GARY, Ind. -- Johnie Jennings raps on the storm door of a small white house on Louisiana Street in this former steel town. On a recent Saturday morning, no one in this neighborhood of alternately shabby and spruced-up houses is eager to rush to the door.
"Are you going to vote early?" she calls through the door to Danny Dalworth. Jennings' jacket is purple and yellow, the colors of the Service Employees International Union. Her voter list tells her that Dalworth, 60, supports Democrat Barack Obama, whom the union has endorsed. "Do you need a ride? Everybody in the household going to be voting?"
In the last days of the presidential campaign, battlegrounds such as Indiana, Florida, Virginia and Colorado are thick with political foot soldiers: Democrats such as Jennings — "You've got to have on comfortable shoes and be ready to talk," she says — and Republicans such as Anne Voss, a retired political consultant organizing canvassers at GOP nominee John McCain's headquarters in Tampa.
"It definitely is a close election," says Voss, who trains poll watchers for Election Day. "There's a sense of urgency we need to do everything we can."
Thousands of new voter registrations and reams of opinion polls won't mean much if campaigns can't get voters to actually vote. Get-out-the-vote efforts, known as the "ground game," are the final, crucial act in the political drama of electing a president.
This year, such efforts are marked in contrasts: A well-equipped Democratic effort is using a big-tent approach, trying to take advantage of the surge in registered voters — particularly young people — who identify themselves as Democrats.
Meanwhile, Republicans — historically outnumbered by Democrats but more likely to show up at the polls — are hoping the finely tuned turnout machine that boosted President Bush's re-election in 2004 by targeting certain voters will help McCain and the GOP overcome Bush's rock-bottom approval ratings.
Supported by Obama's well-funded campaign, Democrats are dispatching thousands of volunteers to key states, using voter databases of their own to target areas rich with potential votes.
Democrats are trying to improve on a database trend pioneered by Republicans, whose get-out-the-votes are crucial to identifying supporters — especially independents — in a nation where Republicans have lagged in party registration. Since 1988, Democrats have made up about 37% of the nation's registered voters, compared with about 26% for Republicans.
In 2004, the quality of GOP efforts outstripped the Democrats' superior numbers, says Donald Green, a Yale University professor who studies get-out-the-vote efforts. This year, Obama has the money edge: He began the final month of the campaign with about $134 million in the bank compared with McCain's $47 million for October, according to campaign-finance reports.
The candidates are supported by spending from allies: The AFL-CIO and unions such as the SEIU are kicking in a combined $335 million for Obama, and the Republican National Committee is able to tap $59 million in the bank to help McCain.
Green says it's become clear that Democrats have improved their ability to target voters who are likely to support them. Obama also enjoys more intense support, Green says, which translates into committed volunteers and motivated voters.
"I'm not sure the McCain campaign will be able to keep up with them in terms of scale," Green says. However, "both sides are light-years ahead of where they were in 2000. The amount of energy and resources that are being devoted to voter mobilization is unprecedented."
Since Labor Day, the Obama campaign says, it has talked to 12 million voters through phone banks and canvassing. "I most definitely think (Republicans) do not have the edge this time," says Jon Carson, Obama's national field director.
The campaign has 1.5 million volunteers "in every corner of every state," he says. "We're working incredibly hard to build a neighborhood organization."
Republicans say they have set records for the number of voters contacted so far and for the number of volunteers mobilized — about 1.1 million.
"We have made … more voter contacts via that volunteer army to date than we did through the entire 2004 cycle," says Chris McNulty, the GOP's political director for the Great Lakes region, which includes Indiana.
In the coming days, the GOP will deploy 1,000 paid staffers to 16 battleground states to aid McCain, party chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan says.
"Our organization could make the difference in the end," he says. "We can't win the election for a campaign, but we can help a campaign win the election."
The Republican effort will culminate in a "72-hour program" of phone calls just before the polls open, including door knocking, poll watching and making sure people who requested absentee ballots returned them.
The clock starts this weekend. "We're counting noses and making sure we're where we need to be. You don't want to just show up on Tuesday morning and I hand you a list and say, 'Call these people,' " says Gerry Scimeca, spokesman for the Virginia GOP.
"It's like a wedding party — there's a lot of planning that goes into a couple hours for the bride and groom."
Focusing the missions
The heart of get-out-the-vote efforts are the voter databases.
Both Republicans and Democrats increasingly rely on sophisticated databases that track individual voters, how they vote, how they're registered, where they live and other information that political operatives don't want to detail.
This allows campaigns to tailor messages to specific groups of voters in hopes of hitting them on issues they care most about.
"The Republicans had a leg up for many cycles and understood the value of (target voter) modeling," says Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO, which primarily helps Democrats. "Our side has caught up."
The GOP version is called Voter Vault. The Democrats use Catalist, from a company founded by Clinton White House veteran Harold Ickes.
In 2004, "our lists were terrible, micro-targeting was something we had barely heard of, our grass-roots operation in the field was practically non-existent," says Anna Burger, SEIU's secretary-treasurer. This year, the union is armed with the Catalist database and seeks to contact all of its 2 million members. "We do that much more effectively than we've ever done before," she says.
Now, the database allows the AFL-CIO to send mailings specifically targeted at retirees, military veterans and gun owners among its membership, Ackerman says.
Part of the ground-game challenge is addressing issues such as the AFL-CIO flier that addresses one veteran's preference for Vietnam veteran McCain instead of his union's choice of Obama.
Campaigns discredit pre-election shenanigans, such as a letter sent out in Virginia's Hampton Roads urging Democrats to vote Wednesday — after Election Day.
In Gary, where the SEIU, Obama campaign and local Democrats are all canvassing voters, there are worries about the legitimacy of voter-registration cards filled out by representatives of ACORN, an advocacy group that ran a registration drive in the city.
Nearly one-third of ACORN's 1.3 million voter registrations in about a dozen states have turned out to be faulty, according to the group, which has blamed temporary workers trying to boost their pay. Of those faulty registrations, about 1.5% are believed to be fraudulent. The FBI is investigating the group's activities in states such as Ohio, New Mexico and Missouri.
Despite the sophistication of the Republican effort, the Obama campaign's sheer size and its spending have allowed Democrats to mount challenges in states long considered GOP locks. Take Virginia, which — like Indiana — hasn't backed a Democrat for president in 44 years.
Four years ago, although he knew Northern Virginia was trending Democratic, John Kerry abandoned the state by Labor Day to direct money elsewhere, says Scott Surovell, Democratic chairman of Fairfax County.
"In 2004, the Democratic presidential campaign in my part of the country was me," he says. "I did what I could."
This year, he said, Fairfax has "15 field offices, two dozen paid staff and an unbelievable number of unpaid, full-time volunteers." Statewide, the Democrats have 69 offices and the GOP has 30.
Scimeca says Republican volunteers are "coming in from Texas, Maryland, Connecticut looking to help out in Virginia. They realize it's a critical state."
The 'quiet faithful'
There's a reason political campaigns need bodies. Even with targeting lists, the rule of thumb is one vote gained for every 12 houses visited, Green says.
"You can be out for a couple hours and talk to maybe eight people," says Elizabeth Posner, a Chicago stay-at-home mom who spends her weekends canvassing for Obama.
The Obama campaign's use of interactive websites and social networking tools to sign up volunteers is light-years ahead of what Carson says he had in Wisconsin in 1998, during Democrat Russ Feingold's Senate campaign.
"I was given a paper list of about a dozen volunteers to start with, and the only new volunteers I got were people who wandered by our office when it was open," Carson says.
A key change, he says, is that everything every volunteer does is now tracked.
"Every bit of voter contact one of our volunteers does is entered into our central database," he says. "I know right down to the precinct level how many people are working for us." He also knows how many voters a volunteer has won over.
Republicans say their targeting techniques give them an edge in delivering voters. According to the McCain campaign, the GOP candidate's top domestic policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, reported that his Virginia home was canvassed by Obama volunteers last weekend. McCain's campaign says that suggests Obama canvassers might be wasting time talking with people who will vote for McCain.
"We know who we need to get to, we know what motivates them, and we know whether they have voted," says Kevin DeWine, deputy chairman of the Ohio GOP. He describes GOP volunteers — "the quiet party faithful" — in similar terms. "We now have people conditioned and trained: 'It's an election year; I need to be at my county victory center making phone calls.' "
Nonetheless, volunteers are willing to go the distance.
In suburban Denver, Chuck Joy, 58, is temporarily living with his parents so he can volunteer for the Republican ground game.
"I've been walking precincts, asking people if they want to vote by mail," Joy says. He says it's harder than he expected. The campaign gave him a list of voters to visit, but few were home. He planned to go back in the early evening to reach more.
In Indianapolis, Sonia Cook goes twice a week to a phone bank run by the AFL-CIO. Every other weekend, instead of babysitting her grandchildren, she canvasses door-to-door.
Cook has plenty of time to help, she notes, because she was laid off from her foundry job in July. "You know how a lot of people sit and complain and complain? Something — bam! — hit me on the head. Well, what am I doing about it?" she says. "Hopefully, if Barack Obama wins, I'll feel like I had a part in it."
Voter registration changes
Republicans and Democrats have registered more voters this year because of heightened interest in the presidential election. Changes by party in selected battleground states from the 2004 election:
As of Oct. 28. Source: secretaries of State