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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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?
“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.”
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.