Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Supporters Get Incentive Plans at Bush Rallies

The New York Times
September 28, 2004

Supporters Get Incentive Plans at Bush Rallies

Want to see the president when he comes to your town? Get in line - to make phone calls for his campaign.

President Bush's campaign aides say they have hit on a novel way to recruit volunteers for his get-out-the-vote army. Anyone wanting to attend one of Mr. Bush's campaign rallies, anywhere in the country, has to get a ticket first. And anyone wanting a ticket, or a coveted spot up front, can improve his chances by putting in a few hours at a phone bank, canvassing Republican homes or putting up lawn signs.

Campaign rallies may be as old as politics itself, but in this year of earliests, firsts and most-expensive-evers, the Bush campaign has taken this most basic form of communication to a new state of the art, by pressing audiences to work as foot soldiers, before, during and immediately after Bush events.

The tactic points up a stark difference between the presidential campaigns: while Senator John Kerry is using his rallies and forums to try to reach undecided voters and to close the deal with standoffish Democrats, Mr. Bush is packing his audiences with supporters who must identify themselves as such in questionnaires and whipping them into brigades ready to blitz crucial districts to get every last voter to the polls.

Kerry aides scoff at the invitation-only audiences and what they say is the shanghai-ing of volunteers. "We don't require oaths of allegiance, and we don't take people captive," said Tom Shea, director of the Kerry campaign in Florida, after turning out close to 10,000 people for a rally in Orlando last Tuesday where, he said, 700 people signed up to help.

But Donald P. Green, a professor of political science at Yale and the author of "Get Out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout," said Mr. Bush's strategy was inspired. "There's a basic principle in experimental psychology, that the hand teaches the heart," Professor Green said. "You've now made phone calls for George Bush; that helps solidify your commitment to the campaign. If you weren't enthusiastic and committed already, you might be now."

At a rally in Bangor, Me., last Thursday, Katrina Waite had driven nearly two hours and then waited seven more under a sweltering sun to see the president. The reward for her early arrival? A spot way in back, atop a flatbed truck, where she downed cups of water fetched by her two children to stave off the heat.

Ms. Waite said her mother had earned a spot up front. "She did three hours of phone calling to get it," she said, peering to try to pick her mother out in the crowd.

If Mr. Bush likes to call his retail politicking "fertilizing the grass roots," the volunteer recruitment can create a kind of hothouse effect.

When Laura Bush came to Maine a few weeks ago, for example, scores of people were persuaded to stick around and make calls from a phone bank in the basement of the building where she spoke.

And when Mr. Bush concluded an hourlong "Ask President Bush" event in Hudson, Wis., not long ago, the 1,500 people who attended were directed toward a giant tent set up with tables, chairs and telephones, and encouraged to make calls for a few hours.

"In this campaign, we've taken advantage of every opportunity to engage people," said Randy Bumps, the campaign's Maine director.

The campaign began engaging potential recruits as soon as the Bangor rally was scheduled, a week earlier. Those who wanted tickets were required to apply for them, filling out forms stating their home and e-mail addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, willingness to volunteer and whether they supported the president.

And in the days before the rally, supporters were enticed to make calls for the campaign with promises of a spot closer to the president, according to many in the crowd.

Mr. Bumps said the "excitement" generated by the president's visit meant that the campaign for the first time met its weekly goal of 20,000 phone calls to Mainers.

Asked whether opponents of Mr. Bush's were welcome, Reed Dickens, a national campaign spokesman, said the policy was to reward Mr. Bush's most eager supporters first when allocating the "limited number" of tickets.

Even so, space is rarely scarce at rallies for Mr. Bush. Only about 4,000 of the 9,400 people given tickets to the Bangor event showed. (Mr. Bumps insisted that undecided voters were welcome, but if there were any at the rally, they did a good job of faking their enthusiasm for Mr. Bush.)

The invitation-only policy - and its application by what Bush campaign officials call overzealous organizers at the local level - has given rise to repeated instances across the country where rallygoers were asked to sign affidavits of support to get tickets.

And Mr. Kerry, at his own events, has taken to mocking Mr. Bush's policy. "No one here had to sign a loyalty oath to get in, right?" he said last Tuesday in Jacksonville, Fla.

Another result is a recurring cat-and-mouse game with those who want to taunt Mr. Bush. With rare exceptions, including the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who heckled Mrs. Bush in New Jersey, few have made it past the screening process. But in Bangor at least a dozen hecklers got in, which Mr. Bumps chalked up to the fact that it was Mr. Bush's first stop in Maine of the campaign.

One protester, Michael Thorne, 51, said he had come partly out of anger that Mr. Bush closed his rallies to the public. "He's my president, too," he said.

This was after Mr. Thorne had yelled "No more lies!" during Mr. Bush's speech, been quickly surrounded by half a dozen campaign aides heatedly yelling "Four more years!" and been hustled out of the rally with several others wearing anti-Bush T-shirts by security guards and police officers.

The Kerry campaign, mindful that Mr. Kerry still has Democrats to convince and swing voters to reach, has opened his rallies to the public. At the Orlando rally, for example, thousands of tickets were given away to constituents like labor unions and environmental groups, but tickets were not required, and thousands more people showed up after the rally was advertised on local radio stations the day before.

Kerry aides expressed surprise at the Bush campaign's focus on core Republican voters apparently at the expense of undecided or swing voters, and they said that the Kerry campaign was courting both dedicated Democrats and middle-of-the-road voters.

"It's like going to Disney World, only instead of the cartoon character saying you have to be this tall to ride, they have a picture of Rush Limbaugh saying you have to be this right-wing to get in," Mr. Shea said.

But Bush aides say that chasing swing voters may be a waste of time. "We believe that the number of undecideds or independent voters is smaller this election than ever before," said Mr. Dickens, the campaign spokesman.

The Bush campaign may be packing its audiences with die-hard supporters, he said, but it is holding its events in swing districts where every extra enthusiastic volunteer can make a difference.

Even those loyal audience members have their limits, however. Christian Morris, 23, a member of the Bush campaign staff, was rebuffed several times as she mingled in the Bangor crowd trying to sign up volunteers before Janelle Vigue, 17, accosted her and offered to enlist.

Ms. Vigue said she had her own reasons for wanting a glimpse of the political process. "I want to run for president some day," she said.