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Volunteers Labor To Get Early Voters Out In Iowa


On a Monday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Never mind Election Day, we're in the middle of election season. That's definitely true in Iowa, one of the states that allows early voting and a state that is being fiercely contested. Supporters of both President Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, are urging people to beat the last-minute rush.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: On a weekend where the fall weather alternated between thunder and lightning, blustery winds and occasional sunshine, two suburban Des Moines campaign offices were bustling with activity, one for the Democrats, one for Republicans.

At a GOP campaign headquarters in Urbandale, volunteers worked the phones, sitting around a long table.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. Early voting is available now at your county auditor's office or designated location. Would you be interested in voting earlier?

GONYEA: Four years ago, President Obama carried Iowa with help from a massive and energized ground organization that far outpaced what the GOP was doing. This year Republicans here say that won't be repeated. Tom Szold works for the Republican National Committee's Iowa operation.

TOM SZOLD: We've already made four times more phone calls at this point in the cycle now than we did in the entire cycle in 2008. We've already knocked 14 times more doors now than we had in 2008. So I mean the numbers, this time they're on our side. It's the biggest ground game we've ever had. It's unprecedented in Iowa history. And I mean this is the enthusiasm that's on our side this year as opposed to four years ago.

GONYEA: One Republican volunteer who says she's putting in up to 15 hours a week is Sabrina Fest. She explains the new phone system.

SABRINA FEST: Yup. It's all pre-programmed so the name and numbers are already there. All I have to do is hit dial, it automatically calls them, and then I fill on the phone what they answered from the survey, and then after that it gives me my next person to call. Just a continuous cycle.

GONYEA: Fest says she's an answer to the youth movement that's been such a big part of President Obama's campaign. She won't turn 18 until after the election, meaning she can't vote, but...

FEST: It's important to me especially because I'm not going to be able to vote, so my voice really can't be heard, so I'm trying to get other people involved, especially the older people who can vote and making sure that they will vote the right way for Romney.

GONYEA: In the nearby suburb of West Des Moines, Rita Schneider(ph) and Ann Herteen(sp) are starting a Saturday morning shift knocking on doors. They're both retired, both grandmothers. It's raining very lightly as they head outside.

RITA SCHNEIDER: But you can't complain too much about that. We need the rain so badly. And this soft rain like this (unintelligible)...

GONYEA: Canvassing is tedious. Most doors go unanswered. Schneider is 70. She chuckles when I asked if they're part of the Obama campaign youth movement. Then she adds...

SCHNEIDER: There's work to be done and I don't feel like you should just sit back and gripe about stuff. I feel like you should get out and do something about it, and there's plenty to be done. So I'm doing what I can.

GONYEA: A printout tells them the name of the voter at each house and their party registration. On this day, they especially want to make sure people know about early voting.

ANN HERTEEN: You're all set for Halloween...

GONYEA: The outside of this house is decorated with giant spiders.

HERTEEN: I'm supposed to tell you about early voting.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, I already, I sent my thing in yesterday.

HERTEEN: OK. I'll make a note of that...

SCHNEIDER: And then we shouldn't be bothering you anymore about this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, because I'm a straight Obama fan all the way, so...

GONYEA: Democrats say they too have stepped up their game from 2008. Brad Anderson is the director of the president's Iowa re-election effort.

BRAD ANDERSON: We have nearly doubled the volunteers that we had in 2008 this go-round. And I would say in addition to that, the volunteers that we do have are better trained.

GONYEA: And, he says, they have many more campaign offices around the state as well. Both campaigns do agree that now is when they need to go beyond the endless TV ads and the robocalls, and using these volunteers - real people - to begin to make a final pitch to real voters one at a time.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.