It's not how many vote, but who votes
By MARY JACOBY and SUSAN THURSTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 28, 2000
MULBERRY -- They spend their days making fertilizer. But at shift's end, the unionized workers of the IMC Agrico phosphate plant in rural Central Florida find themselves among the voters at ground zero in the battle for the White House.
"Who are we voting for, J.D.?" a worker asked as he headed for the parking lot last week.
"We're voting for Gore," said J.D. Crawford, the president of International Chemical Workers Union Council Local 968, as he stood outside the plant gates distributing leaflets attacking Texas Gov. George W. Bush's Social Security reform plan.
With the presidential candidates running neck-and-neck in Florida and as many as 17 other states, voter turnout is seen as key to victory by both parties. It is not a question of how many people go to the polls, but who goes.
The answer will be particularly important in Florida, where the prize is 25 electoral votes. With overall voter turnout expected to be low in the state, both sides are working furiously to ensure that their most loyal blocs of supporters show up in large numbers on Nov. 7.
For Florida Democrats, this means getting union members, blacks, non-Cuban Hispanics and Jewish voters to the polls. For Republicans it means motivating Cuban-Americans, evangelicals, gun owners and small business owners.
Both parties also are targeting people older than 60, who made up 31 percent of the Florida electorate in 1996 and who lean Democratic.
In a close race -- especially one that has generated little excitement among the broader electorate -- blocs of voters who can be counted on to support either the Democrat or Republican take on increased importance.
"Outcome is determined by who shows up, not by how many," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "It's about which side gets their active and interested to the polls. That becomes especially important when you have low (overall) turnout and a close election."
University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said she has never seen such an intense effort at turning out voters in Florida.
"But you see that in a close election. It's who's best at getting their supporters to the polls," MacManus said.
In Florida and other states, the polls have been too close to declare a likely winner. They also have been showing seesaw results, with Gore up in some surveys and Bush up in others.
Adding to the unpredictability is the nature of polls. They are like buckshot, generally hitting a target but in a scattered, imprecise manner.
Take the most recent poll of Florida voters' preferences in the presidential race. The New York Times/CBS News survey of 514 likely voters taken Oct. 22-24 showed 46 percent for Gore and 42 percent for Bush.
So, does that mean Gore is winning Florida? Not necessarily. The numbers are too close to know for sure.
The margin of sampling error for the poll is plus or minus 4 percentage points. That means true support for Gore could be anywhere from 42 to 50 percent and for Bush, from 38 to 46 percent. In fact, Bush could actually be leading Gore.
In other words, who knows?
When such uncertainty abounds, political operatives begin focusing on groups of voters whose habits are known and predictable. That's why efforts to turnout these groups have become so important.
For example, blacks made up 10 percent of the electorate in Florida in the 1996 presidential election. And they voted overwhelmingly -- 86 percent -- for Clinton that year as he went on to win Florida.
And so, the Democratic National Committee is planning to have President Clinton, who is popular in the black community, make recorded phone calls to African-American voters in Florida and elsewhere in an effort to motivate them to vote.
In Florida, groups working to turn out the black vote include the NAACP, which along with the liberal group People for the American Way, is funding a statewide get-out-the-vote tour by state Sen. Kendrick Meek and state Rep. Tony Hill.
Hill and Meek staged a sit-in near Gov. Jeb Bush's office earlier this year to protest proposed changes in affirmative action policy. Their effort targets not only blacks but women, college students and Hispanics.
The 445,000 active and retired union members in Florida are another key Democratic constituency. The AFL-CIO labor federation has set aside $40-million nationally for election efforts.
Republicans, meanwhile, are focusing on Cuban-American turnout in South Florida. Cuban-Americans make up about 7 percent of the Florida electorate, said independent pollster Jim Kane, and they vote about 85 percent of the time for the GOP.
The GOP is also counting on small-business owners, who like Republican stands against costly government regulation.
Catherine McNaught, a spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Business, which has 15,000 members in Florida, said her group is mailing pamphlets to members and urging them to bring like-minded people with them to the polls.
In general, though, Republicans have a harder time with get-out-the-vote efforts, said Kane, editor and chief pollster for the Florida Voter Poll.
"I think it's harder for Republicans because, outside of the Cuban-Americans, they don't have a clear constituency they can go to as the Democrats have, such as union voters and African-American voters," Kane said.
Over the past month, both the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee separately have spent about $800,000 a week on television ads in Florida and will continue to do so until election day, spokesmen for both organizations say.
"Florida is a battleground state and one we have targeted for victory activities," said the RNC's Terry Holt.
Democratic ads have attacked Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security and his environmental record in Texas. The party also has paid for recorded telephone calls by actor Ed Asner, who claims that "George W. Bush has a proposal that would undermine Social Security, even threatening current benefits."
In response to the Democratic ads criticizing Bush's plan to let younger workers invest a portion of their Social Security funds in the stock market, Republicans have run TV ads claiming that Gore is an inveterate exaggerator whose word on Bush's record cannot be trusted.
All told, national party committees in Washington have poured millions of dollars into the state since September, far outpacing the combined $2.5-million that national party organizations had devoted to the state before September.
In September, national Democratic party organizations transferred at least $6.1-million to the Florida Democratic Party, making up the bulk of the state party's receipts for the month. By contrast, national Republican committees gave the Florida GOP at least $3.7-million, accounting for more than half of the amount in state party coffers last month.
But this campaign is a ground war. No matter how many millions of dollars are spent on TV ads, victory may well come to the side that can reach more people one by one and look them in the eye.
Which is where J.D. Crawford comes into the picture.
At the phosphate plant in Mulberry, everyone seems to know the union president. A plant worker once himself, he greets his former colleagues in black jeans and a flannel shirt that is missing buttons at the midriff.
He is homegrown, one of them. And though some of the workers put their heads down when they see Crawford with a leaflet -- Republicans, Crawford says, "I can smell them" -- most greet him with a smile.
Robert Smith of Lakeland is one. He has worked at the plant more than half his life and said he will vote for Gore. Why?
"Because J.D. told me to," he said.
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