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The campaign's got your number, and your bar code

Liz Sidoti

Barack Obama, a former community organizer, is spending untold millions of dollars to identify and mobilize voters, and Republicans acknowledge that John McCain's team probably will be outspent and outmanned. They hope it won't be outmaneuvered.

This is an unusual situation for Republicans, masters of the ground game: the contest of phone calls, door knocks, literature drops and text messaging that can make the difference in close contests. It's a contest so sophisticated on both sides that if you're a voter in their sights, chances are they've got a computer barcode just for you.

Look no farther than the 2000 presidential race that showed Democrats and Republicans alike the importance of getting a party's supporters to polls. George W. Bush's disputed 537-vote victory in Florida gave the Republican the White House over Democrat Al Gore. Four years later, Democrat John Kerry ramped up the party's efforts but it wasn't enough to thwart Bush's narrow re-election.

This year, Democrats say they are determined not to let the White House slip from their grasp for a third-straight election and Obama has made turnout efforts a true priority. "We're waging a very aggressive campaign to use our network of neighborhood volunteers to persuade voters wherever they are," said Jon Carson, Obama's national field director.

Republicans hope their battle-tested operation will deliver victory for McCain in a difficult GOP year. They know the Democrats are pressing hard on the ground.

"They've definitely got the bodies, and they've definitely got the money," said Rich Beeson, the Republican National Committee's political director. Yet what matters most is knowing whom to mobilize on Election Day, "and we've got the advantage there."

Both sides are mindful of this: Nothing else in the campaign matters if voters don't show up. Thus, Democrats and Republicans are combining new technological tools with timeworn shoe-leather tactics to find voters, persuade undecideds, rally hard-core backers and, the hardest part, get them all to the polling stations.


Volunteers are key.

Inside the GOP's southeastern Pennsylvania field office in Blue Bell, McCain's volunteers crowded around a table, counting and bundling McCain-Palin door hangers for canvassers. The Philadelphia Eagles game was on but no one was watching. Boxes of pizza went virtually untouched.

Stefanie Zarych, 29, drove 80 miles from Ventnor, N.J., to lend a hand in a more competitive state. "Think about what John McCain has done on so many Sundays, and this is nothing," she said. "His life has been about service."

Across the table strewn with rubber bands, Michael Santillo, 65, of King of Prussia, Pa., said: "I'll be here every day that I can." The Vietnam veteran cap he wore served as explanation enough for backing McCain, a 5 1/2-year prisoner of war in Hanoi.

A six-day-a-week volunteer who coordinates canvassing walks, Ann Pilgreen, 63, of Gwyneed Valley, Pa., wasn't supposed to be at the center on the seventh — a Sunday — but couldn't help herself. "I feel strongly about this election, and I have the time to do it."


One morning earlier, some 50 Obama supporters climbed in a charter bus in Largo, Md., bound for Richmond, Va., 120 miles away. Out West, Californians headed for Nevada. These volunteers, from two safe Democratic states, were putting their energy into neighboring battlegrounds.

"This is why he's going to win — when you get this many people out here giving up a weekend," said Noluthando Crockett-Ntonga from Laurel, Md., as she looked at the crew undergoing a 15-minute training session at Obama's Virginia headquarters.

Staffers distributed packets of names and addresses of voters, along with those computer-generated barcodes, for the assembled volunteers to contact. They handed out campaign literature, neighborhood maps and a script to read. The goal: collect information on each voter, including who they are supporting. If Obama, encourage them to volunteer.

"You have a really good case to make," said Obama field organizer Kristen Dore, 22, a "Hope" tattoo on her right foot. "Tell them, 'I'm in your backyard and I'm from Maryland, why aren't you in your backyard?'"


Massive databases filled with extraordinarily detailed information on individual voters form the foundation of each campaign's efforts.

The GOP has been honing its voter file for more than a decade; Democrats have made strides since 2004 in building theirs. Democratic operatives privately agree with their Republican counterparts that the GOP's information is more precise and Republicans probably are more advanced on the technological aspects of manipulating it.

Each database contains information culled from various sources to create a snapshot for each individual. State election records show party identification and voting frequency; driver's license files provide birth dates and demographic details; Census data disclose if a person is married, owns a home, has children; consumer information purchased from vendors gives lifestyle hints, through magazine subscriptions, preferred hobbies and shopping habits.

Campaigns use all that to group each individual — strong supporter, undecided, strong opponent — and tailor pitches through mail, phone calls and visits. The files are updated constantly, essentially allowing campaigns to market their candidate like storm windows or a mattress sale.

In the final weeks, the databases are used to identify who will vote, how they'll vote, the best way to make sure they vote, and how many times they've been contacted.


Money is a huge factor, too.

A prolific fundraiser, Obama opted out of the taxpayer financing system and has a huge war chest.

Democrats say he has devoted potentially record-breaking sums to registering new voters, primarily blacks and youth, and building neighborhood-by-neighboorhood networks to create a "persuasion army" to court friends, relatives and neighbors. Social networking Web sites and text messaging are central.

Obama's campaign has made aggressive pushes to register voters on campuses and in the black community, for instance establishing voter-information outposts in barber shops and beauty salons. TV and radio commercials echo that effort.

Voter registrations across the country attest to excitement over the historic nature of his candidacy among those drawn to the prospect of a first black president and a relatively youthful one — Obama is 47. Democratic sign-ups dramatically exceed Republican by the tens of thousands in battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, Ohio and Florida.

Also, Obama campaign offices and paid field staffers far outnumber McCain's in Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin, if not every other state.


The GOP nominee's field operations were slow to start in the spring and summer, but McCain's advisers express confidence in how much they've built upon previous success. GOP officials say the party's volunteer operations made 600,000 more contacts last week than in the comparative week in 2004, and the trend is continuing.

The party's rank-and-file has been depressed all year. But GOP operatives say McCain's selection of conservative Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the ticket roused the conservatives who do the vital work in the ground game of the final weeks.

Unlike Obama, McCain is limited to spending $84 million this fall because he accepted public financing and its spending limits. But the Republican National Committee is supplementing that. It brought in nearly $225 million this year, including a record $66 million last month alone.

Much of the money goes toward ground-game operations that have been tested and tweaked over the past four election cycles. This includes the GOP's 72-hour program — a final three-day push that Republicans credit with helping them make gains in 2002 and win the presidency in 2004 after narrowly losing the popular vote in 2000.

Among the party's advances this year: phone-bank telephones linked directly to the Internet that allow volunteers to upload data quickly into the voter file instead of entering it manually.


"Hello, my name is Paul and I'm a volunteer calling on behalf of the McCain-Palin presidential ticket. If you haven't already received your absentee ballot in the mail one will arrive shortly ..."

And so ended Paul Ventresca's daily three-hour phone-bank stint in the Philadelphia suburbs; he volunteers whenever he's not working his day job at a transportation company.

The 36-year-old from Willow Grove, Pa., easily logged 200 calls. His last caller didn't pick up so he pushed a button on the party's new system to note that he had left a message. Then, he hung up — and the information zipped across cyberspace and updated the GOP's voter file.

At one point during her weekly six-hour shift, Gail Sine, 45, of Harleysville, Pa., reached the husband of a targeted voter. She pressed a button to note a call answered.

"I'm just following up to see if she's received her absentee ballot."

The man — who apparently had not requested an absentee ballot and, thus, wasn't on the day's call list — said yes and Sine pushed another button.

And, he said, his wife planned to vote for McCain. Yet another button pushed.

"Very good, sir. Thank you very much," Sine said, ending the call and updating the database in one swoop.

Door-to-door canvassers get bubble sheets to fill out. They are scanned, automatically turned into computer files and quickly uploaded to the database.

All that's intended to ensure that McCain's team has the most accurate, up-to-date information possible to steer messages to the right people — and make sure everyone votes.


Obama's campaign puts heavy emphasis on face-to-face contacts.

Maryland volunteer Yolanda Jackson, 37, hadn't reached her first house in Richmond when the homeowner beat her to the punch. "I'm planning to vote for Obama," Kathy Monday, 58, said with a grin and a wave. "Absolutely committed" to both voting and volunteering.

It wasn't that easy for canvassers Linda Ransom, 49, and Charles Sloger, 69, at the large brick home next door.

"I'm undecided about everything," Mary Baylor, 54, said on her front stoop. "I usually wait until the last minute." After they left, Baylor said she appreciated the information sheet they provided though "I noticed it's all Barack and that's nice but I'll go look up about McCain."

Lillian and Glenn Kersey, both age 55, had even less luck.

Of the first four houses they approached, one person wasn't home, another didn't plan to vote, and two backed McCain, including one elderly woman who yelled: "If you're coming into my yard to talk about Obama, I don't want to talk to you!"

Even so, the couple from Maryland kept in good spirits.

"It's certainly not a waste of time," said Mrs. Kersey, recalling her march as a North Carolina teenager to the board of education during the civil rights movement as white men bearing guns taunted her and other blacks. "We fought the fight then, we're fighting the fight now."


On the Net:

McCain campaign:

Obama campaign:

The Associated Press