ALBUQUERQUE -- In this battleground state, Jennifer Chadwell-Feld is already at war.
Chadwell-Feld, 58, dials voters from a small warehouse, gauging support for Republican presidential nominee John McCain and reminding them a vote Nov. 4 could be crucial in one of the nation's tightest swing states.
"Since you support McCain, would you be willing to volunteer for the campaign?" the volunteer says and records the answers, which will be entered into a computer. "Can we get you a yard sign?"
In New Mexico, where President Bush eked out a win in 2004 with less than 6,000 votes, the race between McCain and Democrat Barack Obama may depend as much on volunteers as any stump speech or television ad by the candidates.
Nearly 127,000 New Mexicans have registered to vote in the past year — a 12% increase — state election data show. Volunteers are engaged in a grass-roots effort to ensure supporters turn out to vote.
"We're just seeing intense mobilization efforts," says Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. "We've already had a lot of early voting turnout."
Energized by the idea that every vote may count, Jesse Cresdin, 21, an Obama volunteer, moves quickly through a neighborhood in Las Vegas, N.M. Obama is the first candidate he can recall opening an office in town, he says.
Obama has 39 campaign offices statewide, according to his campaign. McCain has 24, the state Republican Party says, but that includes Republican county offices.
"We're just making sure that everybody … is registered to vote," Cresdin, clipboard in hand, tells Alfred Marquez, 31, before handing him an "Obamanos" sticker, a play on Obama's name and the Spanish word vamonos, "let's go."
The get-out-the-vote effort was a major component of the 2004 presidential election, says Donald Green, a political science professor at Yale University. This year, as battle lines harden, campaigns rely more on those mobilization tactics, he says.
Volunteers call to ensure a voter supports their candidate. If the voter does, the volunteers follow up with phone calls and personal visits. Both campaigns keep computerized lists of the people they contact. About a week before Election Day, campaigns check in to make sure the voter turns out.
"Part of the reason you see resources shifting each election toward the ground game is that the ground is a steady investment whereas (advertising) is hit or miss," says Green, co-author of the book Get Out the Vote! "Its main advantage is that it generates votes at a fairly reliable pace."
Republicans mastered using marketing databases to target likely supporters and also have had members of certain demographics — outdoorsmen, for instance — call other members of that group. Democrats have adopted many of the same tactics, Green says. A well-organized get-out-the-vote effort can swing an election 3 percentage points, he says.
That slim advantage could be key in New Mexico, which supported Bush in 2004 but Al Gore — by 366 votes — in 2000. An Albuquerque Journal poll released Oct. 5 showed Obama with a 5-percentage point lead.
In 2004, Bush rallied voters in rural portions of the state, says Joe Monahan, who runs a political blog, joemonahan.com. That effort helped Republicans offset gains Democrats made in Albuquerque and other cities. This year, Monahan says, McCain is taking a similar path. "If he's going to win New Mexico, he's going to try to do it the same way George Bush did, a surge in the south," he says.
'A critical election'
Southern New Mexico is sparsely populated and defined by vast prairies. The region tends to support Republicans, past election results show. The north, the base of the Rocky Mountains, is a Democratic stronghold.
Forty-four percent of residents identified themselves as Hispanic in 2006, and nearly 10% said they are American Indian.
For Melanie Wood, 24, the state's battleground status compelled her to get involved. She suspended her studies and signed up to intern with the Obama campaign, working to register fellow students at the University of New Mexico.
Both parties emphasize absentee voting, which began Oct. 7 in New Mexico, and Wood says she helped send out 175,000 vote-by-mail applications. Volunteers follow up with those voters to make sure they turn those applications in. "It's definitely something that I felt like I needed to do work for, not just vote in," Wood says.
About 170 miles southeast of Albuquerque, in Roswell, N.M., Jeanette Schaffer, 44, is equally committed, but to McCain. She walked in to the campaign headquarters on Main Street in late September and has been calling voters ever since. It was the first time she volunteered for a campaign, she says.
"I'll do whatever they need me to do because I just think this is such a critical election," Schaffer says between phone calls. "I'm definitely going to make myself available."