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 V.15 No.46 | November 16 - 22, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

Working the Pavement

Campaigns should focus less on TV and more on shaking hands

I went out Saturday morning to pick the daily paper off the lawn and take down my “Madrid for Congress” signs. It was, after all, four full days after the polls closed. I went to bed Friday night with the image of a smiling Heather Wilson toasting her victory with a glass of orange juice still vivid in my memory.

Then I read the headlines and put the Madrid sign back up. In Friday’s snail-paced counting of votes, the Democratic challenger cut 120 votes from Wilson’s margin and the race was still judged “too close to call” by Madrid’s camp. There was still a pulse, however faint.

By the time this piece is read, I assume the inevitable will have occurred and a final tally will be complete, one leaving the attorney general tantalizingly close to knocking the incumbent out of office … but not quite.

Along with every other disappointed Madrid partisan, I have explanations for how this could have happened; how the Albuquerque area could have once again elected a Republican to Congress representing New Mexico’s First District even though there are a lot more registered Democrats here than Republicans.

My explanation includes the obvious: the disastrous flubs by Madrid during the single televised debate between her and Wilson, replayed every 10 minutes in Wilson’s continuous television onslaught; Madrid’s inadequate responses to accusations of being willing to tolerate corruption; the negative tone of both candidates’ campaigns (leading many people to declare a pox on both their houses and to stay home on Election Day).

All contributed to Madrid’s razor-thin loss.

Yet buried in the pages of analyses and vote counts that have tumbled from this election is a critical statistic: More than 7,000 Democrats who requested absentee ballots never sent them in. Seven. Thousand. That’s more than enough to turn a frustratingly narrow defeat by less than 1 percent into a 3 percent victory, practically a landslide.

It wouldn’t have taken a dime of television advertising to prod those nominal Democrats into voting for the candidate of their party. Madrid didn’t need to convince any other Republicans or independents into switching to her; she only had to get those 7,000 leaning her way already.

This wasn’t the responsibility of the candidate herself, it’s what the party apparatchiks and the campaign coordination team are supposed to do: follow up on every single requested absentee ballot and go out in person to make sure they’re being cast ... not left on the dining room table.

That’s precisely what the Republicans have become masters at. No GOP absentee ballots turn up unmailed the morning after in thousands of Republican households in Bernalillo County. Colonel Weh makes sure they’re all gathered, deposited and counted.

It’s not rocket science. But election after election, the pathetic fact is that New Mexico Democrats get their clocks cleaned by absentee totals that should roughly reflect the same party breakdown as the rest of the vote, but that routinely give the Republicans an enormous boost.

The explanation is simple: The Republicans are more organized than the Democrats. While Democratic campaigns waste valuable volunteer time and expend that valuable resource in activities that don’t contribute anything to vote totals, the GOP uses their volunteers long before Election Day to systematically follow up with all their absentee voters. They don’t leave it to chance—and it pays off.

It doesn’t take money. There are thousands of eager volunteers who are asked to make telephone calls to people who have already voted; to put up yard signs that had long since stopped registering; to walk precincts where no one was home. Instead of contacting random voters, those volunteers could have been used to contact those who actually requested ballots, and encourage them to send the darn things in.

Ironically, in a year when flashy, computerized “robo calls” from national figures (Bill Clinton called me three times) became a symbol for all that’s wrong in contemporary electioneering—probably doing more harm than good—the tried-and-true method of neighbors urging you to send in that ballot sitting on your coffee table could have turned the tide.

To have spent—when all the dollars from national organizations, PACS and private individuals are factored in, as both Madrid and Wilson did—more than $3 million on television advertising to produce little more than 100,000 votes each means both candidates blew an awful lot of money.

Spending $30 for each vote is more than wasteful, it’s counterproductive. The statewide turnout was barely 50 percent of registered voters. That tells me a whole lot of people stopped listening to the candidates months ago. Putting teams of trained, organized volunteers out into the community to interact with voters personally wouldn’t have cost a fraction of what television consumed.

And it would have increased, instead of suppressed, turnout.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

 

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