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DFL primary countdown: After lengthy air war, can Kelliher's ground assault change the game?

A less-than-glamorous war room in a frayed building just south of Lake Street provides the launching pad for thousands of calls.
MinnPost photos by Jay Weiner
A less-than-glamorous war room in a frayed building just south of Lake Street provides the launching pad for thousands of calls.

The jabber from a score of simultaneous phone conversations filled the cramped room that houses an overheated call center. The noise was a buzz, a hum, a sort of get-out-the-vote vuvuzela.

Wide-screened computer monitors sat in front of each volunteer, sophisticated software dialing equipment targeted potential voters, a script ready for every caller.

A palpable sense of urgency mixed with the humidity. In the adjoining desk-filled rooms other phones — perhaps 40 all told — were in action, and other meetings under way.

It was as if this were the final quarter of a playoff game, the team was down by a touchdown, and a come-from-behind victory was in sight, was assumed — was, surely, hoped-for.

One night earlier this week, a less-than-glamorous war room in a frayed building just south of Lake Street in Minneapolis' Longfellow neighborhood provided the launching pad for thousands of calls — up to 10,000 per day — to support hundreds of door-knockings under way in other parts of the state.

This is what a major front of the Aug. 10 primary election ground war looks like. This was a bunker for the paid and volunteer army of DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and they were engaged and doing battle.

After months of a shock-and-awe air war waged on TV screens from Ada to Zumbrota by Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza — one in which each of the challengers to Kelliher has spent so far about $2 million on advertising — the ground game of each candidate is now kicking in.

Going door to door or speaking on the phone with a likely voter "is the most effective contact with the voter," said Jaime Tincher, Kelliher's campaign manager. "Studies have shown when voters are asked, 'Why did you vote for someone?' the answer is: 'Because somebody asked me to.' In Minnesota you have to earn your support."

Jaime Tincher, center, shown speaking with Margaret Anderson Kelliher's running mate John Gunyou.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Jaime Tincher, center, shown speaking with Margaret Anderson Kelliher's running mate, John Gunyou.

And that is where the campaign for the nomination of the DFL party to face Republican Tom Emmer and an Independence Party hopeful stands right now … squarely on the ground, not in the air.

The numbers
Kelliher's field staff is the most robust of the three by far, aided by the DFL organizational infrastructure and resources garnered by her official endorsee status. Entenza has attempted to challenge that on-the-ground operation, led by Dave Colling, who directed Keith Ellison's first campaign in 2006. Dayton's "ground game" efforts seem to be dwarfed by the other two, but he has great name recognition and an archive of past voters and supporters that he's relying on.

According to James Haggar, the manager of the DFL's coordinated statewide campaign with Kelliher at the top of the ticket, the party has eight regional field directors working for her, and they each have a total of 43 organizers working for them. Tincher and Haggar are still hiring. More than 2,400 people have already volunteered for the Kelliher campaign, and they've worked more than 14,000 shifts, making calls, dropping literature.

The DFL effort has contacted 1.6 million people this year, via phone or door-to-door since the April endorsing convention, Haggar said.

Colling said that Entenza's campaign has more than 30 staff on board, along with door-knocking canvassers. Each field staff has "dozens" of steady volunteers with about a half-dozen call centers statewide. Entenza makes 8,000 to 10,000 calls a day, Colling said, keeping pace with Kelliher.

Katharine Tinucci, Dayton's deputy campaign manager, said her campaign has been phone calling "for months." But a get-out-the-vote picnic Wednesday night at Como Park was Dayton's first GOTV effort; Tinucci reported that about 150 to 200 people showed up. Dayton's full-time field staff is about 10, including an Iron Range field director, said Tinucci. The campaign has no high-tech phone software but has developed its own call sheets.

Mark Dayton
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Mark Dayton

Wednesday, a visitor to Dayton's St. Paul campaign headquarters saw a chart with a goal of making 2,500 phone calls by Saturday. Kelliher's DFL-backed volunteers make four times that many calls every day.

So, with 12 days to go, the ground war is one that Kelliher's generals believe — polls aside — they are winning, mostly because, as Tincher puts it — Petraeus-like — they have "the assets."

Targeting
Geographic targeting is one thing. All of the candidates know which precincts and wards lean heavily DFL. But in an election in which only one in 10 typical voters will head to the polls, geography won't be the most exacting method of turning out the vote.

Tincher was one of the data gurus during the 2008 U.S. Senate recount when Al Franken's campaign and legal team adroitly executed a successful absentee ballot hunt and harvest. Now — using voter data from the secretary of state's voter history, open to all candidates, but aided by invaluable internal DFL data about voter preferences over the past three election cycles — Kelliher's campaign has a leg up on targeting its voters.

In a primary in which as few as 300,000 DFL voters might turn out, Tincher and Haggar have information on who are "the hardest of the hard core" DFL backers, said Jeff Blodgett, Paul Wellstone's former campaign manager and Barack Obama's state director in 2008.

Dayton has his own large lists from previous statewide runs, but not as extensive or recent as Kelliher's. Dayton's field director, Adam Prock, is a data freak, too, and said with some confidence, "We're not flying completely blind."

Said Entenza's Colling: "I feel very comfortable with what our data show us … We've spent months and months since the winter calling voters to figure out who is voting in the primary."

Matt Entenza
MinnPost/Joe Kimball
Matt Entenza

These final days aren't only about the DFL's organization and data, Colling said. A campaign is a unified symphony of movements — the candidate, air, mail, web messages, field operations — and Colling thinks Entenza's has been the most holistically crafted of all the candidates.

"It depends on what your plan is," Colling said, with Entenza's driven by TV ads and mailings that raised his recognition factor and an early field operation.

Tincher's strategy — because of having far less funding than Entenza and Dayton until now — has been more conventional. She and Haggar laid the foundation for this final ground push, targeting the most loyal DFL voters, and now, finally, that's being supplemented by a huge uptick in Kelliher's TV buys.

Indeed, Kelliher volunteers had been hearing from potential voters in June and early July that she was missing-in-action on the airwaves and that Dayton and Entenza were grabbing their attention.

But with her TV spots beginning to air July 12, "There was really a distinct change of the conversations we were having," said Suzy Bates, Kelliher's Minneapolis field director.

Does Kelliher have enough time, a strong enough message and a powerful enough ground game to overcome the Dayton lead that polls have shown?

Turnout
"I think that organization can make the difference in this primary," said Blodgett, executive director of Wellstone Action!, who is not working for any candidates but is working with other groups, such as TakeAction Minnesota, to defeat Republican Tom Emmer. "Now, that's not a prediction, it's just what I know, and I believe in that kind of politics. It's the right way to do things and, I think, a winning style … If field [operations] wind up being the 'x' factor, Margaret's campaign has the advantage."

Jeff Blodgett
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Jeff Blodgett

The "if" is turnout. The August date is the wild card. So is the three-way struggle for the DFL spot. The huge student turnout of 2008 for Obama and, to a lesser extent, for Franken won't be there; colleges aren't in session.

Blodgett is not alone with this analysis: The lower the turnout, the better for Kelliher; the higher the turnout, the better for Dayton.

The Kelliher campaign, with its targeting, can confidently identify its block of voters. And with its gaggle of volunteers, Kelliher and the DFL can deliver voters to their polling places via rides and Election Day reminders.

Thus, the theory goes, the smaller the overall turnout — and the fewer the number of unknown voters — the larger the percentage of Kelliher's hard-core voters.

But if there are surprisingly more voters than expected on primary day, if Dayton's name recognition drives otherwise dormant voters to their polling places or if Entenza's outreach — with running mate Robyne Robinson — drives newer voters, then that could mean the arrival of "slightly less engaged DFL voters," Blodgett said. To that point, Entenza's campaign is heavily promoting a "Hip Hop Action Day" four days before the election to lure new and younger voters. Less engaged means less predictable.

The arrival at the voting booth of people who aren't guaranteed DFL loyalists or who weren't involved in the party's endorsing process might favor Dayton or Entenza as the number of voters grows and Kelliher's targeted group is, relatively speaking, diminished.

But no one knows.

"There's not much left in the campaign," said Colling, "other than getting your voters out. It's gonna be about whose voters come out. It's gonna be a matter of who can make the most contacts that day."

Thus, the ground war is on.

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Comments (24)

I would not agree with the assertion that lower turnout is beneficial to Kelliher. Dayton is a DFL legend and is well known and fondly remember by many rank-and-file DFL members for his outreach to senior citizens while he was a senator.

I think it would be naive to suggest that a long-time DFL voter would simply fall behind Kelliher in this particular contest against Dayton. He's probably one of the very few in the state that can successfully buck the endorsement.

"Blodgett is not alone with this analysis: The lower the turnout, the better for Kelliher; the higher the turnout, the better for Dayton."

Disagree. The higher the turnout, the better for Kelliher. That will mean that her effort to get the DFL troops out succeeded.

Dayton is big with the old folks - like me. And we have a better track record as far as getting out and voting. If voter turnout is low, our votes are disproportionately worth more.

I support any one of the DFL candidates rather than Emmer. It is pathetic that a major party endorsed him given his lack of understanding of the US constitution that has led him to numerous policy mistakes.

I have yet to receive a Margaret call, and that surprises me because I am very much on the DFL's lists. Part of that may be because I don't routinely answer the phone for which the DFL has a number. This also reflects a growing problem with a grassroots strategy; between the increasing use of phone ID, and cellphones, voters are getting harder to reach by phone each election cycle. The suspicion I have also is that the phones on Jaime's lists that are being answered belong to older voters who skew for Dayton.

There may be a useful distinction to be made between long time DFL voters, and longtime DFLer's. As someone who falls in the latter category, I am someone for whom the party endorsement means a lot.

DFL Primaries have always been won on the ground. Kelliher is doing what she has to.

The press rarely seems to understand this, so I have to thank Jay for an excellent article - unusual as it is.

I think I should clarify my earlier statement. I don't mean that the endorsement won't carry influence with the longtime members of the DFL. What I was trying to get at was that if there is anybody in the party that has the standing and reputation (and resources) to buck the endorsement and succeed, it would be someone like Mark Dayton.

And I agree Bill above; if the senior voting bloc turns out in disproportional ways, Dayton may have a significant edge in the primary.

Hiram, I generally support the party's endorsement. However, I wondered why Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza did not seek the endorsement this year. Was it because they understood how broken the system really is? MAG may appeal to the Super's, but I continue to doubt her appeal to the people. Her achievements as House Leader, with a Democrat majority, even before the last two years with TimPaw running for Prez, have been unremarkable. MAG won the party game. I am looking forward to seeing who win's the DFL gub primary.

The big question is can Margaret/DFL win statewide? I think Mark Dayton has a better shot at that. I am not an old person but am thinking of voting for Mark.

I'm a senior who has already voted via absentee ballot for Margaret. She is super-articulate and will bring her extensive legislative background and ability to work with others (even Republicans--no small feat)to the governor's office. She is by far the best of the three.

It doesn't hurt that she's a woman. Minnesota has been woefully lacking (until Amy) in supporting women for major political office.

Dayton's life-long and vigorous support for public education is another key factor in turnout. I'm a senior, but education is my issue and Dayton has my vote.

But I'll work fiercely for whichever Democratic candidate wins on the 10th. Mr. Gleason is dead right.

I don't know what I'll do if Kelliher wins the primary. It'll take at least two hands to hold my noise and vote for that in November :(

I think Sherry nails it on the head. Issues are important; however, electability is vital.

Mary says: "MAG may appeal to the Super's, but I continue to doubt her appeal to the people".
I think she'll have a tough row to hoe.

I also agree how the endorsement process can fail to put the strongest candidate forward. Although I do understand that Democracy is for those that show up and that is how the system works. But in this political climate, I think Rybak would have been the most effective candidate to go up against Emmer.

I agree with Joseph that Dayton is probably the only politician who can beat the DFL endorsement. If he had stayed in the endorsement contest and won --- and he had as good a chance as anyone --- he would be unbeatable in the primary, especially as every other candidate had pledged t abide by the endorsement in hopes of unifying the party for the general election.

Fortunately the campaign has been positive enough we still might pull it together. Perhaps that's an effect of relying on a ground game, where my sense is negative campaigning doesn't work. It's stronger to ask people to turn out for a candidate than to turn out against an opponent.

Eric--
It is not clear that Dayton would have received the endorsement had he sought it.
The nature of the DFL caucus system weights in in favor of DFL elected officials -- in other words -- state legislators ('super delegates').
That's why Kelliher got the nomination rather than Rybak (who would have been the stronger candidate).
Kelliher's strengths are more relevant to a local election than a statewide one (where Dayton's strength is).

And Marcia--
Exactly what women's issues has Kelliher taken a position on (other than her own election ;-)?

I think the reason that neither Dayton nor Entenza went for the DFL nomination is that they knew that the DFL did not want them. They had their turn and they have "baggage". John Marty tried but he had his turn and the "baggage", too. Dayton "quit", Entenza "cheated" and Marty "lost". All old history and skewed at that. Marty was my man. Yes, he lost in 1994 to a sitting, popular, republican governor. And all across the country Democrats lost their butts. This made Marty "unelectable". As Dayton is "unelectable" for leaving Congress and Entenza "unelectable" for spying on a fellow Democrat.

I think Dayton is our best bet now. The man has nothing to gain by being our Governor. Once elected, I doubt he'll be looking around at where to go next. I think he's committed to the people of Minnesota and that we'd be fools not to accept his offer. We need someone that's been kicked around and been around. And comes back swinging. We need a leader. Not a bipartisan wussy.

I'm voting Kelliher because she has the best resume. I love Dayton, but I think he's unelectable given the circumstances. Yeah, I like Entenza too, but the choice comes down to who can win in November. Kelliher deserves this.

Paul, please reread my comment. I never said it was clear Dayton would have won the endorsement. I said "he had as good a chance as anyone". You may be right that legislators leaned heavily toward Kelliher, but there aren't that many of them. They were maybe a tenth of the delegates. She couldn't have gotten the 60% for endorsement or even come close on just superdelegates, so she had broad support among the elected delegates. There is simply no way to get a convention endorsement otherwise.

It is extremely difficult to decide which DFL candidate will have the best chance in the Fall, if that is going to be the basis of your choice.

I had written off Entenza, but he put together an extremely impressive team lately.

There is also the Horner factor. Tom SEEMS to draw more people away from Kelliher than Dayton. My guess is that it is because she was in the lege. Don't ask me why this isn't held against Emmer.

So everyone vote your hunches or convictions. Any one of these candidates is a more than acceptable alternative to Emmer. I can't wait to see the winner direct his or her undivided attention to Mr. Emmer. The questions for Mr. Emmer are simple: Where are you going to cut and what do you know about the constitution?

If all the DFL has is "run against Bush" it's a joke. Even my fourteen year old riffed on that mantra.

Great discussion. I agree with the people criticizing the DFL endorsement process for skewing towards legislators & missing the opportunity to endorse the best candidate for the job (also agreeing that is Ryback, not the three the DFL is choosing among in the primary).

As a result, I'm leaning towards voting IP, again, because the DFL keeps offering mediocre to poor candidates. The Repubs, meanwhile, keep moving further & further towards irrational.

David Willard writes
"If all the DFL has is "run against Bush" it's a joke."

Not sure where that came from; Mr Willard is the only person to mention the former president on the whole thread.

"As a result, I'm leaning towards voting IP, again, because the DFL keeps offering mediocre to poor candidates."

Ditto.

I'm always amazed at how nice the DFL backers are to each other. Very rarely saying anything nasty about each other. The candidates do the same, doubly. But what amazes me even more is how nothing changes in the standings after the first pre-primary poll comes out. ... So why does the long non-fight go on? Millions spent on nudging each other around a bit and untold millions going to attack Bachman in a gauranteed DFL congressional loss. All that money should have been spent helping out a possible winner, or backing a shaky incumbent or backstopping the legislative majorities. DFL=Just can't learn.

@Bill Gleason (#19) -- The view that Horner would draw more DFL voters away from Kelliher than Dayton is not supported by poll results. You can see at http://www.startribune.com/politics/state/99695934.html that MAK is the only DFLer that Horner doesn't draw even support between Republican and DFL voters. If you're concerned with Horner pulling votes from the DFL candidate, then MAK is the best candidate to negate his effect on the general election's outcome.