Forget position papers and talking points: Now it’s about turnout

Connecticut’s most expensive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns end today with the oldest, most fundamental question in politics: Who is going to show up to vote?

The consensus of a half-dozen recent polls is a gubernatorial race too close to call for Democrat Dan Malloy or Republican Tom Foley and a U.S. Senate contest led by Democrat Richard Blumenthal over Republican Linda McMahon.

Backed by national polling, Republicans claim to be on the right side of an “enthusiasm gap” for the first time in at least four years, but polls can be confounded by a superior get-out-the-vote organization.

According to McMahon’s campaign, her internal polling gives her an edge among voters most interested in the race. But as the pool of voters broadens, so does Blumenthal’s lead.

“That’s why the atmospherics, the mood of the electorate is significant,” said Ed Patru, the communication director for McMahon.

So, on a voter interest scale of 1 to 10, who will show up? All the 10s? Most of the 9s? A majority of the 8s? Many of the 7s? Some of the 6s? Few of the fives?

Turnout typically is the major variable in elections, the factor that can make good pollsters look silly and turn sure-thing candidates into upset losers.

Just ask Ned Lamont. Running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, he was up 3 percentage points on the eve of the party primary in August. But Lamont lost by 14 points to Malloy – a landslide anticipated by no internal or public poll.

Every poll found Lamont to be better-known and better-liked by the broad pool of Democratic voters, but primaries are dominated by the most active and most attentive Democrats. And those voters had been cultivated by Malloy for more than a year.

With strong union drives and visits over the weekend by President Obama and Bill Clinton, Malloy said Democrats are trying to ensure that pollster assumptions about a lower than normal turnout in urban areas do not hold up.

Democratic voters were getting recorded calls Monday from a familiar figure.

“Hello, this is Bill Clinton. I’m calling today to ask you to vote for my friends, Dick Blumenthal and Dan Malloy,” Clinton said. “It’s a critical election, and your vote can make all the difference.”

“If we have voting figures that are anywhere near 2006, we win. That’s it,” said Malloy, who spent Monday evening with Blumenthal at get-out-the-vote events in the state’s strongest Democratic city, New Haven.

One of their joint stops was at a lasagna dinner for 75 union members who had spent the day door-knocking in New Haven. They are members of the union that represents service workers at Yale University, Unite Here!

“We’re the political game in town,” said Bob Proto, the president of Local 35 of Unite Here! “We’re the largest union in New Haven.”

Malloy and Blumenthal know that. Each took time to thank the union members – and demand more over the last 24 hours of the campaign.

“You will be the margin of victory,” Blumenthal told them. “Your work – have no doubt about it, no doubt about it — you will be the difference in this election, because we’re going to win it the old-fashioned way, with people, not dollars.”

“You have a goal,” Malloy said. “Every contact, every person gets brought to the polls, gets a ride, gets reminded —  gets pounded, time and time and time again.”

“Our work is going to make the difference tomorrow,” Proto told them. “If we work from 8 to 8 and don’t leave anything out there – we follow up on our lists, we do our calls, we move people from Point A to Point B – then we will have a governor that understands workers.”

The Republicans have nothing analogous to the unions for a get-out-the-vote drive – except the McMahon organization, which was built from the ground up, starting in September 2009.

With a budget of $50 million, McMahon has hired enough staff to knock on doors, make calls and collect data on every voter contact.

McMahon said her campaign has made more than 400,000 phone calls and knocked on 100,000 doors over the course of her bid. This last weekend alone, she said they’d knocked on 15,000 doors.

“We’ve got a great ground game,” she said at a campaign stop in Storrs, on the University of Connecticut campus.

A Quinnipiac University released Monday had Blumenthal leading McMahon, 53 percent to 44 percent.

“The greater the turnout, the better Blumenthal does,” said Douglas Schwartz, the director of the Quinnipiac University poll. “Assuming a typical off-year election turnout, he still is ahead by 9 points.”