On a recent Monday, a half-dozen troops assembled in downtown Las Vegas for what they call a "quick blitz" campaign. Armed with clipboards and petitions, two leaders entered the Fremont Street Experience, passing by "the world's largest pint," a beer glass-shaped pub named Hennessey's Tavern.
The goal of the half-hour engagement? A body count of about 100.
But this isn't war. Not exactly, anyway. This is politics. Politics with a heavy dose of marketing, including the bait and switch.
The bait? Issues. Jobs, community services and public infrastructure. Or, on the flip side, job outsourcing, corporate lobbying and "Wall Street greed."
"We're just looking for a 5-minute interaction with people," said Emmelle Israel, a coordinator for Working America. "We talk to them about issues. We get them to sign a petition. And we take their pictures. When we go door-to-door in neighborhoods, we might talk for 15, 20 minutes."
Working America has racked up more than 40,000 "members" in Southern Nevada this way, by hitting the streets and the phones.
The group describes itself as nonpartisan and, in its initial interactions, doesn't talk about political candidates.
The switch, to use the advertising term loosely, comes as the group, which is allied with unions backing Democratic candidates, relies on its member list to then appeal to voters based on the issues that most stir them up.
In Nevada, the group is "micro-targeting" voters in this way to persuade them to back U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Dina Titus over GOP opponents Sharron Angle and Joe Heck.
According to federal expenditure reports, Working America already has spent $40,000 here to do so. The Washington D.C.-based group is conducting the same voter outreach in eight other battleground states.
The political strategy, used by both Democrats and Republicans, is modeled after marketing techniques in which a beer drinker might be nudged to choose Budweiser over Guinness, for example, after weighing issues such as calories versus taste or U.S.-made versus imported.
"We're working every day to target the right voters," said Marlon Washington, canvassing director for Working America in Nevada. "It's definitely become more of a science."
Getting out the vote
After Labor Day, Working America, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, started openly promoting Reid and Titus, among the most endangered incumbents in the Senate and the House. Its work is just one piece of a multimillion-dollar get-out-the-vote effort by interest groups, the Democratic Party and the candidates themselves in a battleground state that is key to deciding if Democrats keep or lose control of Congress.
The drive is shifting into high gear three weeks before early voting starts Oct. 16, as Democrats work to overcome greater energy and anger from the Tea Party movement and Republicans who don't think President Barack Obama and Reid have done enough to revive the economy.
Working America focuses on moderate and conservative swing voters, those most likely to be thinking of ditching Democrats and voting for Angle and Heck in this election year of discontent.
"We're targeting working-class Americans who have been voting against their own economic interests," said Washington, explaining he tries to "flip" voters to Reid if they prefer Angle on an issue.
"Maybe they vote a certain way because they love guns. We're drawing them back to the economy and saying, 'What good are your guns if you can't afford the bullets?' Maybe they want tax cuts, but Angle's not really cutting taxes for the people we're talking to. She's cutting taxes for the wealthiest people."
(Both Reid and Angle are Second Amendment advocates, although Angle has the endorsement of the conservative Gun Owners of America. The powerful National Rifle Association decided to stay out of the race. On taxes, both want to extend Bush-era tax cuts from 2001 and 2003, but the Democratic incumbent doesn't want to continue them for households earning more than $250,000.)
On the Republican side, GOP-aligned groups such as American Crossroads are homing in on issue-driven Nevada voters, too. The brain trust behind the group is Karl Rove, who helped George W. Bush win a second presidential term in 2004 by using micro-targeting in 16 battleground states.
American Crossroads already is running TV ads here to boost Angle over Reid. And it plans to spend $10 million in Nevada and seven other states on get-out-the-vote efforts through Nov. 2.
Instead of putting boots on the ground, however, American Crossroads will work by mail and phone. It will focus on all Republican voters, as well as the independent voters who are most likely to go into the ballot box for this midterm election.
American Crossroads plans to use voter files and study voting patterns to deliver absentee ballots and early voting notifications to targeted Nevadans, and to persuade people to back Angle.
"In a race like this, every last factor is going to count," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads. "Micro-targeting is a system of leveraging every last bit of information into voter turnout to get your voters to the polls, whoever they may be."
In the end, turnout wins elections. Obama's victory confirmed this in 2008, when 80 percent went to the polls in Nevada compared with nearly 60 percent in the 2006 midterm election. Democrats enjoy a 60,000 registered voter advantage over Republicans in the state, thanks to the Obama drive to sign up new voters, pushing the total to more than 1 million now, with 15 percent nonpartisan swing voters.
Making the pitch
So how does micro-targeting work?
It usually starts with some sort of survey. Groups, parties and candidates often circulate petitions or conduct telephone polls of up to 5,000 likely voters to reveal their top concerns, whether it's the economy and jobs, taxes and the deficit, or education and the environment.
Then findings are broken down by groups, including by factors such as age and income levels. White men under 40 might care most about jobs, for example. Or black women over 60 might be worried most about Social Security. Or Hispanics might say immigration is their top concern.
Mail pieces on specific issues are sent to specific households based on voter profiles that pinpoint the issue the person cares about the most. The same approach is taken with telephone calls, with canvassers talking to voters about their top concern or issue.
Washington of Working America said he has more than two dozen workers going door to door every evening in Southern Nevada and that number will double for the final push near Election Day.
He described several phases of the get-out-the-vote effort, using the Reid-Angle race as an example, and the economy and jobs as the top concern given Nevada's record high 14.4 percent unemployment rate as well as record home foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.
Canvassers use scripted "talking points" to get voters to back Reid after asking if the potential voter is most likely to vote for Reid, Angle or is undecided.
If the voter answers Reid, Washington said the canvasser will say: "We're from Working America and we've done our research and we support Reid because he supports working families."
If the voter answers Angle, the canvasser says the same thing and, depending on how strongly the voter feels, might try to persuade him or her to switch sides.
"The Angle voters usually identify themselves right away," Washington said with a laugh, explaining they often have very strong anti-Reid feelings and aren't likely to change their minds. "They say, 'I'd never vote for Reid.' You don't waste your time with them."
It's the undecided voters -- about 8 percent, according to a recent poll -- that Working America operatives focus on the most.
Among their talking points are Reid's support for the $787 billion stimulus package that "created 34,000 jobs in Nevada," Washington said, reading from a flier. It also notes Reid supported the credit card bill of rights, backed an increase in the minimum wage, and passed the fair pay act. The talking points also note Reid opposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
There are no talking points against Angle, but Washington said he briefs his canvassers to tell people that "she's made cutting Social Security and getting rid of the Education Department and Energy Department a priority" and that she opposed the stimulus spending to create jobs.
If a voter plans to cast a ballot for Reid, the next step is to firm up when and where the person is going to actually vote. This is the "plan-making" part of the conversation, Washington said.
The canvasser asks how the voters will get to the polls. If they need an absentee ballot or a ride, Working America will arrange it.
The final 72 hours before Election Day on Nov. 2, an army of canvassers hits the ground, going door to door to ensure people will vote for their candidate as promised, Washington said. Working America has set a goal of hitting 80,000 doors, starting on Halloween, or Nevada Day, Oct. 31.
The parties and candidates will be doing the same thing. As for details, the Reid and Angle campaigns are keeping those private.
The tens of millions of dollars being spent on surveys, petitions and get-out-the-vote activity is expected to increase the likelihood people will vote in larger numbers, said Ken Fernandez, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
And with micro-targeting, the winner may be the one with the best sales pitch.
"They're reaching more people and there's more information out there," Fernandez said. "We can be somewhat cynical and say they're telling voters what they want to hear just to get their vote."
The messages won't all be in sync, however, which could confuse some voters. Third-party groups such as Working America and the Tea Party Express, which helped boost Angle to victory in the GOP primary, are legally prohibited from coordinating with political parties or campaigns.
But deep pocket and aggressive outside groups can make a big difference in the outcome. In 2006, Working America's 100,000 activists across the country worked with the AFL-CIO and other union groups to help the Democrats win majorities in the U.S. Senate and House.
Closing the deal
This year, the political winds are blowing against the Democrats, however.
In June, Obama promised a "Summer of Recovery," fueled in part by the stimulus and industry bailouts his administration passed over strong GOP objections. But the summer ended with national unemployment ticking up to 9.6 percent in August and private sector job growth slower than expected. In Nevada, the jobless rate hit 14.4 percent with the state not expected to rebound soon.
On Fremont Street, as Working America canvassers vied for attention, locals and tourists strolled by a multicolored "hippie" van. The parked attraction inside the open-air mall recalls the "Summer of Love." In 1969, the season ended with "Woodstock," an upstate New York concert to promote peace at a time of cultural and political upheaval caused by growing opposition to the Vietnam War.
Now, as then, an air of dissatisfaction and disappointment with Washington, D.C., is roiling the nation.
Rick Irwin of Las Vegas wandered by the bus after stopping to sign a petition and pose for a photo for Working America, which got his permission to use it during its campaign.
A union carpenter, Irwin was laid off last year after working on CityCenter, the $8.5 billion hotel-casino and shopping project that opened last year on the Strip. The gaming industry and Nevada leaders are hoping it will be an engine for a Las Vegas revival.
Irwin, a registered Democrat, could be grateful to Reid, who called bankers to help MGM Resorts International when the project was having financial troubles. The senator has made his intervention a selling point, while Angle has said private projects should succeed or fail on their own.
"I can go either way right now," Irwin said when asked if he would vote for Reid or Angle. "I think Harry Reid has been there too long. And I think they're just letting everybody come and take our jobs. There are 2,200 people in the carpenter's union out of work. We need work."
So, is he considering voting for Angle instead?
"Probably so," Irwin said. "It's because of my parents. They're going to vote for Sharron Angle. I've got my own mind, but change might be good."
Washington, the Working America canvassing director, grimaced and shrugged when he heard Irwin might not vote for Reid. But he didn't make the case for the incumbent on the spot.
Irwin would be getting a follow-up home visit soon for a longer chat.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there," Washington said after Irwin walked away. "We just have to get people to look at the voting record. People feel they don't have a voice anymore, and that's why we're out here to discuss the issues with them so they understand."
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919.