U.S. Democrats hope organization beats enthusiasm
* Voter turnout operation a key for Democratic hopes
* Obama and Democrats try to boost enthusiasm with voters
* Volunteers make calls, knock on doors to find voters
By John Whitesides
TWINSBURG, Ohio, Oct 14 (Reuters) - While his suburban neighbors relax in the evening after work, Steve Shucard hunches over a laptop computer at his kitchen table, dialing for votes.
Most of the calls to Ohio voters are wrong numbers, hang-ups or go unanswered. But once in a while, Shucard hits pay dirt -- someone who pledges to support Ohio Democrat Ted Strickland for governor.
"You're a good man!" Shucard said on a recent evening, recording the potential voter's response and vital information in a Democratic campaign data bank for future reference.
Calls and door-to-door surveys by volunteers like Shucard, conducted around Ohio and the country, are the backbone of a get-out-the-vote effort that Democrats hope will help limit their losses and counter a pronounced Republican advantage in enthusiasm for the Nov. 2 U.S. midterm elections.
With anger over the sagging economy and President Barack Obama's leadership firing up Republicans, Democrats are trying to muster their supporters one phone call or door knock at a time.
"Our path to victory runs through turning out our voters," said Greg Schultz, Ohio director of Organizing for America, the grass-roots successor to Obama's 2008 campaign and part of a Democratic turnout effort that also features state parties, liberal activist groups and labor unions.
Whether Democrats hold their majorities in Congress could be decided by how many of the 15 million first-time voters who surged to the polls for Obama in 2008 -- many of them young, black or Hispanic -- are coaxed back again in an election that does not have Obama on the ballot. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
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Turnout is traditionally lower in congressional elections, when there is no presidential race to attract attention, making it crucial for Democrats to pump up the involvement their core supporters.
The early signs have been less than promising. Those voters were largely no-shows in Democratic losses in governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey last year and in a special Senate election in January in Massachusetts -- all states Obama won in 2008.
"Here's the brutal reality. Either we close the so-called enthusiasm gap before election day, or it's going to be a really bad Election Day," said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis.
PUMP IT UP
Obama has hit the road to pump up enthusiasm, holding rallies on college campuses, taking questions through Facebook and Skype and participating on Thursday in a town hall on the youth and black-oriented MTV and BET cable networks.
A Democratic cable ad targets young voters featuring footage from Obama's recent rally at the University of Wisconsin. It urges them to "make history again."
The Democratic National Committee pledged to spend $30 million on a get-out-the vote drive focused on first-time voters, and launched their first national door-to-door canvas to identify voters in early June. Officials declined to provide statistics on how many contacts the volunteer effort has made.
"We know we are up against a very strong political headwind and we don't discount the enthusiasm we see on the other side," said Lynda Tran, a national spokeswoman for the turnout effort. "But we're encouraged by what we see on the ground."
Polls have shown a slight uptick in Democratic engagement in recent weeks as Obama made more campaign-style appearances and turned up his attacks on Republican economic policies.
But a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week projected Republicans are still likely to gain a U.S. House of Representatives majority, putting them in position to try to overturn Obama's healthcare and financial regulation reforms. [ID:nN13258322]
Some Democratic voters in Ohio, home to a tight governor's race, a Senate race and a half-dozen competitive House races, said they were not paying attention or have little interest in voting.
Jeri Winebrenner, a mother of three in Lorain, said she was still enthusiastic about Obama but did not have the same level of interest in voting as in 2008.
"I'm a little disillusioned by all the back and forth," she said. "I'm just not thinking very much about the election this time, there are too many other things going on."
Shucard and his wife Sharon, who open their house to neighbors twice a week to make calls on behalf of Democrats, said they sensed a reawakening of interest among Democrats.
"I think people are finally starting to pay attention," Sharon Shucard said. "The interest is going to build as people realize what is at stake."
From their kitchen table, the Shucards and neighbor Fran Jurecki called a list of potential Democratic voters to ask if Strickland -- embroiled in a tough re-election fight with Republican John Kasich -- could count on their support.
"No way," snapped one voter before hanging up. Undecided voters were offered more information.
"She said if she votes, she's going to vote for Strickland. But I don't think she's going to vote," Jurecki said after talking to one uncertain potential voter.
Republicans also are trying to turn out voters, although they have the luxury of channeling the party's grass-roots energy rather than trying to motivate a dispirited voter base.
"We're seeing that enthusiasm everywhere," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Katie Wright, who said party volunteers had made more than 25 million voter contacts in this cycle, a 25 percent increase from 2008.
"We have more volunteers on the ground than we've seen in years. We have people streaming in off the streets to knock on doors and call their neighbors," she said.
Democratic strategist Kofinis said a strong turnout operation was important, but the message on how the party would turn around the struggling economy and create jobs would be as important in getting Democrats to go to the polls.
"The message is what excites people to get out and vote," he said. "There is no doubt we'll have a more effective door knocking program than Republicans, but is that enough given the message voters are hearing?" (Editing by Jackie Frank)
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