NYT: Who Lost Ohio?

5:30 a.m.

One of the worst days of Steve Bouchard's 36 years on the planet began, as it would end, in a bleak, second-floor banquet room on Main Street in Columbus. Someone must have thought the exposed brick walls and copper piping would give the room a contemporary feel, but the effect was undone by a sad little mirror ball overhanging a miniature dance floor. ''This is what I'm talking about,'' Bouchard said, sipping from a takeout coffee cup and gesturing at the lights. ''Doesn't this just bring you back to your Studio 54 days?'' It was Election Day in Ohio, and a jumbo flat-screen TV had already been wheeled into place for the Democrats who would gather here, some 15 hours later, to watch the presidential returns come in.

There was always something torturous about Election Day, Bouchard said. After all the months of working more or less around the clock, suddenly it was a struggle to stay busy. Bouchard was the Ohio state director for America Coming Together, the most important and perhaps most controversial group to emerge from the new galaxy of independently financed organizations commonly known as 527's. As such, he presided over the most critical state operation in the largest get-out-the-vote effort ever undertaken to win a single presidential campaign. But once the voting commenced, his work was pretty much finished. ''By the time the clock hits 4 o'clock, what can I do?'' he asked. ''I know guys who will go get a big Delmonico steak on Election Day. I know a guy who actually goes into his office with a movie and a bottle of wine and closes down. Once the plan's been written and you have your field and regional people out there working, you're pretty much done. All I can do is go around and see how things are going.''

But still, he had risen in the dark -- who could sleep? -- and made his way downtown. Around the perimeter of the room, giddy volunteers lined up in pairs behind signs that read Team 1, Team 2 and so on, all the way up to Team 20. Each duo was handed a folder that contained MapQuest directions and a detailed map of a neighborhood with the team's specific street route outlined in Magic Marker, along with an armful of door-hangers reminding people to vote. The same scene was playing itself out in 64 other staging areas around the state. This was the first of three waves of canvassers who would hit the streets before the polls closed at 7:30 p.m.; all told, ACT and its sister organizations in a giant umbrella coalition of liberal groups known as America Votes would put hundreds of paid canvassers and some 20,000 volunteers on Ohio's streets before the day was out.

10 a.m.

After breakfast, I called Steve Rosenthal on his cellphone. Rosenthal, ACT's chief executive officer and Bou-chard's boss, had been lent a private jet for the closing days of the campaign by one of the group's wealthy donors. He touched down the night before in Cincinnati, and now he was driving his rental car from Dayton to Columbus. ''I'm just blown away by what I see everywhere I go,'' he told me. ''It's raining, but our people aren't deterred. They're voting. They're organizing. They're canvassing. It's amazing. I really think we could win by a substantial margin.''

'For the life of me, I can't see how we could lose Ohio,'' Rosenthal had told me over lunch in Washington the previous week. ''The only way they win Ohio is to steal it like they did Florida four years ago.''

Rosenthal, wearing jeans and sneakers, arrived at ACT's Ohio headquarters to hugs and handshakes from old friends and volunteers. He and I jumped into a Ford Explorer driven by Tom Lindenfeld, one of Rosenthal's oldest friends, who was helping to direct ACT's Ohio campaign. As we drove, Rosenthal explained to me what he had learned about elections as a union organizer. He had increased turnout among union members at a time when the union rolls themselves were shrinking, and he had done it by focusing on new registrants. Union members could be persuaded to vote, Rosenthal found, when an informed canvasser came to their doors and talked to them about the issues. More cerebral than your average political operative, Rosenthal had taken an interest in the work of a couple of Yale professors, Alan Gerber and Donald Green, who reported in controlled studies that door-to-door visits were far and away the most effective way to get people to vote.

Given the finite resources of any campaign, she said, ''field people generally feel that registering new voters isn't a good use of time. It takes a lot of energy and time to register new voters, and you know they don't come out to vote.'' Instead, she told me, the Democrats' campaign in Ohio had adopted the old-fashioned strategy of counting ''hard yeses.'' They found stalwart Democratic voters -- the base -- and pounded them with mail, phone calls and visits to make sure they went to the polls.

ACT, on the other hand, reflected Rosenthal's dream: he could take what he had started in the labor movement, this push for new voters, and expand it into a national turnout program that was entirely separate from the party -- and over which the party had no control. He had run a field test in Philadelphia during the 2003 mayoral election, and the data were impressive. ACT had registered and then canvassed 87,000 new black voters in the city, and an estimated 38,000 of them -- or 44 percent -- voted on Election Day. By comparison, among new voters who had registered through other means, like the state's motor-voter program, turnout was at 30 percent.

We all moved on to Champps for lunch, where Rosenthal got a call from his office on his cellphone and began taking down the numbers from the first wave of exit polling. Kerry was up by 4 points in Ohio and Florida. He led by 12 in Pennsylvania. ''These look great,'' Rosenthal told Lindenfeld and Bouchard. ''I'll take these.'' The three men wondered why it was that they hadn't seen much evidence of the vaunted Republican turnout effort. The ''vote challengers'' that Republicans had successfully appealed to the courts to allow into the polls had never shown up. Field offices weren't detecting any sign of Bush canvassers on the streets or at the polls. It was as if all this talk about the Republicans' volunteer-driven machine had been some kind of a strategic feint rather than an actual plan.

On the way back to headquarters, where he would say his goodbyes before returning to Washington, Rosenthal saw two ACT workers standing in the rain, shielding their Post-it notes under their ponchos. He rolled down the window. ''Hey guys, great job!'' he said. ''Keep up the good work!'' The volunteers waved. ''Have you seen any Republicans?'' Rosenthal asked. ''No? They gave up, I guess. They're all back in Crawford, at the celebration.''

3 p.m.

....Our S.U.V. passed by polling places where people waited in line around the block, umbrellas perched over their heads. ''Look at that,'' Lindenfeld motioned to me. ''Out the door and around the block. It's a beautiful thing.'' The rule of politics had always been the same: the more people who turned out, the better it was for Democrats.

What gnawed at Bouchard was that nowhere we went in Franklin County, a vigorously contested swing county, did we see any hint of a strong Republican presence -- no signs, no door-knockers, no Bush supporters handing out leaflets at the polls. This seemed only to increase Lindenfeld's confidence. He didn't believe in the Republican turnout plan. ''What they talked about is a dream,'' he told me at one point. ''We've got the reality. They're wishing they had what we've got.'' For Bouchard, however, the silence was unsettling. How could there be such a thing as a stealth get-out-the-vote drive?

Bouchard decided that he wanted to drive to an outlying Republican area to see if turnout there was keeping pace with the city. Maybe the Bush campaign was waging a more visible effort in nonurban precincts. Obliging him, Lindenfeld punched a few keys on his in-dash navigation system and set a course for Delaware County, a fast-growing exurban tract north of Columbus where Republicans dominate...

Storm clouds massed and then erupted, dumping sheets of cold rain onto the Explorer's windshield. The mood in the car seemed to darken as well. ''This is not good,'' Lindenfeld said, turning up the wipers. Kerry's early lead in the exit polls should have been widening as daytime turned to night; according to the time-honored rules of politics, Republicans vote in the morning, while Democrats vote late. Instead, the polls suggested that whatever lead Kerry still had was fading, and the long delays at urban polling places, with the rain now bearing down, seemed to present a distinct disadvantage. Lindenfeld and Bouchard worked their cellphones simultaneously.

''Listen,'' Lindenfeld barked, by way of starting a conversation, ''the latest poll numbers we heard showed Ohio dead even. So you need to get back on the cellphone and work the Nextel pagers and make sure no one comes back early and punks out on their routes.''

Lindenfeld dialed a new number and talked as he changed lanes: ''Listen, it's now dead even where we were up before, so we need to make sure we get these people out there, O.K.? We're in an all-out, squeeze-it-out, make-sure-we-get-every-vote-out-there type deal.''

Bouchard was talking to someone in Cleveland. ''Hey, how's the weather?'' he said. ''What do you hear?''

As night fell, we reached the city of Delaware and found a polling place at a recreation center. The only people in the parking lot were a drenched couple holding Kerry-Edwards signs. Inside, the polling place was empty. ''Look at this,'' Lindenfeld said to me triumphantly. ''Does this look like a busy polling place? Look around. There's no one here.'' He repeated this several times, making the point that turnout in the outlying areas was tailing off, while voters were lined up around the block back in Columbus. ''Do you see any Republicans?'' he asked me, motioning around the parking lot.

In fact, a quick investigation of the voter rolls, taped to the wall outside the voting area, indicated that the polling place was dead for a less encouraging reason: most of the voters in the two precincts assigned to the recreation center had already voted. The officials in charge told me that 1,175 of the 1,730 registered voters on the rolls had cast their ballots. In other words, turnout in those precincts was up to an impressive 68 percent, and there were still two hours left before the polls closed. (When it was over, Delaware County as a whole would post an astounding turnout rate of 78 percent, with two out of three votes going to Bush.)

It was around 1 in the morning when Brokaw painted Ohio red. ''It is now hard to see how George W. Bush is not re-elected president of the United States,'' the anchor intoned.

A quiet disbelief descended on the room. You could hear the creak of a folding chair, a ringing cellphone, the intermittent sob. ''This is the end of the United States of America,'' I heard one man declare as he left the room.

Ohio had cost Kerry the presidency.

The Day After

About 20 staff members and volunteers sat around the TV in the ACT headquarters and watched John Kerry concede the presidency. Several of them hadn't stopped weeping from the night before. Sarah Benzing, a 27-year-old organizer who had helped design and maintain ACT's database of Ohio voters, cried on Bouchard's shoulder...

Sitting in his office, Bouchard admitted that he was, more than anything else, baffled. It was impossible to know -- and would be for some time -- whether ACT's newly registered voters had come to the polls in the numbers Rosenthal had predicted. What was clear was that ACT had exceeded the goals it had set for the total Kerry vote in each of its target counties in Ohio. In Cuyahoga County, where ACT had set a target of 350,540 votes for Kerry, he received 433,262. In Franklin County, where the goal was 262,895 votes, Kerry had garnered 275,573. In fact, Kerry's 2.66 million votes were the most ever for a Democrat in Ohio.

ACT couldn't take full credit for these numbers, of course; a lot of factors, not least the work of the Kerry-Edwards campaign itself, had contributed to Kerry easily surpassing what Al Gore had achieved in the state in 2000. But ACT had done its part, both in Ohio and nationally. Kerry received a total of 4,862,000 more votes nationwide than Gore did, and, according to ACT's breakdown, 58 percent of that increase came in the 12 battleground states that ACT had targeted. Results in some states seemed to bear out Rosenthal's theory on expanding the base; in Florida, for example, according to exit polls, 13 percent of all votes were cast by first-time voters, and a clear majority of them voted for Kerry.

None of this felt very consoling, however. ''If we could detach that way, we could say, 'Well, we're a registration-and-turnout organization, and we did our job,''' Bouchard said. ''But it's hard to detach from the political reality that it wasn't enough.''

Why wasn't it enough?

The New York Times > Magazine > Who Lost Ohio?


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