West Jordan • With just days until the election, Jim Matheson is giving a pep talk to a dozen or so volunteers at his campaign headquarters before they fan out and knock on doors.
“It’s rare to find a race where everything is on the line. You can really make a difference,” Matheson tells the group, recounting his 2002 campaign when he won by less than 3 votes per precinct. “If you’re wondering if it matters or not what you’re doing, it matters.”
In Murray, his opponent, Mia Love, spends part of the afternoon at Wheeler Farm, greeting families who have come to feed the animals, before knocking on doors herself, introducing herself to voters.
This is what the race for Utah’s 4th Congressional District has come down to: With millions of dollars of ads saturating the airwaves, three debates out of the way, and lawn signs and mailers and autodials peppering the valley, the race is dead even, according to the most recent polling.
The ad barrage will continue on television, but Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, said that at this late stage those spot lose their punch.
“This is going to come down to the ground game,” Cann said. “After I’ve watched tons of commercials, the chances that a new commercial might sway me in one direction or another is fairly small. But one thing we do know that’s effective in getting out the vote is if you can have a real, live, breathing human being show up at the doorstep and encourage them to go vote.”
Both candidates have stepped up the primitive, old-fashioned retail politics, hoping to drive those last few supporters to the polls to cast ballots that might put them over the top.
Hit the pavement • “It’s all hands on deck,” Love said. “We have just a lot of people coming in every day walking precincts. I’m actually doing it twice a day, so it’s a ground game, get-out-the-vote, get to as many people as you possibly can.”
Love raps on the door of Verl Lamb’s home and is greeted by a smiling senior who is on board.
“I get the cards [in the mail] every day and I appreciate what you’re doing,” says Lamb. “We’re behind you 100 percent.”
At other homes, Love hands out two pages of bullet points titled “Straight Talk on Mia Love,” an attempt to beat back some of the criticisms leveled at her in TV ads, perhaps an implicit acknowledgment that the information has stuck.
“Jim Matheson has been running a really negative campaign, so we’ve been out setting the record straight,” she said. “We’re getting to as many people as possible and we’re telling them to talk to other people [and explaining] that I’m not the person that he or the outside groups have tried to portray.”
The Utah Republican Party has bolstered Love’s ground game this year, registering 18,000 people identified as strong Republicans to vote by mail.
According to the party’s statistics, 39,000 mail-in ballots have been returned, 21,000 of them by Republicans, and that doesn’t include heavily Republican Utah County where the mail-in ballots have not been counted.
Add in the in-person early voting and 68,000 ballots have been cast in the district, 33,000 of them by Republicans. The party believes it is losing few of those voters and getting a large chunk of unaffiliated voters, as well.
Love also got late-game fundraising boosts from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who made his second campaign stop for Love on Wednesday, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Moment of truth • Matheson, meantime, is looking to harvest the seeds he began planting in May, when he started his voter ID effort in anticipation of a nail-biter election.
“I have utmost confidence that we have a more substantial program than anyone ever in the state,” Matheson said. “I’ve been big on field work in all my elections and I’ve never done anything this substantive.”
Several waves of volunteers are dispatched from the headquarters every day, armed with maps and packets of names of voters they are targeting.
“I know there are a lot of undecideds, but they can only stay undecided one more week,” field organizer Chase Clyde told the group of volunteers who gathered Monday. “The field operations, they don’t really lose elections, but they win elections.”
Typically protective of his internal polling, Matheson said his numbers show the race is breaking his way and that he is leading among those who have cast their ballots — an assertion that obviously conflicts with the early-vote numbers touted by the GOP.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Matheson said. “It’s a close race.”
The “X-factor” may be Mitt Romney, who could win upward of three-fourths of the Utah vote on Election Day, and how his spot on the ballot might drive up turnout — and presumably give a bump to Love.
Matheson says he typically does better in presidential years and higher-turnout elections, so the Romney presence may not be much of a factor. But Love says Romney helps her create a contrast with Matheson.
“I think people are going to come out in droves to help Mitt,” she said. “People know Jim Matheson is supporting Barack Obama … and I know people know I support Mitt Romney and I also know now that people know Mitt Romney is supporting me. From that point, people can go out and make their decisions.”
4th Congressional District
The newly created district runs from West Valley City on the north (including only part of that city) into Juab and Sanpete counties on the south. It includes all or part of the Salt Lake County communities of Taylorsville, South Salt Lake, Murray, West Jordan, Sandy, South Jordan, Riverton, Herriman and Bluffdale. Outside the Salt Lake Valley, it includes the cities of Lehi, Eagle Mountain, Saratoga Springs and Nephi.
For a map of the district, go to the State Elections Office and click on the designated district.