIGHTER.”
In an interview, Ms. White said that if she provides voters with “the facts, then they are going to make educated decisions.”
The group employs seven full-time political organizers in Colorado, a swing state, up from just one in the 2008 election.
Since starting its work a few weeks ago the group has visited 17,000 households in Arapahoe County and thousands more in conservative parts of Colorado Springs. Two weekends ago, it bused in 200 volunteers from Oklahoma to visit households.