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Tilting the Playing Field: Voter ID & Turnout

Jim Ross

It is one of the great political clichés, the day before an election an analyst says about a race, “it all depends on turn-out.”  That statement is true, but voter turnout is much like Mark Twain said about the weather, everyone complains about turnout but no one does anything about it.  For Gavin Newsom’s mayoral campaign we did something about turnout. 

In December of 2003 while managing Gavin Newsom’s mayoral race we identified the need to effect turn-out in his favor in order to win the election.  San Francisco’s mayoral elections are traditionally close and very hard fought campaigns that attract national attention.  They have also been a testing ground for voter turnout techniques and voter identification. 

During the course of the campaign we learned several things:
• You can start voter identification early and those voters that endorse early, if you communicate with them, will stick with you.
• Reach out to areas or communities that may not universally support you, a campaign can find pockets of support in even the most hostile areas.
• If possible use vote by mail or absentee voting and early voting to extend your GOTV efforts.
• Use volunteers to reach the voters you can’t reach through other means.

The 2003 mayoral race started in early. In March, when 5,000 people attended Gavin Newsom’s kick-off it was obvious that an operation was being created unlike any the City had seen before. That crowd was mostly donors, supporters of then Supervisor Newsom’s homeless proposals and political observers. 

In May, the campaign started its voter identification program, sending volunteers out to ask voters to “endorse” Gavin Newsom for mayor.  Asking for an endorsement was crucial since we were looking for Newsom supporters not just any voters willing to sign a petition.  In the six weeks the campaign gathered signatures the campaign identified 24,000 endorsers of Gavin Newsom.  These 24,000 voters were input into a database, created by CompleteCampaigns.com, and matched against the voter file.  Endorsers who were not registered to vote had an application delivered by a Newsom volunteer.  Through this process, the campaign registered 5,000 new voters.

Using a paid phone bank, we then called every registered voter, who had not endorsed Gavin Newsom.  The script had no push or persuasion, this was important because we knew our opponents would go negative and we wanted to find the strong Newsom supporters who would not be swayed by negative advertising. These calls produced another 25,000 identified Newsom supporters.  Many of these supporters lived in neighborhoods that would not have been considered friendly to Supervisor Newsom.

Entering September, the campaign had nearly 50,000 identified supporters. 22,000 or nearly half of these voters, were occasional voters, and would not normally vote in an off year election.  

These supporters were aggressively encouraged to apply to vote by mail.  This program consisted of mailing a vote by mail application to each voter and calling up with request the voter return the application.  Each voter would receive an application and a call, up to three times, or until they registered to vote by mail.  In addition to this program, the Newsom volunteers walked ever precinct in the City, more than 650, and knocked on the doors of identified supporters.  When reaching a supporter, they asked that voter to vote by mail, if the voter was not at home the volunteer left a package containing a vote by mail application on the supporter’s door. This program generated 10,000 applications from Newsom endorsers to vote by mail.  6300 of these voters were occasional voters.

During the closing weeks of the campaign, we flagged Newsom endorsers in our polling sample so we could track the effect of negative advertising on the campaign.  Despite some very vicious attacks, support for Supervisor Newsom amongst his identified supporters never slipped below 90%.  This is remarkable, since many of these endorsers were identified in May, five months before the election.

Entering Election Day, the Newsom campaign had already turned out 8,000 voters through its vote by mail program.  In the end, just over 90% of those voters who applied to vote by mail returned their ballots. 

The campaign still had 40,000 identified supporters to turn out on Election Day.  A volunteer army of over 1000 people spent the day turning these voters out to the polls.  Starting at 5:00AM when supporters from organized labor hung a literature on every door, of a supporter, with their location of the polling place. A systematic poll-checking program followed, which included door knocking and phoning, to turnout voters.
 
The November election was not the end of the campaign but the beginning of the run-off election even though Gavin Newsom received 41.92% of the vote in a crowded nine-candidate field.  His run-off opponent Supervisor Matt Gonzalez had a ground swell of support behind him; he moved quickly and united the progressive voters in San Francisco behind his campaign. These progressive voters total roughly 40% of San Francisco’s electorate.

To beat this ground swell of support, the Newsom campaign had to turn out its voters at an unprecedented rate.  On the Thursday, following the November election the campaign began to identify voters, using paid phone banks.  At the same time the campaign was able to match back across the voter files those voters who had been identified as Newsom supporters but had not voted. 

The voter identification calls pulled in 30,000 more identified Newsom supporters.  And the matching of Newsom supporters who failed to vote in November, found 10,000 voters.  These two groups became the focus of the campaign’s vote by mail program.  By the close of the period to apply to vote by mail, the campaign generated 9,000 applications to vote by mail.  When added to those who applied to vote by mail in November, these voters automatically received an absentee ballot in December, the campaign generated 19,000 votes through the mail.  These votes would be crucial in the results of the election.

While the paid operation was focused on vote by mail, the Newsom campaign volunteer army of now more than 1500 volunteers took to the streets identifying voters. In the six weeks between the November election and the December, the Newsom field operation identified nearly 20,000 Newsom supporters. 

On Election Day Gavin Newsom lost. He won Election Night because he received 20,000 more absentee votes than Matt Gonzalez.  In the end the numbers from the Newsom campaign are impressive:

• 89,000 identified Newsom supporters
• 19,000 vote-by-mail applications
• 1500 volunteers
• An 8.79% increase in turnout from the November election (45.67%) to the December election (54.46%)

And the most important number, Gavin Newsom won the election with a 5% margin or 14,000 votes, 52.81% to 47.19%.

Jim Ross is the owner of Jim Ross Political Consulting; he managed Gavin Newsom Mayoral campaign.

About the Author

Jim Ross / Jim Ross Consulting

Jim Ross is the owner of Jim Ross Political Consulting; he managed Gavin Newsom Mayoral campaign.

You can reach Jim Ross at:
140 2nd Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
415-904-9814
415-358-4837 (Fax) jim@jimrossconsulting.com


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