Battle to the last

The power of the new Republican machine is one of the great remaining unknowns of the presidential race.

By Julian Borger
Published November 1, 2004 6:17PM (UTC)
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When George W. Bush makes his last campaign speech at his last rally Monday, there will be nothing left for him to do but go home to Texas and hand over the final task in the effort to get him reelected to a brigade of passionate enthusiasts like Dorothy Niklos. Niklos is a Bush lieutenant in the campaign's ground war -- the Election Day struggle to turn out the vote. And in an evenly split state like Pennsylvania, where just about everyone has seen all the political advertising they can stand, and all but the pathologically indecisive have made up their minds long ago, turning out the vote is all that matters.

"I'm a broken-glass Republican; I'll crawl over broken glass to go vote," says Niklos, whose formal title is party chairwoman for Northampton County, in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley -- a swing region in a swing state. "Other people may support us on the ideas, but they may need a nudge with follow-up calls and maybe get a visit."


Niklos' job is to make sure such nudges are felt wherever they can make a difference. She is the sort of person every party wants on its side. A chatty partisan of boundless energy, she is girding herself for her role in Tuesday's climactic test of strength in her "victory center," a modest single-story building, painted duck-egg blue, in the small town of Nazareth. The place hums with political commitment. Next door to Niklos' office there is a narrow room lined with desks and telephones where a dozen determined activists spend monotonous hours dialing hundreds of numbers and talking, mostly, to answering machines.

The fact that anyone picks up the phone at all in Northampton County is testament to the patience and good manners of the local population -- a mix of farmers, office workers and commuters who travel each day across to Newark and New York. In these last stages of the campaign, many are getting up to eight political calls a day.

Sharon Retos, a volunteer, has a party loyalist on the line who is having trouble persuading his wife. "Oh dear, oh dear. Remind her of 9/11. Remind her of partial-birth abortion," Retos counsels. A ban on late-term abortions, a staple of the Christian conservative agenda, was signed into law by Bush in the teeth of concerted Democratic resistance. "You know her sensitivities. You hit her on partial-birth abortion. You just keep talking to her. We'll win with or without her vote, but we sure would appreciate it."


Half a dozen sales pitches are underway at any one time. Meanwhile, a steady flow of volunteers wanders in and out with an offer to drive voters to the polls, or to ask for posters and yard signs. Niklos claims 1,500 Republican signs have been stolen or defaced by the opposition, and the Democrats have made similar claims. The yard sign "dirty war" is a regular part of the election ritual, but this year both sides agree it is -- like most things about this campaign -- nastier, more organized and bigger.

The ground war is a tough, glamour-free slog, and it's the phase of the battle Democrats are traditionally best at. Karl Rove, the president's electoral Svengali, was reportedly traumatized by the experience of the 2000 election. His candidate glided into Election Day with an opinion poll edge over Al Gore of several percentage points, a comfier cushion than he enjoys now over John Kerry.

But that lead evaporated on Election Day, as the Democrats and their union allies showed their superior muscle when it came to translating support into votes. In the end, half a million more people voted for Gore than Bush, who was saved only by the quirks of the electoral system.


Rove and the national Republican chairman, Ken Mehlman, have spent much of the past four years trying to make sure that does not happen again. Between them they have built a new model army for the ground war, along the lines of an American corporate sales model, known as multilevel marketing. It sounds intricate, but is basically a pyramid scheme in which every recruit is given not only production goals but quotas for finding new recruits. Discipline and commitment produce an ever-expanding, self-perpetuating network.

Thus far it has worked. In four years, the Republicans have built a get-out-the-vote machine to rival the apparatus built by the Democrats over generations. "This is the biggest thing I've ever worked on," Niklos said. In 2000, the Republicans in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, relied more on television advertising and direct mail. There were a few dozen volunteers mobilized to go door-to-door in September, but almost as an afterthought.


This year Niklos had activists working in all of Northampton County's 145 precincts starting in April, and now has a force of 1,500, as well as out-of-towners driving in from Virginia and New York, where the presidential contest is more one-sided. "The first phone banks were set up in March," she says. "In 2000, they weren't up until July. Then there was voter I.D.; we called people and asked them how they felt about abortion and stem cells and guns. And then in May we began calling back again, targeting each group. Then there was voter registration in summer, and now we are getting the vote out."

It is without doubt an impressive apparatus, rapidly built, but largely untested. The unanswered question is whether it can match the proven efficiency of the Democratic machine, which is also swollen with new recruits. "I've never seen anything like it," said Joe Young, the county's Democratic leader. "The 2000 election was nothing compared to this." Bush lost Northampton County by 5,701 votes four years ago. Young believes the margin will be bigger this time. He has won the first round against Niklos, signing up thousands more voters. There are now 84,000 registered Democrats in the county, compared with 67,500 Republicans. Across Pennsylvania, the number of Democrats has risen by 267,000 since 2000; the number of registered Republicans has risen by only 155,000.

But until tomorrow, those are just numbers on paper. Niklos believes that in their rush to boost their registration figures, the Democrats have signed up thousands of residents who have little intention of actually voting. Her voters, she believes, will turn up. Tomorrow will tell. Until then, the power of the new Republican machine is one of the great remaining unknowns of the presidential race.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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