Big stakes, small target

1 in 27 Dems likely to vote

Staff writerJune 13, 2010 

The Senate campaigns of Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham are in the hunt for that most elusive of prey - the Democrat who plans to vote in the June 22 runoff.

There are 2.7 million registered Democratic voters in North Carolina, but only a few more than 100,000 are expected to choose the next Democratic Senate nominee. That's about one out of every 27 registered Democrats.

Reaching such a small group of voters through a mass medium such as TV is like going after a mosquito with a shotgun. So the Democratic primary runoff campaign has been conducted through telephone lines, the U.S. mail and computere-mail messages aimed at a select group of voters. In some ways, the race has marked a return to the sort of old-fashioned grass-roots politics of the pre-television age.

Both campaigns have set up boiler-room operations across the state - in Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, Lexington, Asheville, the Triad and elsewhere - where every night the calls go out to prospective voters.

The candidate with the best ground operation is likely to emerge the winner of the runoff. There were 425,343 people who voted in the first Democratic primary on May 4, which Marshall led with 36 percent of the vote, followed by Cunningham with 27 percent. But only a fraction of those voters is expected to turn out for the runoff.

Cunningham, a former state senator from Lexington, appeared on a recent night at the Raleigh headquarters of the N.C. Association of Educators, where one of his phone banks was operating. He gave a pep talk to his supporters.

"The most effective way to reach people in this campaign is to call them and ask them for their vote," Cunningham told eight volunteers.

Calls likely

In fact, most of the 100,000 or so voters will probably get a call from both campaigns before the runoff election - if they haven't already. With only a modest amount of interest in the primary, volunteers are using every trick to energize voters.

Cheryl Ellis of Fuquay-Varina uses President Barack Obama and the heated Wake County school diversity issue to generate interest in Cunningham.

"The one thing I find is when I mention President Obama and the fact that he supports Cal running, that really piques a lot of people's interest," said Ellis, who also mentions to potential voters it was low Democratic turnout that resulted in a Republican takeover of the Wake County School board last year.

Every Tuesday, five to six people meet in Ellis' house and make 150 to 200 calls for Cunningham, she said. Cunningham is banking on a public opinion poll that suggests his supporters feel more strongly about him than Marshall's backers view her.

Cunningham is also relying on organizational support from groups that have endorsed him, such as the Teamsters, the Sierra Club and the NCAE, the major teachers' lobby.

A few blocks away from the NCAE is Marshall's campaign headquarters, on the second floor of a former dot-com company. The office is in the warehouse district over a bar that doesn't open until 11 p.m.

There, volunteers read from a script in their telephone pitch: "I'm supporting Elaine Marshall for U.S. Senate because I know that she can beat Richard Burr, and more importantly, I know she'd be a great senator."

The voter contact operation is headed by Jim Spencer, a Boston consultant who has worked in every presidential campaign since 1980. He likens the Marshall effort to a miniature version of the Obama presidential campaign.

Old-fashioned grass-roots politics are Spencer's specialty. He was political director for U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy for 10 years. The presidential campaign of John Kerry parachuted Spencer into Iowa in 2004 at the end of the Democratic caucus to shore up his organization.

The Marshall goal is to contact 100,000 voters by June 18, Spencer said. During the effort, the campaign needs 25 callers a day.

Those contacted are people who voted in three of the past four elections, similar to the criteria used by the Cunningham campaign.

The Marshall campaign is using new telephone dialing technology, in which all the targeted callers are loaded into the system. If there is no answer, a message is left and the next person on the list is automatically called. No dialing is necessary. Spencer said that allows 50 calls to be placed in an hour rather than the normal 20 to 30.

Then, having identified a list voters likely to support Marshall, the campaign will be able to contact them again and encourage them to go to the polls. In the case of some urban neighborhoods, the campaign will help voters get to the polls.

Black support

Marshall is counting on strong support in the African-American community, which is expected to make up about 30 percent of the primary vote. She has, for example, won the endorsement of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and key black leaders throughout the state.

"It's old-fashioned campaigning," Spencer said. "It's the way campaigns have always been won. People convince people. It's people talking to people to convince people. It is how Barack Obama was so successful."

"It is particularly effective when you have someone turning negative on you," Spencer added.

He was referring to several mailings by the Cunningham campaign that criticize Marshall's record. The Cunningham campaign says it is simply drawing a contrast between the two candidates, while the Marshall campaign says the mailings seem designed to suppress the turnout of Marshall's voters.

It is the gospel in the Marshall camp that in a low-turnout election, older voters and women - including many Marshall backers - are most likely to turn out. But nobody knows for sure how many voters will show up.

Gary Bartlett, the elections board director, said turnout in runoffs has ranged between highs of 8 percent and lows of 2.5 percent since he became director in 1993. An 8 percent turnout would be 215,000 voters, and a 2.5 percent turnout would be 67,500.

Bartlett said an educated guess would be a 6 percent turnout, or 162,000 voters.

As of late last week, 10,394 early Democratic votes had been cast.

"A lot of people are on vacation," said Thomas Mills, a Marshall consultant. "It's probably about the worst time we could have an election right now."

News researcher David Raynor contributed to this story. or 919-829-4532

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