The Arkansas 'Shoe Leather' Campaign For Senate

Nov 3, 2014

It’s Friday night — Halloween, approaching 10 p.m. — and young children across Arkansas have just wrapped up a night of trick-or-treating, knocking on doors asking for candy.

A different group of youth are wrapping up their day from knocking on doors asking for votes. They’ve actually been knocking on doors for months, especially these last two weeks during the early voting period, in an effort to identify and move Democratic-leaning voters to the polls.

Like Groundhog Day more than Halloween, these Democratic workers, who are part of the Arkansas Victory 2014 coordinated campaign, have been repeating their efforts for months. Wake up, crawl through their voter data, make calls, knock on doors, and identify if they’re in the Democratic column, GOP column, or undecided. Wake up, do it all again tomorrow.

On this Halloween night, they hold a 10 p.m. conference call with captains from different regions of the state to report on the day’s activities and to receive a pep talk from Dan Hardcastle, GOTV director for the Democrats’ Arkansas Victory 2014.

“It’s because of who we’re working for, it’s because of what’s at stake in this election that we all are going to take this next four days and just leave it all out on the field, lay it all on the line,” he tells the rowdy, late-night group on the conference call.

Hardcastle’s troops are hoping to buck conventional wisdom and most pundits’ predictions that Democrat Mark Pryor is hopelessly behind Republican Tom Cotton in the incumbent Arkansas senator’s re-election bid. They go over their final plans for Saturday’s and Monday’s early voting strategies. And while as much as 50% of the overall statewide vote may be in the proverbial bank at the close of early voting on Monday, the other 50% won’t vote until Election Day, this coming Tuesday.

“Besides the volunteer army you’ve built up so far, it’s about making sure those folks are there with you tomorrow, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Tuesday is so critical to what we’ve been doing,” he reminds the crew.

A special guest is set to join the conference call on Friday night. Democratic U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp dials in to offer encouraging comments. Her 2012 Senate victory in North Dakota was the closest Senate election last cycle. She won by less than 3,000 votes, a less than one percent margin of victory.

On this night, Heitkamp conveys her message of hope to the stalwart group of campaign workers.

“As someone whose gone through this, every time you open up the paper or check Real Clear Politics, you seem to get bad news. I can tell you that the worse thing you can do is believe any of that,” Heitkamp says. She encourages them to keep their heads down and get voters to the polls.

“At the end of the day, the 30-second commercials aren’t what wins elections. It is the shoe leather in a very close election. You guys are doing it and you’re going to bring home a victory. And all those people who said it couldn’t be done, all those people who wrote this campaign off in the final weeks are going to have egg on their face like they had egg on their face in my race,” she says.

IS THE GROUND GAME WORKING?

Republicans aren’t buying the Democratic narrative. The Arkansas GOP hasn’t been sitting on its hands while Democrats work away. They’ve been organizing an unprecedented number of field offices, coordinating volunteer efforts, canvassing precincts and identifying voters through their own tracking system for nearly a year as part of their Victory 365 effort.

So while the Pryor camp wants the world to believe that the race is close and the ground game effort will carry them to victory, the GOP has their own take on the numbers being reported.

For starters, the poll you choose to believe in shows the Senate race within two to three points, or Cotton is widening his lead in an insurmountable way. Just last week, an NBC/Marist poll showed Cotton up by two points, while the Arkansas Poll, conducted by the University of Arkansas, reflected a 13-point lead for Cotton. A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College Poll released at the beginning of the early voting period showed Cotton growing a two-point August lead to eight points, primarily on the strength of independent and male voters.

Republicans believe in the wider margin advantage held by the GOP candidates at the top of the ticket, while Democrats continue to advocate the closeness of the race and the inability of polling to pick up on new and unlikely voters.

In a memo written Thursday and widely distributed on Friday, Justin Brassell, campaign manager for Cotton for Senate, outlined his take on the statistics surrounding early voting, which topped 307,000 this past week.

“There are only three days left of early voting in Arkansas, and Democrats would lead you to believe that their vaunted ‘Bannock Street Project’ is the only show in town, but the truth is that their ground game has been out-matched by the Cotton, Hutchinson and [the] Victory 365 Republican team,” Brassell’s memo stated.

He highlighted that big boosts in early voting numbers – a more than 30% increase – is benefitting Republicans. Eight of the ten counties with the largest growth in early voter turnout happened in Republican turnout counties, Brassell argued. He also says registration efforts by Democrats are not producing the results they’ve hyped.

“Democrats’ bluster about registration efforts in Pulaski County has been widely reported, but poorly documented. The reality: of Pulaski County’s 19,000+ new registrants in 2014, only 1,600 of in-person early votes are new voters (i.e., those having never voted in Arkansas before), which amounts to a paltry 4% of the early vote in Pulaski County,” Brassell contends, while adding that Democrats are “struggling in every corner of the state” to convert new registrants to voters.

Robert McLarty, principal with Little Rock-based The Markham Group and coordinated campaign director for Arkansas Victory 2014, says Brassell is wrong. Not only does he feel good about newly registered voters breaking Democrat, he is certain that non-Presidential year voters, a.k.a. low-propensity voters, are voting in the Democratic column.

“Votes are votes, and Democratic efforts have focused on turning out non-traditional midterm voters this cycle. The early voting trends are promising for Democrats, with turnout up 34% over this day in 2010,” he said.

McLarty says in Pulaski County 22% of those who have cast ballots did not vote in 2010. He contends that polls show those voters will break for Mark Pryor by a 30-point margin, according to internal tracking. In Washington County, he says 28% of those that have cast ballots did not vote in 2010 and their polling suggests a healthy 18-point margin in Pryor’s favor.

Brassell counters that “of the 11,632 early voters in Washington County (as of 10/29/2014), only 345 (3.5%) are first time voters in Arkansas. Further, 92% of all early votes in Washington County are age 30+ – not exactly the turnout our Democrat friends wanted.”

McLarty also argues that the huge spike in new voter registration — 100,000-plus — is five times the amount of normal registration growth in Arkansas and that offers advantages to Democrats, who pushed the new registration efforts.

Brassell’s memo counters McLarty’s optimism.

“These numbers do not take into consideration candidate support, and our modeled data shows that 25% of these ‘new voters’ are strong Republicans. Arkansas Republicans started building our ground game early, investing heavily in the technology and infrastructure that is allowing us to identify, persuade and turn out low-propensity Republican voters,” Brassell wrote.

He cites 70 GOP field staffers, new uses of technology to track voter contact, and volunteer efforts that have resulted in direct communication with 1.5 million voters — nearly all of the state’s 1.6 million voters.

“This has allowed GOP volunteers to turn out nearly 30% more low-propensity voters than our Democratic counterparts,” says Brassell.

So do historical patterns prevail when the votes are tabulated on Election Night? Will the GOP investments and model be rewarded with victory? Or, does the Herculean effort put forth by Democrats result in a game-changing outcome for a mid-term election?

While Brassell’s memo indicates Republicans feel good about their prospects heading into Election Day, so do Democrats.

“We feel real good about where we are,” McLarty said. “We’re neck-and-neck in our internal model numbers. We’re right where we want to be for an Election Day turnout. We’ve been tracking statewide. We’ve been looking at counties that are target counties. It’s really, really, really close.”