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Getting Out The Vote A More Challenging Task In The Midterms


The ground game - it's a phrase that political types throw around the day before an election. It's the get-out-the-vote operation and it's more challenging during midterm elections. In recent years Democrats have rolled out a sophisticated ground game to identify potential supporters and get them to the polls, but this year Republicans have poured money and people into this effort like never before.

NPR's Don Gonyea joins us now from Iowa. Hi, Don.


SIEGEL: First, let's set the scene here. Tell us how much lower voter turnout is in a midterm election like this one as opposed to presidential year.

GONYEA: Well, here's what Republicans in Iowa have been saying this week in advance. For every four voters who turned out in 2012, only three will vote this year. Nationally if you look at, it the drop off is even larger from presidential to nonpresidential years and it's also something President Obama talked about in his event this past weekend. He was campaigning in Detroit. Give a listen.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So look, Michigan - you've had my back twice. You've had my back twice. I love this state but here's the problem - in recent years, Michigan has led the nation and the number of voters who vote for president, but then stay home during the midterms.

GONYEA: And particularly this year that's bad news for Democrats, even with their generally superior voter turnout operations because it looks like this year the voting populace will be older, whiter, better-off financially - and that tends to favor Republicans.

SIEGEL: So if Republicans are more likely to vote, what does that mean for GOP turnout efforts? Does it mean that they have an easier job?

GONYEA: Well, easier in the sense that their voters are more likely to turn out, but it doesn't mean all of their voters are likely to turn out every time and the Republicans say there are votes out there to be gotten and they have to get them. The key is identifying the right households for targeting. The party itself has launched what it says is its biggest and most advanced, technologically, turnout effort. They're definitely trying to close the gap the Democrats have long enjoyed there, but something else is new this year. Outside conservative groups are trying to do what Democratic allies such as the labor movement and environmental groups have long done.

SIEGEL: Well, where you are in Iowa, how is this newly competitive world playing out in the Senate race there?

GONYEA: The big new player here in Iowa, as far as the outsider groups go, is Americans for Prosperity. People know that group. It's the political organization backed by the Koch brothers. Here's what their director told me - January of 2012, before the last election, they had two people in the AFP office here. Today, 36 paid staffers, 125 volunteers on the ground this week. They're going to rural counties as well as cities. They're all wearing Ronald Reagan T-shirts.

Now, you compare that to the Iowa Democrats, it's much smaller. Saturday alone, the Iowa Democrats had 2,500 volunteers out knocking on 185,000 doors, but again, this is an outside group that's trying to play in this place in a big way.

SIEGEL: Now, we should note that early voting has been underway and in Iowa it's estimated that as many as a third of the votes have already been cast. They've been voting for a month. What impact does that have on the ground game?

GONYEA: Well, it lets us know that it's not just Election Day. It's Election Month and campaigns and these outside groups have put a lot of attention on getting people to turn out early. You get a vote - in Iowa they could start voting September 25 - you get a vote in then, you don't have to worry about it the rest of the way. Ultimately though, it's a reminder that increasingly it's possible for an election to be won or lost well before Election Day itself.

SIEGEL: OK Don. I'll talk you tomorrow night.

GONYEA: Indeed. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Don Gonyea talking with us from Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.