Absentee Battle

Fight Over the Ground Game in Iowa Could Swing the Senate

Democrats have long dominated at pounding the pavement in the Hawkeye State. But Republicans are scrambling to catch up this year—and the victor could win control of the U.S. Senate.

In a swing state like Iowa, it’s never easy to predict which political party will win an election. But for over a decade, one thing has been a gimme: Democrats will have a much better ground game than Republicans. No matter how much money is spent and whose message is resonating more, Democrats will be better at knocking on doors, making phone calls, and turning out their base voters. This year, however, Democratic dominance at pounding the pavement might finally be challenged. After all, the stakes are pretty low—just control of the United States Senate.

For the first time in 40 years, Iowa has an open Senate seat, and Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst are neck and neck in a campaign that may determine which party has a majority in the Senate in 2015.

The ground game in Iowa has traditionally revolved around an absentee ballot program. The Hawkeye State has long had a law that provides for no-excuse absentee balloting, which Democrats have used to lock in the votes of marginal voters long before November. The result is that Republicans start Election Day behind by huge margins—even in good years for them, like the GOP sweep of 2010.

But this year, Republicans insist that they are trying to catch up and build a political infrastructure that can compete with the Democrats’. GOP operatives talked to The Daily Beast at length about the effort the party is undertaking and said they felt confident that they are finally making steps toward achieving parity. Five-term Gov. Terry Branstad, who is expected to cruise to victory, insisted to reporters at the Iowa State Fair that he wants to build a field program strong enough for him to win Democratic bastions like Lee County, a blue-collar stronghold that he has never won in any of his campaigns for Governor. Branstad bragged that the state GOP has 11 field offices and new leadership devoted to raising money.

In a speech at a party event in the town of Boone on Friday, Branstad urged attendees to get involved, saying, “We need to keep registering voters, we keep getting people to get absentee ballots.” Party officials also drummed the message home about absentee ballots and reminding people how important it is to get their vote in early—even if they like to go down to the polls and be sociable on Election Day. But as even Branstad acknowledged to reporters, the goal isn’t to win voters who vote absentee but simply to reduce the margin.

Democrats, for their part, have dismissed the GOP efforts. They have long experience at building a professional campaign operation, while Republicans have often relied on ad hoc volunteer efforts, which disproportionately rely on home schoolers. While the GOP may be trying to add an internal combustion engine to its horse-and-buggy approach to campaigns, Democrats say, they are upgrading their high-tech 2012 sports car to the 2014 model.

The result is a far more advanced effort that features an investment in offices and staff that makes GOP efforts look minuscule. Democrats also are taking advantage of past experience to use refined modeling and voter data to focus only on those voters who most need to be turned out and those whose likelihood to vote will be increased most by an absentee ballot.

Even the most sophisticated field operation won’t alter the result in most elections or even turn a blowout into a squeaker. But in a close race like Iowa’s Senate campaign, a strong ground game can make a difference of a couple of percentage points and determine a winner. A few more absentee ballots from Mason City or a couple more doors knocked on in Mt. Pleasant just might determine control of the Senate in 2015.