Posted: Nov. 1, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Democrats held a get-out-the-vote rally Saturday evening in Wilmington, three days before the election on Tuesday, and it felt like Old Home Week. 

Mayor James M. Baker was so relaxed he was practically doing stand-up comedy, and why not? He is running for a second term in a diehard Democratic city against a self-styled Republican candidate unacknowledged even by the Republicans who, if the truth be told, tend to have a fondness for the mayor.

"Now that we've gone this far, fussing and fighting over primaries and who's supporting whom, the only thing to do right now is vote straight Democratic," Baker said.

"I like some Republicans -- as people -- but that doesn't mean I'm going to vote for them. We can be magnanimous to the losing Republicans later -- even invite them to dinner."

Only about 125 people were there to hear Baker's riff at the Delaware Association of Police hall at the city’s fringe on Lancaster Avenue. The rally had the intimate feeling of a coffeehouse, nothing grand like the pageantry of the torchlight parades that once were used to rouse the electorate and sway votes.

The Republicans countered with their own Wilmington rally on Monday at lunchtime in Rodney Square, showcasing their lineup for the election one last time. 

They trotted out everyone from U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the party's star performer who is a former governor and lieutenant governor, to 27-year-old Ernesto B. Lopez, a New Castle County candidate for council president who was three years old when Castle won his first statewide race in 1980.

With Castle all but guaranteed to roll to a seventh term against a token Democrat, he was as laid back at this rally as Baker was at his. Castle played master of ceremonies to the rest of the ticket and humorously gave a special plug to James P. Ursomarso, running for the second-fiddle spot of lieutenant governor.

"I have never enjoyed a group of candidates more than this," Castle said. "We're going to start with the lieutenant governor candidate, because I was once the lieutenant governor candidate."

The Republicans' crowd was only about half the size of the Democrats'. Office workers did not pour out at lunchtime to get a look at the candidates, not even on a luxurious fall day.

Clearly the times are gone when the parties relied upon mass gatherings to whip up the voters to go to the polls. Instead, they are turning to organization, fashioning themselves into armies of operatives to identify likely supporters and mobilize them to turn out. 

The Republicans nationwide have a name for their get-out-the-vote effort. They call it the "72-Hour Plan." They launched the project successfully in 2002, using it to communicate with voters starting on Saturday -- 72 hours before the election on Tuesday -- to get out their supporters.

"Republicans invented it. It was very successful in the '02 cycle, and we caught the Democrats off-guard," said Richard L. Smotkin, who ran the campaign that year for state Attorney General M. Jane Brady, a Republican elected to a third term. "The Democrats will try to counter what we have in place, but we will be very competitive in the ground war."

The Democrats do have a comparable effort, but without the name. "Our purpose is not fundamentally different. We have repeated contact of one kind or another in the last 72 hours," said Richard H. Bayard, the Democratic state chairman.

The contacts can be by literature drops at the door, mailers or telephone calls, some in person and some automated. "We'll have the Big Guy doing automated calls on Monday -- Clinton," said Lee Ann Walling, who is running the Democrats' coordinated campaign to get out the vote. 

It is a cliché that turnout determines elections, it is said so much, but it does. The state returns in 2000 and 2002 show it clearly.

The Democrats won big in 2000 because they effectively matched the Republican turnout, and there were 43,000 more Democrats than Republicans registered that year. The Democrats turned out 68 percent of their vote, and the Republicans got out 69 percent of theirs, so the Democrats' numbers prevailed.

The result was the Democrats carried the state for their presidential candidate and elected a governor, and in the most momentous outcome of all, they defeated U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a five-term Republican.

The Republicans reversed the turnout trend in 2002, and it paid off. They got out 50 percent of their vote, while the Democrats plummeted to 45 percent of theirs, so the Republicans had a good year even though there were almost 49,000 more Democrats on the voter rolls.

The Republicans rode their turnout to re-elect Castle, Brady and the state auditor and to pick up three state representative seats in Sussex County, where the party got an impressive 57 percent of their voters to the polls, the best showing in the state.

As usual, the raw registration numbers favor the Democrats in 2004. There are 60,000 more Democrats than Republicans with the state's 554,194 voters split 44 percent Democratic, 33 percent Republican and 23 percent others.

It is a presidential year. Voter interest traditionally is higher, making it easier for the parties to get people to the polls. All of the debates, all of the handshaking, all of the clashes over Iraq or state prisons or corruption in New Castle County are pointless if the parties cannot turn out their vote.

The Democrats proved what they can do in 2000, the last presidential year. The Republicans showed they are capable of outperforming the Democrats, at least in an off-year election. The Republicans would not mind a little cooperation from the weather, either. Their voters tend to come out, regardless, so it would help them to get some Republican rain.

At stake are the Democratic candidacies of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Matthew P. Denn for insurance commissioner, and the Republican candidacies of William Swain Lee for governor, Jim Ursomarso for lieutenant governor and David H. Ennis for insurance commissioner.

Not Castle. After nine statewide elections, he appears to be registration-proof.