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In Iowa, Campaign Ground War Has Become a Fairer Fight

In Iowa, Campaign Ground War Has Become a Fairer Fight

By Scott Conroy - October 10, 2014

DES MOINES -- If Democrats manage to hold on to their Senate majority next month, it will be, in large part, because of people like Barb Yankey.

A retired hospice social worker and registered nurse, Yankey, 66, signed up to volunteer for the Iowa Democratic Party because she wanted to help offset the dominating influence of big money in politics.

“You just wouldn’t believe the gas money I spend because I’m always lost,” she said while navigating her Honda Element through unfamiliar territory here in Iowa’s capital city. “So there are little ways like that where I contribute.”

That notion may sound naïve, but Yankey is no political Pollyanna. Though her humble bearing wouldn’t allow her to admit it, she contributes far more than gas money to the Democrats’ cause.

In the political ground war of 2014, she is a front-line soldier.

According to national strategists from both parties, the campaign in Iowa between Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst is as likely as any contest in the country to determine which party will control the upper chamber in January.

It didn’t always looked that way, as Braley began the race as the clear front-runner. But after surviving a crowded GOP primary, Ernst has continued to run a surprisingly strong campaign that has centered on her compelling life story and every-gal Iowa persona.

Ernst now leads Braley by a thin 1.5 percentage-point margin, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls.

With opposition researchers having a field day on both candidates, who hail from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, the Braley/Ernst showdown has been one of the nastiest races in the country.

Needless to say, both campaigns and outside funding groups are pouring on the ads.

In Iowa this fall, to tune in to a Hawkeye football game or catch up on the evening news is to consign oneself to a stream of garish accusations, inflated countercharges and overblown character indictments during each commercial break.

It’s off-putting to just about everyone, particularly in a state where it’s not uncommon for strangers in the street to greet one another with a cheerful smile and a “How are ya?”

It’s almost conceivable that the deluge of political ads would more likely inspire Iowans to take a shower than rouse them to vote.

And that’s where volunteers like Yankey come in.

“You need to meet your neighbors face to face because the political ads are so horrible, and you don’t know who to believe,” she said as she sought to get her bearings in the working-class neighborhood that organizers assigned to her this particular evening. “The thing is, in general, people don’t get excited about the midterms. I think it’s so sad. … Old, white, rural, conservative voters come out, but the people who live here stand to lose the most, so we have to get them to the polls.”

Actually, Yankey doesn’t have to get them to the polls. She just has to get them to fill out a form to request an absentee ballot, which they can then mail in.

In completing this task on a large scale, Democrats are relying on their well-documented edge in the ground game, which they have exploited to great effect since President Obama’s 2008 Iowa caucus campaign set a new standard for organizational excellence.

“Our field operation in Iowa is enormous and far bigger than anything the Republicans are doing or anything any statewide race has ever done,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Justin Barasky.

The problem for Democrats, however, is that the Republicans are catching up.

For hard evidence to back up that declaration, just look at the early voting numbers, which the Iowa secretary of state’s office releases on a daily basis.

Iowans can vote by mail or in person at any time in the 40 days leading up to Nov. 4, and operatives from both parties are going all out to get as many of their reliable voters to cast ballots now rather than later.

For both sides, it’s working.

Thirty-once percent of votes cast in the state in the 2010 midterms were by absentee ballot, but this year, early votes are expected to constitute more like half of the total.

As of Wednesday, 254,579 Iowans had submitted the paperwork required to request absentee ballots, far outpacing the 173,243 requests that were made at the same point in the previous midterm cycle.

Of the ballot requests so far this year, 116,090 were made by registered Democrats, 88,011 by registered Republicans and 50,123 by independents.

Those figures may sound like great news for Democrats, but they suggest otherwise when compared to what was happening four years ago. At this point in 2010, Democrats held a 21-point lead (52.1 percent to 31.2 percent) over Republicans in ballot requests. Their advantage now, however, is just 11 points (45.6 percent to 34.5 percent), and that margin is shrinking by the day.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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