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Knock by knock, groups try to 'move the needle' in Alaska's US Senate race

For the last several weeks in Anchorage, two dozen people have fanned out across the city each evening, armed with clipboards, sheaves of stamped envelopes, and brochures printed with cartoon salmon and pictures of a grinning Mark Begich, the incumbent Democratic U.S. senator who's running for re-election.

They work for SalmonPAC, a group that says it will spend $1.1 million before Election Day on a grassroots campaign -- one that will see its paid canvassers knock on doors nearly 250,000 times by the time it's over.

On Thursday evening, one of the canvassers in a South Anchorage neighborhood skipped far more doors than she stopped at -- strolling past people in their yards and garages to arrive at some homes where there were no cars in the driveway and the lights were off.

After leaving brochures on the doorknobs of several empty houses, the canvasser, 31-year-old Holli Erickson, walked up the steps to the side entry of a duplex, past a moss-covered moose antler sitting on the lawn. She knocked, the door opened, and Erickson explained why the woman inside should vote for Begich, "our salmon champion."

"Can I count on your support?" she asked. The answer was yes.

That five-minute exchange was one of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, taking place nightly on the porches, decks, and hallways of Alaska homes, which for the next two months will be the front lines of a high-stakes, costly battle for Begich's seat -- one that could decide which party controls the entire Senate.

'Fighting over the same pool of people'

SalmonPAC is just one of more than a half-dozen groups deploying volunteers and paid staff on both sides around the state this fall to perform the most elemental of campaign functions: persuading voters to support their favored Senate candidate, and ensuring they get out the door on Election Day or file an absentee ballot.

The battle, however, does not take place at every house, which explains why Erickson passed by so many on Thursday. Her targets -- and the targets of other independent groups, the political parties, and the Senate campaigns themselves -- are primarily the voters who haven't pledged their allegiance to one party or another and, in political parlance, could be "persuadable." Or they're people who share the door knockers' beliefs, but whose voting records suggest they need a nudge, or several nudges, to remember to show up at the polls on Election Day.

"In Alaska, everybody's fighting over the same pool of people," said Joelle Hall, the operations director of the Alaska AFL-CIO, which sends out dozens of volunteers each weekend to talk to the group's 60,000 union members.

Those people -- the 55 percent of registered voters who are either nonpartisan or undeclared -- are getting so much attention that "they're already crying uncle," Hall said. And, she added, it's only September.

Tens of millions of dollars will be spent trying to shape Alaskans' opinions of the Senate candidates through television ads. But millions more will be spent on the people who coordinate and carry out the "ground game" here, which political operatives say can swing an election by several points. That's more than enough to matter in this year's contest between Begich and his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan.

"It's not glamorous stuff at all," said Taylor Bickford, an Anchorage political consultant who directed the Republican party's ground game in Alaska in 2010. But, he added: "When you're in a close race, being able to move the needle a point or two in either direction can actually make a difference."

At least 100 paid field staff and canvassers are already involved in the Senate campaign, working on both sides. Many of them work for the Alaska Democratic Party, which said it had more than 90 people on payroll in its last monthly disclosure to the Federal Election Commission. Other groups supporting Begich include the AFL-CIO and its affiliate Working America, which has roughly 20 paid canvassers, and the political arm of Planned Parenthood, which says it has at least six grassroots organizers and dozens of paid canvassers in Alaska.

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has 11 staff in the state, all of whom are involved in field efforts that support Sullivan and other party candidates. Sullivan has a few more staff of his own. Then there's Vote to Reduce Debt, a national group funded by a Texas oilman, which recently hired a former staffer of Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski to lead a field effort in Alaska to turn out Christian conservatives, backed by an estimated $400,000.

And Americans for Prosperity, the conservative nonprofit group at the center of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers' political apparatus, has five staff members of its own in the state and is operating a call center that hosted 20 volunteers and paid workers for an "action day" Saturday, a spokesman said.

The ground game has long been a basic element of campaigns, and for the most part, volunteers and paid canvassers aren't operating out of any special playbook this year.

"Alaskans having conversations with one another is the most valuable tool," said Max Croes, a spokesman for Begich's campaign.

But a few things will be different. Political operatives say they expect more activity in the field this year than in any election in Alaska's history -- and the last few years have also seen campaigns, armed with new technologies, develop a growing level of sophistication about those they choose to talk to.

Supporters of both Democrats and Republicans say they've learned lessons from President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, which scored potential voters with metrics as detailed as the speed at which they slammed their doors on canvassers -- and the national parties say they're applying some of those lessons in Alaska this year.

"There's a perception that both sides want as many people to vote as possible," Bickford said. "But they're really more interested in turning out their targets than anything else."

How voters are targeted

Typically, the work starts with a voter file, a public record that covers the whole state. It includes an individual's party affiliation and shows the elections in which they've participated and which they've missed.

Campaigns, parties, and groups can then augment the voter file with their own data gathered through previous door-to-door efforts or phone calls, like if individuals said they supported a particular candidate or were particularly concerned with candidates' stances on a specific issue.

That information can then be used to generate what's called a "walk list" for a particular neighborhood, either on paper or in a smartphone application, showing a volunteer or a paid canvasser which houses -- and which individuals inside them -- are worth their efforts.

Conservative groups, for example, don't spend a lot of time trying to turn out Democrats, and vice versa.

Just who is on those lists? Some of the groups working on the ground are up front about their targets. SalmonPAC, for example, focuses on likely Begich supporters who voted in the 2012 presidential election but not the last midterm election, in 2010.

Vote to Reduce Debt, meanwhile, aims at turning out an additional 10,000 Christian conservatives who voted in 2010 but skipped the 2012 presidential election -- an "odd" pattern, according to the group's political director, Patrick Davis, since people are typically more enthusiastic about voting in a presidential race.

"We think they're likely to be inclined to vote for Dan Sullivan because they voted in 2010," Davis said. "They just need an extra push."

The parties and candidates' campaigns, by contrast, refuse to divulge details like the size of the group they're targeting, or their identifying characteristics, or even the number of volunteers they have.

"It's strategic -- it's like the recipe," said Greg Bailor, the Republican National Committee's Alaska state director.

Generally, people who register with a party and show up to vote reliably will attract fewer phone calls and door knocks than so-called "low-propensity" voters, who might skip local and non-presidential elections.

Hall, the operations director for the Alaska AFL-CIO, said that each of the group's 60,000 members will get at least one communication about the Senate race, the governor's race, and a minimum wage initiative that's on the November ballot. But low-propensity voters, she added, need to be contacted as many as 10 times to make sure they'll actually show up at the polls.

"We believe in long, consistent, persistent visits to the door," she said. "You have to stay at it a long time."

Beyond knocks at the door

Door knocks are the focus of many of the field efforts in the state this year, but they include other elements, too. There's phone banking, though political operatives say recruiting volunteers for that job can be tough.

Campaigns will also use mail -- either to persuade potential supporters or to make voting easier for them in the form of an absentee ballot application. Erickson, the SalmonPAC canvasser, carried a stack of applications that she helped Begich supporters fill out, then place in a stamped envelope provided by the group.

And finally, campaigns can create new voters by registering them, typically at places where they'll find a sympathetic audience -- you're more likely to see Democrats registering voters on college campuses, for example, than Republicans.

While the two parties can be tight-lipped about strategic details, they're quick to tout certain elements of their ground game.

The state Democratic party and the Begich campaign talk about their outreach efforts in rural Alaska. They have 16 field offices, including in smaller cities and villages off the road system like in Bethel, Barrow, and Dillingham -- though Croes, the Begich spokesman, acknowledges that calling the Dillingham branch an office is "charitable," as it's actually a single room inside a laundromat.

"All the fishermen who are in Dillingham are going to come do their laundry at some point," Croes said.

While the Republican National Committee has five offices, and staff of 11 -- far fewer than the Democrats -- they say they've made one of their earliest and biggest investments in an Alaska race. And they characterize the size of the Democrats' paid staff as a sign of "desperation."

"Our ground game has volunteers who are enthusiastic about Dan Sullivan, enthusiastic about their state," said Bailor, the state director for the committee. "I would rather have that volunteer talking to their neighbor, talking to their co-worker, talking to their friend, versus somebody who isn't here for any reason other than that this is their job."

Zack Fields, a spokesman for the state Democratic party, said that "a lot" of the party's roughly 90 paid staff are from Alaska, but not all of them.

"There just aren't that many people who want to work in politics, or who don't have jobs," he said. "We definitely prioritized hiring Alaskans whenever possible."

Asked to respond to Bailor's criticism, Fields laughed.

"Our strategy all along has been to run a grassroots campaign," he said. While Democratic groups have so far run more TV ads on Alaska's airwaves, Fields added that he expected groups funded by the Koch brothers to ultimately outspend his own party by Election Day.

"The only way we can combat that is by having personal contacts and interactions," he said.

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