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Candidates’ ground game seen as key to mayor’s race

Volunteers for John Connolly worked their cellphones beforeameeting in the Roslindale field office.

KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE GLOBE

Volunteers for John Connolly worked their cellphones beforeameeting in the Roslindale field office.

Martin J. Walsh’s supporters have sent more than 18,000 handwritten postcards to voters who have been willing to listen to his pitch, but are not ready to commit to voting for him.

In his quest to become Boston’s next mayor, John R. Connolly asks volunteers to hold house parties for him, inviting 20 or 30 of their friends who are still undecided in the race. Some days, he visits three such parties. Last Saturday, he went to six.

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And every night, the field director for City Councilor Rob Consalvo’s mayoral campaign analyzes data showing undecided voters as dots on a map — all part of an effort to direct his field organizers to the blocks that will be most productive.

The Sept. 24 preliminary election for mayor is expected to play out as a fierce ground war — a highly personal, all-out skirmish to claim individual voters and urge them to the polls. The candidates in the first wide-open mayor’s race in a generation are using good old-fashioned shoe leather to pursue voters, while tapping technology that was unimagined when the current mayor took office to identify and lock down their bases of support.

Aides to three politicians whose campaigns became known for pioneering and perfecting data-driven field organizing — Governor Deval Patrick, President Obama, and US Senator Elizabeth Warren — have scattered, working for competing candidates, and are now tapping the same smart-phone applications and voter databases to track potential supporters in the same pool of voters.

With many voters still undecided and enthusiasm diluted among 12 candidates, the campaigns agree that this race, even more than most, will be no mere popularity contest but a test of each team’s ground game.

“We’ve really invested a lot into field because that’s how we’re going to win,” said Megan Costello, Walsh’s campaign manager. “When you have 12 candidates, you have to get one vote at a time.”

For John Barros, a first-time candidate running a grassroots, data-driven campaign, that has meant reaching out to voters personally to build a field organization from the ground up.

“Everything is about being out and talking to people,” said Matthew Patton, Barros’ campaign manager, who worked for the Patrick and Warren campaigns. “The conversation drives the campaign.”

On any given day, Barros has more than two dozen volunteers and seven field organizers chasing voters who seem viable as supporters, including those who have never before voted for mayor.

His belief: that he can expand the conversation about the health of the city beyond a sliver of so-called “super voters” now being pursued by many other campaigns.

In his pursuit of voters, mayoral candidate and Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley has been canvassing at least twice a week, joining volunteers who are out every day.

“We call it Danvassing,” Conley said on a recent trek through West Roxbury.

Councilor Felix G. Arroyo’s supporters and campaign staff have supplemented phone banking with “friend-banking.” They use their cell phones to call everyone they know.

“You’re going to trust your friends more than you trust any TV commercial,” said Arroyo campaign manager Clare Kelly. “Also with caller ID and cellphones these days, you don’t always answer calls you don’t know.”

Other candidates, including Councilor Mike Ross, put volunteers to work on phone banks using automatic dialers, technology that saves them the hassle of punching in number after number, often fruitlessly, and allows them to focus on people who are actually willing to talk.

Most of the campaigns have tapped into a database that assigns each voter an identification number and provides not only their voting history and registration, but also their age and demographic information. Many campaigns use a smart-phone application to track what voters care about and their enthusiasm for the candidate.

Voters are ranked on a scale of one to five based on the strength of their support. A “five” is someone who is definitely voting for someone else. A “one” is someone who pledges unequivocal support for the candidate.

“That creates a constant flow of data back into the campaign,” said Kevin Franck, a spokesman for the Consalvo campaign, which has hired 40 or 50 organizers. “We analyze that data every night it comes in, look at trends, and decide where we’re going to go.”

But modeling that has helped modern campaigns target voters based on their demographics may be less useful in this campaign than in prior contests, some say. With 12 people running, and all but one a Democrat, the candidates have a lot of crossover appeal, geographically, ethnically, and based on issues.

“We haven’t seen any race like this since [Mayor] Tom Menino’s first race, in which neighborhoods were divided,” said Darryl Smith, field adviser to mayoral candidate Charlotte Golar Richie. “Everybody has to find their base, has to deliver their base, and expand throughout the city. That takes a different type of formula to be able to know where you are building strength and go out and get those votes. It’s not a simple process.”

Golar Richie, a former state representative from Dorchester who previously worked as Menino’s housing chief, had to reassemble supporters after years outside of politics. She now has ward coordinators throughout the city and about 350 volunteers, Smith said.

Other campaigns have assembled larger machines. Connolly’s campaign estimates he has 875 volunteers, knocking on doors or working regular shifts on phone banks, reaching out to voters in English, Spanish, Russian, and Haitian Creole. The campaign has made 444,318 attempts to reach voters by phone or at their front doors, and supporters have had 84,342 actual conversations with voters, said spokeswoman Martha Bixby.

On a recent Thursday night, nearly 100 Connolly volunteers packed his Roslindale campaign headquarters for a rally where the candidate implored them to “give it every ounce we’ve got” in the final stretch.

“This is all about neighbors talking to neighbors at this point,” Connolly said. “There’s a lot of undecided voters out there. They’re gonna swing this election.”

The Walsh campaign estimates its volunteer crew at 1,500 — an army that is further supplemented by the well-organized foot soldiers from labor who are working on his behalf.

Walsh, a state representative since 1997, has 17 paid field organizers who are responsible for recruiting other volunteers and exponentially increasing Walsh’s outreach.

“Every day we’d better see those numbers grow,” said Walsh field director Joe Rull, a veteran of campaigns for Patrick, Warren, and Menino.

Walsh aides estimate that his campaign has attempted to reach out to voters more than 337,600 times and has had actual conversations with 112,969 voters. He also dispatches his most persuasive advocates — known as his Specialized Walsh Action Team, or, yes, SWAT — to target their most sought-after undecided voters.

Still, many voters have not figured out who they will support on Sept. 24, when the field of 12 will be slashed to two finalists for the Nov. 5 general election.

That level of uncertainty adds an inherent risk to the campaigns’ efforts to drive people to the polls, noted Paul Watanabe, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“That means you’re spending a lot of time trying to go after voters who are not at all reliable, maybe not even persuadable,” Watanabe said.

In the coming days, the campaigns will transition into their get-out-the-vote operation — focusing their efforts on reminding their supporters to show up at the polls. They plan to call or visit them as many as three times in the final days.

When the voting starts, volunteers from many campaigns will be stationed at polling places, tracking which of their supporters have turned out. They will dispatch others to track down late-comers and drive them to the polls if necessary.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieebbert. Globe Staff writers Maria Cramer and Akilah Johnson contributed to this report.
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