Lopsided voter turnout in the primaries -- most recently in Wisconsin where 1.1 million Democrats voted, compared with 410,000 Republicans -- is being dismissed by many observers as an "enthusiasm gap": Democrats are more excited about their unique candidates, and are further motivated to vote by their desire to recapture the Oval Office.
"Enthusiasm has something to do with it," said John Norris, who was the Kerry-Edwards campaign's national field director in 2004 and is now an adviser to Barack Obama's organization. "But some of it is definitely the result of the higher organizational level."
This primary cycle, the Democratic presidential candidates, particularly Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have organized unprecedented grassroots campaigns -- hiring field organizers, opening local offices, and recruiting volunteers -- that dwarf those of their Republican rivals. In Iowa, for instance, Clinton had 400 field organizers on the ground before the caucus, whereas former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had 17. In New Hampshire, John McCain had three field offices; Obama had 16. Even in California -- where campaigns are usually waged almost exclusively through television ads -- Obama and Clinton set up dozens of field offices and recruited hundreds of volunteers, while McCain and Romney relied on regional campaign representatives to organize events.
Karen Hicks, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, echoes Norris's assessment. "There's more organizing going on on the Democratic side than there has really been ever," she said. "Absolutely, I think it's had an impact on turnout."
The Democratic campaigns could be seen flexing their organizational muscle in Wisconsin, where severe weather made staging events difficult. Clinton had to cancel a rally in Madison the Sunday before the February 19 primary because of a snowstorm. But her campaign was able to reschedule the event for the next night and still get more than 3,000 people to show up, said Meagan Mahaffey, executive director of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. "That's got to be more than people being excited."
Some partisan observers have questioned whether Democrats can maintain the higher voter-turnout levels. Hicks is adamant: "It just seems asinine to me [to think] that people are going to turn out in a primary and sit out a general election."
Still, Democrats have reason to be cautious, said Paul Manuel, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. "The grassroots is functioning with the Obama campaign most notably because Obama represents a completely new candidate and everybody sees that," he said. "He's reaching a whole segment of the population that isn't committed, not particularly informed about policy, and not particularly involved.
"If he were not to win the nomination, that might suppress voter turnout," Manuel said. "You're left with the traditional Democratic coalition."
Many observers point to the Obama campaign's success in turning out the youth vote, Hicks said, but for Clinton, "turnout among women is up anywhere from 4 to 6 points across the board."
"Whoever the Democratic nominee is, is going to energize different parts of the base," she said, adding that Clinton won heavily Republican counties in her 2006 Senate election in New York. "We expect her to have the same thing happen again," Hicks said.
Until recently, Democrats had moved away from grassroots campaigning, instead relying on paid advertising for persuasion while counting on unions and activist groups to bolster voter turnout. "You tend to get away from putting people on the ground" when you rely on outside organizational support, said Norris, who is credited with building one of the more intensive Democratic grassroots efforts during the 2004 campaign. "There was a period there in the 1970s and '80s when you reduced your [field] operation to GOTV."
He added, "The paid [advertising] piece is obviously still a big part of it, but we've gone back to using the field operation and volunteers, and the technology has made it so much more effective."
In the old days of campaigning, Norris recalled, organizers would have to record a voter's information on a three-part carbon-paper form. "Now you can go door to door with a BlackBerry, [upload the data], and send mail to them the next day," he said. "All that technology has allowed us to make a more intimate connection with the local voter, and that in turn is leading to greater turnout."
Hicks agrees: "We have an online calling tool that allows you to call your own neighbors from inside your own home."
One of the best examples of the Democrats' new focus on grassroots campaigning was in California, which on February 5 experienced the highest Democratic turnout since 1980. "This turnout was like people trying to get Oscar tickets," said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party. Both Obama and Clinton "had, like, a dozen-plus offices. They really put the effort in like it was Iowa or New Hampshire. They had people going door to door -- unheard-of in a primary," he said. California primary politicking "is mostly tarmac-to-tarmac, or maybe a meeting somewhere; talk to some union people."
In December, Mulholland went to the Clinton and Obama office openings in Sacramento. "Both had hundreds of people there; phone banks going. They had massive amounts of volunteers," he said. "They did more than anyone has probably ever done in a California presidential primary." That early effort will help the state party in the next election cycle, Mulholland said. "All this work was done for us -- so we'll be tapping into their whole [voter] list. It's a great organizing tool in 2007-08." Other states' parties will also be bolstered by the primary campaigns' efforts.
Hicks points to Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire -- purple states where the Democratic campaigns have organized most heavily. "We have created a base that the nominee is going to be able to go back and tap into," she said. "Those assets will still be there."
It takes months, even years, to build a grassroots effort, Manuel said. "The work they're doing now could produce results later. It's very useful. If they weren't doing the work now, two months before the general [election], there's no way they would be able to do it."
Still, he adds, the Republicans' organization shouldn't be written off. On the Democratic side, "the infrastructure isn't there," he said. "The Republicans are already in place, but they're silent right now."
Republicans have traditionally relied on such groups as the local business association to turn out the vote, Manuel said. "That's their bread and butter -- how much money do you need to spend to organize them? You just have to give a good speech and let them know how your policies benefit them. Republicans have traditionally been really successful at getting their people out to vote."
Jo Ann Davidson knows that the Republican presidential nominee will have to generate a buzz among the party's grassroots if he's going to win in November. She led the Bush-Cheney campaign's field effort in Ohio in 2004, building what is now regarded as the gold standard of GOP grassroots organizations.
The Bush campaign's strategy revolved around bringing the president into reliably Republican rural sections of Ohio, such as Allen County in the northwest, because those areas had a large reservoir of potential volunteers. By November 2004, Bush had made almost a dozen trips to the state, and the campaign had recruited 88,000 volunteers, said Davidson, who is now a Republican National Committee co-chair. "You wanted to identify the folks who would be the most likely to identify with your candidate, and how you contact them in an area of interest that they have."
When the campaign did reach out to voters in Ohio, it targeted them with information on a specific issue, such as late-term abortion or gay marriage. This technique, known as microtargeting, also helped to boost turnout.
"The impersonal touch just isn't nearly as effective as what I call 'old-fashioned politics,'" Davidson said. "It's the personal touch that people want and expect in an impersonal world. So when a neighbor calls you, it has an impact on you."
In past GOP campaigns, said Davidson, who served in the Ohio House for two decades, "there wasn't as organized an effort. They thought they could do everything from television ads."
The campaign relied on coordinators of field efforts and phone banks to work with the volunteers, she said. "We had a very skinny payroll, 18 to 20 people." Davidson added: "This kind of a grassroots effort is absolutely necessary to have a victory" in 2008.
If McCain secures the Republican nomination, it will be a challenge for him to build the kind of grassroots movement that helped Bush win Ohio and the overall election in 2004.
"It's almost certain the Democrats will be the better organized, because the enthusiasm is on their side," said Donald Devine, a vice chairman of the American Conservative Union. "Grassroots Republicans are overwhelmingly conservative. The vast majority will vote for McCain come Election Day, but they won't work for him." This year, that might not be enough.