Pop quiz. Which of the following statements are correct?
a) John Kerry is a liberal Massachusetts senator who has no chance of winning Arkansas because voters here think he is an elitist Yankee who will take away their guns, raise their taxes, and fail to do what it takes to keep America safe.
b) No, John Kerry is a war veteran and avid hunter who will strengthen America's position in the world. Arkansans have suffered under the policies of President George W. Bush, which have resulted in lost jobs, reductions in health care benefits, and underfunded education programs.
c) Arkansas will vote to re-elect President Bush because the state has been in the Republican column in every election since 1980, with the exceptions of 1992 and 1996, when native son Bill Clinton was on the ballot.
d) No, Arkansas is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, where most state legislators and all but one congressional delegate are Democrats. Bush won the state in 2000 only because Al Gore made every possible mistake here.
e) Kerry knows he cannot win Arkansas or any other Southern state, and that is why he is not going to make a real effort here. He stopped running television advertisements in the state, and is instead concentrating his resources in other parts of the country.
f) No, the Kerry campaign is devoting an unprecedented amount of money and manpower to their Arkansas organization, and they are determined to win the state.
Answer: It depends. Read on.
With the passing of the Labor Day holiday, traditionally the beginning of the campaign season, one thing is certain. Recent polls indicate that Bush and Kerry are running even in Arkansas, or that Bush leads within the margin of error. Most political experts acknowledge that Arkansas is a swing state, but they give Bush the edge.
As a result, the Kerry campaign's biggest challenge has not been coming up with a strategy to win Arkansas. Rather, they are spending their time trying to overcome the skeptics who think they are not going to even bother competing here.
The Bush campaign realizes this, and they continue to raise doubts about Kerry's commitment to Arkansas, in one case making a larger issue out of the normally obscure matter of television ad purchases.
"It has yet to be seen whether they will purchase TV time in Arkansas," said Mitchell Lowe, the executive director of the Bush/Cheney re-election effort in the state. He was responding to Kerry's Aug. 31 announcement of a $45 million television ad buy in 20 states, including Arkansas. "It will be a gauge of how seriously they will compete here."
By opting into the federal campaign financing system, Kerry is limited to spending only the $75 million that was wired into his account when he officially became the Democratic Party's nominee for president on July 28. Bush entered into the same arrangement upon his nomination last week.
With finite resources, Kerry is under a great deal of pressure to spend money only where he thinks he has a real chance of winning. Undoubtedly he has received a great deal of advice about whether Arkansas is worth his time and attention. And while the subject could be argued endlessly either way, his campaign's rhetoric and financial investment indicate that Kerry has made a decision: He is going to fight for Arkansas.
Joining the fight
Existing polling data at least shows that Arkansas is worth fighting for, because it is not definitively in one camp or the other.
On the one hand, an Aug. 23 survey conducted by Zogby International gave Kerry the lead over Bush, 48.2 percent to 45.6 percent. However, that is well within the poll's 4.4 percent margin of error, and it includes 0.8 percent of respondents supporting independent candidate Ralph Nader.
Making matters more confusing is a Survey USA poll, also conducted on Aug. 23, that put Arkansas in the Bush column, 48 percent to 47 percent. This data set had a margin of error of 4.2 percent, and it counted a full 5 percent in the "other/undecided" category.
However, these numbers deserve more than a literal reading, argues Terry McAuliffe, the DNC chairman. In an interview with the Arkansas Times during a visit to Little Rock, McAuliffe calls the recent polls "horrible news" for President Bush.
"The country is evenly split, and only a small percentage of the electorate are true swing voters," McAuliffe said. "They know who Bush is, and if they are not going for him now, that is bad news for an incumbent president."
This interpretation of Bush's standing and Kerry's chances in Arkansas has led McAuliffe to put his money where his mouth is, and he is emphatic in conveying the extent of his investment here.
"We've never had this big of a financial commitment in this state," McAuliffe said. "We have dozens of people here. You know I don't waste money. Arkansas is top tier, right there with the other battleground states."
To be sure, Arkansas is on the Bush/Cheney radar screen as well, according to Lowe.
"Everything is relative," he said in recounting Bush's four visits to the state since last November. "Kerry has not visited as often, and he has not spent as much on staff, radio advertising, or TV advertising. The indications are clear that Bush/Cheney is targeting Arkansas."
The DNC is currently supporting 23 staffers in Arkansas, and that number is expected to climb to 30 or more. Technically, the DNC-funded workers are under the umbrella of the Arkansas Democratic Coordinated Campaign, which acts as a central command structure directing resources to all of the party's candidates.
This allows the Kerry campaign to save money by only paying the salaries of two workers: the state director, Rodney Shelton, and the communications director, John Emekli.
Shelton, 33, is a Little Rock native and 1989 graduate of J.A. Fair High School. He served two years in the Navy, and then enrolled at the University of Central Arkansas, where he stayed for another two years before completing his degree at Philander Smith College. His political work began as a volunteer with the 1996 Clinton/Gore re-election campaign, and he ascended quickly; by Election Day he was the deputy Southern political director. Various administration jobs followed, primarily on the staffs of Herschel Gober and Rodney Slater, both cabinet secretaries with Arkansas ties.
More relevant to Shelton's current responsibilities was his time spent as North Carolina state director of the Gore/Lieberman campaign in 2000. That state was not considered within reach of the Democrats, so Shelton might as well have been in Siberia. He uses that experience to underscore the degree of the Kerry campaign's commitment to Arkansas.
"When I was first approached about this job, I said that I would not do it - and in fact I would pack up and leave - if Arkansas was not targeted," Shelton recalled. "I've been in a non-targeted state, and it's not fun when you have ideas but you're not getting backing. You just don't spend resources in a non-targeted state."
The argument that McAuliffe and Shelton are making is clear. Kerry is serious about winning Arkansas, because if he wasn't, their time and their money would be somewhere else.
The battle plan
There are two ways to approach campaign strategy. The romantics and idealists concentrate on policy, believing that voters can be swayed by good ideas. The hard-nosed politicos view such matters as superficial window dressing. They are convinced that the bulk of the electorate already has taken a side, so resources are better spent on efforts to identify and turn out the base voters.
The result of this tension is an issue-driven media strategy (the stuff we see and read and argue about with our neighbors) complemented by an ongoing sophisticated grass-roots operation whistling and grinding in the basement.
Kerry's Arkansas organization adheres to this model.
"This campaign is here to focus on real issues," Emekli said. "We welcome a debate on the issues, because the Bush/Cheney record is a broken one in Arkansas."
The focus of the Kerry campaign's rhetoric in Arkansas will be on issues relating to jobs, education, and health care. They point out that since President Bush took office, the state unemployment rate has increased, and in particular 30,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. On education, they cite Bush's failure to fully fund his No Child Left Behind initiative in Arkansas. And McAuliffe mentioned that Arkansas has one of the highest per capita senior citizen populations when highlighting Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's recent warning that Social Security and Medicare benefits may soon need to be cut.
Kerry proposes to address these problems in part by cutting taxes for people making less than $200,000 a year, eliminating incentives for corporations to send jobs overseas, increasing health insurance coverage, and fully funding No Child Left Behind.
In contrast, the Bush/Cheney campaign will attempt to divert attention from those issues to highlight cultural touchstones, like abortion and gay marriage, as well as Bush's forceful leadership style and his prosecution of the war on terror.
"In the first presidential election since 9/11, character and being a strong leader are two things the electorate is looking for," said Lowe. "In Arkansas, you also have John Kerry on the wrong side of other important issues, like gay marriage. And he was one of a handful of senators to vote against the partial-birth abortion ban."
How does the Kerry campaign plan to fight on that flank? They will defend their nominee's values, and turn the conversation back to their message.
"Kerry is a hunter, a man of faith, a father, and a husband," Shelton said in an exchange that illustrates the strategy. "But this campaign is about pocketbook issues, and people in Arkansas are hurting. Arkansans are savvy voters, and they are looking to the issues."
When you pull back the Kerry campaign's curtain of ideas and policies, you find the wizard of voter turnout. Michael Cook runs the Democratic Coordinated Campaign, which is mainly concerned with finding people sympathetic to Kerry and getting them to the polls.
It's a scientific process, helped this year by the establishment of a computerized voter file. Three years in the making, this database is accessible to campaign workers via a secure website, and it has information about almost everyone in the state who has voted in an Arkansas election over the last ten years. The program can create a list organized by geographic location, gender, age, and other characteristics. Using this data, a well-trained user can determine which doors to knock on, and which ones to stay away from.
"What we do is not exciting," Cook said. "People think TV ads and yard signs are exciting. But this is what you do to win elections."
Cook says he is constantly hearing complaints from people who think the Kerry campaign is inactive because they do not see yard signs in their neighborhoods or commercials on television. However, he is confident that he knows what is necessary to win Arkansas for the Democrats. For him, it is a matter of numbers, and between now and Election Day, Cook's operations will:
• Make 381,310 volunteer phone calls.
• Knock on 258,872 doors.
• Open two more field offices, for a total of eleven.
• Mail 1,039,379 pieces of campaign literature.
• Make 194,184 additional GOTV (Get Out the Vote) phone calls.
Statewide elections in Arkansas usually follow a familiar pattern. Democratic candidates win by large margins in the Delta counties, where they enjoy overwhelming support in the African-American community. Republicans balance those numbers with the tremendous advantage they enjoy in Northwest Arkansas. Often a contest is decided simply according to which party turned out more of their base voters, but sometimes the difference is made by appealing to the swing voter in the middle.
Lowe says the Bush/Cheney organization's priority is identifying Arkansans who support Bush and getting them to the ballot box.
"The polls consistently tell us that the state is evenly divided, and there is little middle ground," Lowe said. "We certainly want to persuade the people in the middle, but that will be done by watching the convention, the debates, and other means. Our grass roots operation is designed to get our voters out."
The Kerry campaign, however, sees more potential in reaching out to swing voters.
"We are not just concentrating on the typical base Democrats," Shelton emphasized. "We want to reach out to non-Democratic voters in the state as well. It is critical that we make a huge push in the Delta and Central Arkansas, but we are reaching out to everyone."
In the end, the Democratic party's ability to reach beyond its base will depend on the mechanics of its voter identification and turnout operation. According to Cook, the fate of Arkansas's six electoral votes hangs in the balance.
"The thing about an effective grass roots effort, it can impact about 3 to 4 percent of the vote," Cook said. "If you are running way behind, it won't make much difference. But in a close election, you can win or lose by a strong field effort."
Lessons of war
A strong field effort is just one element that was missing from Al Gore's effort to win Arkansas in 2000. Cook says that at its peak in mid-October, the Gore campaign had only nine full-time staff members and one office. By the same time this year, Cook promises 40 full-time workers and 11 offices, comprising "a more intensive ground game than ever before during an election year" in Arkansas. Just as important, the Democratic organization will be more extensive than that of the Republicans, which will consist of only 18 full-time employees and six offices statewide.
Another deficiency four years ago was that Gore made few appearances in the state, especially as compared to Bush. In contrast, Shelton promises that both Kerry and Edwards will appear in Arkansas as much as possible.
"It has to happen, and it will happen," Shelton says of the personal visits. "We just need to time it strategically."
Furthermore, Gore never gained traction outside of Democratic base voters because he was viewed as culturally out-of-step with average Arkansans. His position on gun control was particularly problematic.
This year, Democratic officials are trying to meet that issue head-on. Asked about Kerry's values, McAuliffe's first reaction was to point out Kerry's support for the Second Amendment, and he called Kerry an "expert hunter." In the same context, Shelton argued that Kerry "defends the right to bear arms," and referred to him as a decorated war hero and a hunter.
"Let's do a skeet shooting contest," Shelton suggested. "I'm pretty sure that Kerry would beat Bush."
Finally, a common refrain among Arkansas Democrats is that Gore lost the state in 2000 because he did not ask Bill Clinton to campaign for him. That message apparently has been heard. Just bring up the subject with anyone involved with the Kerry campaign, and hold on to your hat.
"Bill Clinton will be in this state many times," McAuliffe said. "He will live in this state. He has graciously offered to do 10 events around the country in September, and he has kept his schedule open in October to help. John Kerry has said he will use Clinton as much as possible."
In a similar vein, Shelton said, "We definitely have very significant plans to use President Clinton. He still resonates here, and he is one of the best campaigners ever seen. He creates nostalgia and buzz, and people get fired up and get out and vote. … We need Bill Clinton's help in Arkansas, and we want Bill Clinton's help in Arkansas."
Of course, Shelton said that before Clinton underwent heart surgery. While the procedure was successful, doctors are predicting that Clinton will not be able to campaign as vigorously for Kerry as originally planned.
Lowe concurs with the laundry list of Gore's mistakes. He just doesn't see evidence that the Kerry campaign has done anything more than recognize them.
"Kerry hasn't been here much, he is sideways on the gun issue, and we haven't seen Bill Clinton," Lowe said. "Two months out, that's where we are with the Kerry/Edwards campaign."
Two tangential factors may affect Kerry's chances in Arkansas this year: the presence on the ballot of both independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader and a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage. The former threatens to lure liberals who might otherwise vote for Kerry, and the latter could draw greater numbers of conservatives who might otherwise have stayed home.
For his part, Shelton refuses to acknowledge Nader's potential impact, even though a large number of Republican activists (including the chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, the Bush/Cheney campaign chair in Arkansas) were found to be gathering names for a petition to put Nader on the ballot.
"Nader is not a factor," Shelton said. "Remember, he was the Green Party nominee in 2000. Now he is just an independent. It's a very different situation."
As for the gay marriage amendment, Shelton calls it a "state issue," and contends that Arkansans are savvy voters.
"They may drum up a few votes with their hardcore base, but they would get those voters anyway."
Heading into the height of the election season, the significance of Arkansas is unarguable. The nation is evenly divided, and thanks to the Electoral College system, the outcome of the presidential race will be decided by a handful of states.
Most predictions that incorporate the Electoral College count show a small margin of victory for one side or the other. Campaign strategies that ignore certain swing states in favor of others can sometimes be too clever. For instance, advisors to Gore in 2000 had devised a perfect plan if you believe Florida was rightfully theirs. But by writing off Arkansas, they not only denied themselves a cushion for victory, but ultimately consigned their effort to defeat.
Arkansas is notoriously independent in mind and spirit. In 1968 the state famously voted simultaneously for a Republican governor (Winthrop Rockefeller), a Democratic senator (J. William Fulbright), and an "American Independent" presidential candidate (George Wallace). As recently as 2002, Arkansas was the only state to defeat an incumbent Republican senator (Tim Hutchinson) while at the same time re-electing the Republican governor (Mike Huckabee).
Most notably, Arkansas has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1972. Polls show that the race is currently a tie. The state's six electoral votes are a prize worth fighting for, because they may be the deciding factor in November. Kerry appears to have absorbed this, and the fight is on.