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The Democrats' secret weapon
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Bill Clinton campaigned in Arkansas this week, focusing on college campuses and urging students to support candidates like Mark Pryor, one of the most endangered Democrats in the Senate. At each stop, staffers scurried through the crowds, gathering email addresses and cellphone numbers that could be used to mobilize voters on Election Day.
In Wisconsin, where Democrat Mary Burke has a shot at deposing the Republican governor, Scott Walker, Michelle Obama struck a similar theme aimed at young women and blacks.
"When we stay home, they win," she told a large crowd at a Milwaukee convention center.
This is a hard year to be a Democrat. Every voting model gives Republicans at least a 3-in-5 chance of winning the six seats they need to control the Senate for the rest of Barack Obama's presidency.
Second-term presidents almost always lose allies in Congress during off-year elections. Obama's favorable rating hovers at a dismal 42 percent nationally, but it's even worse in crucial battleground states like Arkansas (34 percent) and Louisiana (37 percent).
And Republicans are more motivated than Democrats. According to a recent Gallup survey, 32 percent of respondents say they'll be voting to oppose the president while only 20 percent see their ballot as a message of support for Obama.
Still, this election is not quite over. If the Democrats have any chance at all of retaining the Senate -- and it's a slim one -- their hopes rest on galvanizing their own voters in Jonesboro and Milwaukee and countless other communities. One by one. Door by door. Cellphone by cellphone.
As union organizer Joan Zeiger told the New York Times at Michelle Obama's rally: "The biggest fear of the Republican Party is high turnout."
She's right, and that fear has come true before. Two years ago, Mitt Romney was absolutely convinced he was going to win. On Election Day, he was drafting an acceptance speech while his aides were organizing transition teams and planning fireworks displays. Romney lost for many reasons, but one of the biggest was his failure to anticipate the effectiveness of his rival's turnout machine.
Now, 2014 is not 2012. For one thing, Republicans have learned from their failure and copied the Democrats' strategy. As one conservative activist told the Washington Post, "People used to make fun of President Obama's background, but community organizing works."
Another example is Alaska, where the Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich, is fighting for his life. The Washington Post reports, however, that Begich has a "secret weapon: an expensive, sophisticated political field operation that reaches into tiny villages along rivers and in mountain ranges throughout the vast Last Frontier."
"We have knocked on every single door in rural Alaska," Begich said. "This is unbelievable. No one's ever done it like this -- ever. We're winning on the ground because we will turn out more voters."
Is he right? Probably not. But if the Democrats pull an upset, in Alaska and elsewhere, their "secret weapon" will be the main reason.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at