GOP fashioning Bush-style turnout operation for Calif.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- State Republicans hope to mobilize more GOP volunteers than ever before to help Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger win re-election, a strategy modeled on get-out-the-vote drives that helped President Bush capture swing states in 2004.

Party insiders say as many as 90,000 people could be enlisted in the closing days of the race to knock on doors, plant yard signs or make telephone calls to connect with potential voters, an unprecedented figure in a state thick with Democrats.

The point on election day: "The world is run by who shows up," said Rod Nehring, vice chairman of the state GOP.

The turnout operation -- which could cost as much as $25 million -- is being assembled by William Christiansen, a state GOP operative whose get-out-the-vote program for the 2004 Bush campaign in Arizona helped deliver a 10-point victory in that state. Former Bush strategists also are in charge of Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign.

At a time when many people are disenchanted with politics -- Tuesday's primary appears to be one of the lowest turnouts on record in California -- identifying potential voters and nudging them to go to the polls or fill out a mail-in ballot will be critical for both major parties.

There are 6.7 million registered Democrats in California, compared with 5.4 million Republicans, but Republicans generally turn out 5 percent more voters. Luring the increasing number of independent voters -- nearly 20 percent of the state electorate, or 2.9 million -- will be another key factor in November.

Typical methods for motivating potential voters -- phone calls, bulk mailings and even television ads -- might not be as effective as once believed, analysts say. The thinking in the Bush model is that they must be contacted and cajoled repeatedly, in person, neighbor to neighbor, to make sure a vote is cast.

The turnout brain trust also includes Terry Nelson, the political director of Bush's re-election campaign in 2004; GOP strategist Joe Shumate; and pollster Sarah Simmons. More than 60 people have been hired and deployed around the state.

But there are potential problems. Bush's popularity is slumping, and the GOP is divided by issues including marriage for same-sex couples, illegal immigration and the state budget.

And Schwarzenegger must energize his base without alienating moderate independents and Democrats, Hispanics and other voter groups he needs to win.

"He wants to drive a very high Republican turnout and still have a centrist position," said Shawn Steel, a former head of the state GOP.

In 2004, Bush's victory over Democrat John Kerry was credited in part to his campaign's success at driving up turnout in states where the contest was tight. Strategists armed with research honed in on swing voters, areas where they thought Bush underperformed four years earlier and booming suburban regions where new residents might be unregistered.

A key element for Bush was mobilizing religious conservatives, but that tack wouldn't be an easy fit with the socially moderate Schwarzenegger. However, conservatives could feel the governor is preferable to liberal Democrat Phil Angelides, and there are several potential ballot initiatives that could drive GOP turnout, including one that would require minors to notify parents before seeking abortions.

Nehring and other Republicans say a strong operation helped the party hold a House seat in San Diego on Tuesday, in which volunteers knocked on 150,000 doors and made 120,000 phone calls in what amounted to a dry run for the November plan. But Democrats say the four-point margin for winner Brian Bilbray was a sign of weakness in a Republican-rich district.

"They are in a fantasy world," said Sam Rodriguez, political director of the state Democratic Party. Democrats, who rely heavily on thousands of union foot soldiers each election to reach voters, scoffed at the GOP's ambitious get-out-the-vote plan.

While working on the plan to whip up GOP turnout in November, Schwarzenegger formally launched his campaign Wednesday in Northern California's Democrat-tilting Humboldt County, rather than the Republican heartland. He won 41 percent of the vote in Humboldt County in the 2003 recall, even though Republicans make up only about 29 percent of registered voters.

In every county Schwarzenegger visited that election day, his percentage of the vote suggests a high number of swing voters supported him.

On a visit to his Sacramento headquarters that night, Schwarzenegger alluded to the importance of his emerging volunteer army.

"We have many, many volunteers that have been working up and down the state," he said. "There's nothing we can do by ourselves."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: