Door-to-door efforts to identify, persuade and turn out voters might be the difference between victory and defeat in the Nov. 5 election for governor.
Campaigns often “inflate the importance” of their ground game, said University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss. But in this race, Voss said he expects it will have “disproportionate influence” because of questions about Gov. Matt Bevin’s ability to get Republicans to the polls.
Eric Hyers, campaign manager for Democratic candidate Andy Beshear, said the campaign’s efforts are exceeding expectations and could make the difference on Nov. 5. Bevin campaign manager David Paine said the campaign does not comment on ground-game tactics.
As of Thursday, Beshear’s campaign had knocked on 660,000 doors, communications director Sam Newton said. The Census Bureau estimates that Kentucky has about 1.7 million occupied housing units.
To be clear, Newton’s number refers to numbers of doors knocked on, not the number opened to canvassers. Whenever a knock goes unanswered, campaign literature is left behind.
Hyers said those efforts won’t be reflected in any polling, and won’t be evident until voting closes on Election Day, but he predicted the campaign’s canvassing will add 3 to 5 percentage points to Beshear’s share of the vote.
The campaign is prioritizing the ground game particularly because it’s expected to be “a really close race,” Hyers said. A poll by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, conducted Oct. 10-13, had Bevin and Beshear tied at 46% among likely voters.
There is good evidence that person-to-person canvassing does get out the vote, Voss said, and two factors increase that effectiveness: when the canvasser has some sort of personal relationship with the targeted voter, and when the canvassing is done close to Election Day.
On Sept. 30, when the campaign was closing in on 500,000 doors knocked, Hyers said the campaign was already far ahead of its “benchmarks,” but Voss said that hitting all these houses so long before the election could lessen its effectiveness, unless there’s a follow-up from the campaign.
Hyers said the Beshear campaign tries to keep volunteers in their communities and neighborhoods so they can better explain to their friends and neighbors why Beshear has their support.
Voss said Democrats often boast about their ground game — which is aided by the urban nature of most Democrats, making it easier for Democratic candidates to reach large numbers of voters.
“We’ve seen those boasts fall short in other elections many times,” Voss said. “But Bevin’s problem with the Republican Party makes this current election not like ones in the past.”
Bevin got 52% of the vote in a four-way Republican primary in which he had only one active opponent, but the recent poll showed that his support among registered Republicans at 77%, up from 67% in December.
Normally Republicans would likely have a “non-conscious” ground game that counteracts some of the Democrats’ canvassing, Voss said, but Bevin’s tensions inside his party — such as those with Republican legislators or the many public-school teachers who have historically voted Republican — might lessen how much Republicans canvass for Bevin.
No numbers are available for Bevin’s campaign to make a direct comparison, and that “non-conscious” ground game — essentially, informal advocacy by word of mouth — is rarely measurable anyway. However, two county chairs of the Republican Party said efforts for Bevin seem strong.
Woodford County Chair Dan Fister said Republicans have been out canvassing as well as making calls in that area, including a “Super Saturday” of canvassing a few weeks ago.
“In my experience, we’ve gotten a very warm reception at the doorstep,” Fister said, predicting Bevin will carry the county again. In 2015, he won it by just 100 votes over Democrat Jack Conway, out of 8,004 cast. The county voted for Beshear in the attorney-general race that year.
Phyllis Vincent, chair of the Franklin County Republican Party, said she has been hearing good things about Bevin’s ground game: “Everything is pretty active.”
Historically a Democratic stronghold, Franklin County gave 58% of its vote to Conway in 2015.
Interest groups can also canvass for a candidate, independent from the official campaign. The Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion candidates, has endorsed Bevin and other Kentucky Republican candidates and the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, announced at an Oct. 11 press conference that the organization has knocked on 75,000 doors on Bevin’s behalf.
The organization’s goal is 250,000 before Election Day, said Vice President of Communications Mallory Quigley. She said that while the organization began its field operations for political candidates in 2014, this is the first race in which it has mobilized its full field operation for a candidate for state office.
The importance of ground game also depends partly on voter turnout, which was 30.6% of registered voters in the 2015 election. However, Voss said people also tend to exaggerate the hope that ground game will swing a low-turnout election.
“There’s still plenty of cases where the folks with the more active ground game lost,” Voss said.
But again, this election is somewhat atypical, Voss said.
“The less an election mobilizes the swing voters, the more that turning out core supporters can make a difference,” Voss said. “Both the nastiness of the current election and Gov. Bevin’s problems with his own party make me think that swing voters might be turned off more than usual this election year.”
Bailey Vandiver, a University of Kentucky journalism major, is covering the 2019 gubernatorial race for The State Journal.