Politics & Policy

Bill McCollum’s Ground Game

In a gubernatorial primary that’s more marathon than sprint, this Florida candidate is relying on grassroots organization.

When the debates, press conferences, and stump speeches wind down, the only thing that matters is whether voters go out and pull the lever for your candidate.

“Where you win and lose elections in the margins, which is where we are right now, is with your voter-contact program,” says Mike Grissom, statewide field director for Bill McCollum. After months of negative campaign ads and in the face of vacillating polls, this fact — and the 500 volunteers knocking on doors and making phone calls on the campaign’s behalf — gives McCollum’s staff confidence about victory in Florida’s GOP gubernatorial primary.

“We have good, true grassroots organizations and volunteers in every county in the state,” McCollum says. “We have an effort ongoing, and have for some time, to call people, call Republican voters, especially likely Republican voters, first to tell them about me, then to see if they’re supportive, and then to turn them out to vote.”

It used to be a sprint. The GOP’s 72-hour program, for example, so named for its goal of contacting voters in the three days leading up to the election, was cited as a success nationally in Republican victories at the beginning of the decade. But because of the new early-voting rules Florida implemented in 2002, these days it’s more of a marathon. Polls for the August 24 primary opened on August 9, and more Floridians than ever are taking advantage of the opportunity. McCollum’s campaign expects that up to 40 percent of its votes will be cast before Election Day.

“That number has been blown out of the water this year,” Grissom says. “Traditionally, it’s around 30 percent.”

The number of absentee ballots has jumped as well, in part because Florida has made it simple to request one. “If you requested a ballot in 2008 for the presidential preference primary, there was a way that you could request a ballot for the next three elections. You go and you click a box, and you have the ballots automatically getting sent to you,” Grissom says.

According to the campaign, as of Sunday, 227,656 Republicans had mailed in absentee votes, out of the 669,598 Republicans who have requested them. The race is on to capture the rest.

Volunteers, working out of their homes or one of the campaign’s ten field offices, are making tens of thousands of phone calls and knocking on thousands of doors each week. “As grassroots activists and grassroots political operatives around the country will tell you, the best way to motivate someone to go to the polls and vote is to have a peer-to-peer contact from someone in their community, and that’s what we’re doing,” Grissom says.

The campaign says it has an edge over primary rival Rick Scott in such a task, due to McCollum’s history in Florida politics. “Bill McCollum’s having been a part of the Republican party here in Florida and actively working with these grassroots activists around the state for the last 20 years — attending meetings, you know, electing Republicans — has really paid off on our behalf,” Grissom says.

McCollum is also leveraging his myriad endorsements, and has asked organizations to e-mail their members about the campaign. “This is the part of the game where the endorsements are really helping,” Grissom said. “We have all these folks like the Chamber of Commerce, the Fraternal Order of Police, the folks of that nature who are turning out volunteers, who are turning out people.”

Neither advantage, says the campaign, can be replicated by Scott. “We have an extensive organizational capability that he can’t have,” McCollum says. “He can have only what he can buy.”

Scott has poured more than $26 million of personal wealth into his campaign, and funded a bevy of advertising flights. McCollum has ads too, and some big backers have ponied up with advertising on his behalf, but McCollum can’t match Scott dollar for dollar.

But while the campaign can’t go toe-to-toe on air, it hopes to make up the difference on the ground.

“We have a great ground game. Some of the stuff that we’ve seen here for this election cycle in Florida is monumental in the amount of grassroots that we’ve put together in a primary,” Grissom said. “We knew that ultimately this was going to come down to Election Day, and who runs the better programs, and that’s why we have a good feeling about where things are right now.”

Kyle O. Peterson is Florida election reporter for NRO’s Battle ’10 blog.

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