How the Democrats plan to win the Battle of Pine Bluff

What exactly is going on in Arkansas this summer? Frequently cited as one of the Republicans’ best chances to flip a Senate seat, it looks like it shouldn’t be all that hard. It’s true that it has been fertile ground for the Democrats in the past, (Mark Pryor didn’t even have a GOP opponent in 2008) but the President is deeply unpopular, and two years ago, Mitt Romney carried the state by 23 points. The GOP has a fine candidate in Tom Cotton (who I interviewed in April) and Pryor should be on the ropes. And yet, for some reason, the poll of polls still shows Cotton hanging on to a three or four point lead and lists the race as a toss-up. What sort of dark magic are the Democrats working here?

Molly Ball has done some sleuthing and thinks she’s come up with the answer. The Democrats have a secret plan and have been quietly turning and burning in dozens of field offices to register every last Democrat they can find and get them out to the polls in November. The author visited one such field office in Pine Bluff.

The office in Pine Bluff is a cavernous, mostly empty space. Six full-time, paid staff work out of the unit, which is open seven days a week. Long tables line the right side of the room; three staff offices—messy and largely uninhabited thanks to some recent water damage—line the back. A long list of rules scribbled on a paper tacked to the wall begins with these two bullet points: “Goals are mandatory. Meetings are mandatory.” Another handwritten sheet bears a quotation from Barack Obama: “Yes we can.”

Every weekday morning and evening, this space fills up with volunteers. Some stay in to make phone calls; others are sent out with a list of addresses to knock on doors, looking for voters. (On weekends, the effort intensifies.) Weeks like this, when it’s 95 degrees out with 50 percent humidity, it is punishing work, but they have been at it for months, and they will not stop until November. “Oh yeah,” says Collins, a friendly Pine Bluff native in her 40s, when I tell her I’m trying to confirm this field organization really exists. “We real.”

This strategy of finding and wringing out every last vote is nothing new and it’s worked in the past. In the case of Arkansas, there’s a lot of swing in the turnout numbers. In 2010, during the Republican wave, the GOP turned out 451K votes for John Boozman, while Blanche Lincoln only managed 288K. But in the 2012 presidential election, while Romney still roundly trounced Obama, the Democrats turned out 394K. The difference between 394 and 451 is a lot less daunting and shows that the Dems do have a substantial pool of voters if they can just turn them out.

The GOP allegedly has eleven field offices open in Arkansas. The Democrats are looking to squeeze every last vote they can out of the ten counties that Obama carried, such as the home to Pine Bluff. Are we taking this election for granted? Incumbency still carries a lot of weight, particularly with the media, and a big enough ground game in the inner city strongholds could deliver an unpleasant surprise.