Making of a Candidate: Turning voters into votes

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Once the mailers have been sent out, posters posted, ads purchased and volunteers enlisted, the focus for campaigners shifts from getting a candidate’s name out there to actually getting voters into the polling booths.

“Getting out the vote” becomes the mantra as an election approaches, and a good campaigner knows that no matter how many hands a candidate shakes, how many times he or she speaks in public, how much money is spent on advertising, it all comes down to Election Day.

Referred to by political insiders and campaign advisers in northeast Queens as an “election pull operation,” the ability to bring the right bodies to polling sites can be the true measure of a campaign’s efficiency.

“It’s one of the most important aspects of the election. If you can’t get the people you identified [as likely voters] to vote, you’ve lost the election,” said James McClelland, a campaign consultant for Democrat Isaac Sasson, a candidate in the 16th Senate District race.

McClelland has helped run many campaigns over the last couple of decades, including Republican Peter Koo’s successful bid in last year’s race for Flushing’s City Council seat. “If they say, ‘Yes,’ but they don’t go to the polls, it’s for naught,” he said.

As Lois Marbach, owner of the Promotional Strategies political consulting firm said, planning for Election Day begins long before the polls open. She has run dozens of campaigns throughout Queens, New York City and the state and is currently working on Democrat Steve Behar’s bid for the 26th state Assembly District seat in northeast Queens and consulting for incumbent Assemblywoman Democrat Catherine Nolan, who is up for re-election in the 37th Assembly District in western Queens against Republican John Wilson.

“From the day you decide you’re running, it’s Election Day you’re planning for,” Marbach said. “It’s the prize, it’s the goal and it’s something you work for all the time.”

The direct result of all the pre-Election Day activity is that a good campaign will have some money in its war chest and, perhaps more importantly, a good “voter ID log.” This log is often just a Microsoft Excel document, but it contains the key to winning: all the vital information necessary to run a successful Election Day operation.

It lists all the people who have been identified through door-to-door canvassing, phone banking and other methods as being likely to vote for a candidate. In McClelland’s operation, they are listed as “super-prime, triple-prime, double-prime and single-prime” voters to indicate their likelihood of actually casting a ballot for the right candidate.

The game starts early on Election Day when campaign staff need to hit the phones and the streets early to contact as many identified voters as possible at their homes before they leave for work. Contact with these “first-wave” voters, as they are known in Queens politics — “second-wavers” vote on their way home from work — may be nothing more than a quick phone call reminding them who to vote for, a quick conversation on their stoop or an ad hanging on their doorknob.

Making contact on Election Day is crucial for getting out the vote, but the operation does not end there.

Before the election, a good campaign will get poll-watcher certificates and documents allowing representatives of a campaign to go inside the polls and view the logs that record voter turnout as the day progresses, McClelland said. This lets them know who has actually shown up to vote.

Depending on the volume of voters and the disposition of the election’s inspector on duty at a given site, it can be difficult to get this information, but campaigns gather as much of it as they can as the day moves along.

“You go by [Assembly district and election district] and see the number of votes, and if by voter ID we know in one A.D. we have 50 solid ID’ed voters, and the poll book says we had only 15 who voted, we need to get out and pound on doors,” McClelland said. “You have a wall board with poll sites and the A.D. and the E.D. What we do is we say one of our people is responsible for, say, PS 21, and they’ll go there and find out via E.D. and A.D. how many votes we have, then they’ll call that in. It’s a very controlled chaos on the day of Election Day.”

This obsession with contacting as many voters as possible is absolutely necessary to winning a race´╗┐, Marbach said, especially in districts where campaign representatives may try to do shady things to sway voters to vote for their candidates. Rules are in place to prevent such actions, but they still occur all too often in areas with lots of new voters, such as immigrant communities.

“It’s very important, particularly in races with multiple candidates, to remind the voter that you’re there and to make sure everything runs smoothly and to remind people to vote for your candidate,” she said. “In areas where it’s very contentious and a lot of minorities, sometimes it gets very confusing for them and sometimes people get very aggressive at the polling sites. People do underhanded things, they try to mislead the voters, they try to capitalize on voter confusion.”

Halfway through the day, during the midday lull, as campaigners call the afternoon period when most people are working, McClelland maintains his energy and sanity by going home for a cold shower and always takes the time to cast his own vote before heading back to the frenzy of the campaign office.

Election Day is a chaotic, intense, very long day — often beginning at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning and running well into the night — but in the end it is extremely rewarding to those who are there to make it happen, McClelland and Marbach both said.

“It’s fast and it’s furious. It’s a hard task,” McClelland said. “It’s crazy, Election Day. But it’s exciting.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4538.

Updated 6:10 pm, October 10, 2011
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