If this is true, by the time Election Day rolls around, Republicans will be at a disadvantage, because their people will have already voted. But the numbers Freundlich cited for this contention didn't show an enormous gap in Democrats' favor. Just 14 percent of Republican early voters didn't vote in 2010, she said, while 20 percent of Democratic early voters didn't vote in the last midterm. That's not a huge difference. Similarly, Democrats claim that, based on their targeting, the unaffiliated voters who've cast ballots early are overwhelmingly Braley voters, but the relatively small proportion of independents who vote early—about 55,000 so far—makes this a limited advantage as well. Overall, polls show neither candidate with a clear lead among independent voters.
Democrats have invested hugely in their ground game this year, hoping to replicate the vaunted Obama organization on a state-by-state scale. Nationally, the party is spending $60 million to hire 4,000 staffers across 10 states. In Iowa, Democrats have 35 field offices to Republicans' 13. "Winners Walk! Losers Talk!" says a poster on the wall of the one in Newton, which smells strongly of the Panda Garden Chinese restaurant next door.
But even at its best, experts say, the ground game only moves the vote a couple of percentage points. And when everything else is against you—an unpopular president, a sour national mood, a difficult midterm landscape, underperforming candidates—an army of phone-callers and door-knockers, backed by state-of-the-art targeting and modeling, still may not be enough to overcome the obstacles. You can't get people out to vote who don't want to vote.
Cindy Pollard knows her territory so well she sometimes knows voters' names before she looks at her clipboard, with its printed, street-by-street list of addresses. The first thing she does when she gets the list is throw away the map that comes with it. She's been told that, with more than 700 ballot requests to her name, she's the party's top Iowa volunteer. She knows which houses you have to approach by knocking on the garage instead of the door, because the men hang out there drinking beer. She's been yelled at, attacked by dogs, and asked how much it costs to vote.
A retired nurse and Iowa native, Pollard moved here from Des Moines 15 years ago to be with her longtime partner—now her wife. She spent years canvassing for anti-gay-marriage Democrats, believing they would one day come around, and it finally happened. She worked for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and can't wait to do it again in 2016.
And Pollard is sure she is making a difference. In the dark, sketchy apartment complex, where the stairwells' dirty walls radiate old cigarette smoke, she knocks on an upstairs door and it opens. Samantha Montgomery, a 25-year-old in sweat shorts and bare feet, seems ambivalent at first. She says she's an independent. She's a single mom, on her own, just got a job at a printing shop after a long time looking. High School Musical 2 is paused on the TV in the small living room behind her. She says her income is "below poverty" and she still owes $26,000 on the two-year degree she didn't finish. The election is on her birthday.