There have been grand pronouncements about the need for a city governed more transparently, bold promises about remaking public education, and more pedestrian debates over how many Hubway bike stations belong in neighborhoods.
But the broad-brush policy proposals that marked the first six months of the Boston mayor’s race give way Tuesday to the most prosaic of traditions: some way, any way, of getting voters to the polls for the preliminary election.
There is more on the line than the usual bragging rights. The winner of the Nov. 5 final election will not only assume the mantle of mayor, but will also be able to quickly appoint the new leaders of the school and police departments. Those choices can reshape much of city life.
Get-out-the-vote operations — GOTV, or “go-tee-vee,” in political shorthand — have defined winning campaigns in Massachusetts in recent years. They have become points of pride for many of this year’s mayoral campaigns, which have inherited operatives from earlier statewide races.
“It’s absolutely make-or-break,” said Matt Patton, campaign manager for John F. Barros. “If you want to win this thing, you need to go out and get more voters, and get your voters. If you’re just relying on super-voters, people who always vote in municipal elections, I don’t think you have a chance to win this thing at all.”
Political veterans say effective Election Day mobilization can be worth 3 percentage points. In a 12-way race with candidates polling within points of one another, their respective efforts on Tuesday could prove decisive.
The campaigns will fan out before dawn, targeting voters they know support their candidates and any stray ones who could be swayed. Some volunteers will drive vans to senior housing, or drop by polling places with food and coffee.
Other workers will spend their day, from the time polls open at 7 a.m. until they close at 8 p.m., checking off names as voters stroll into precinct voting stations, and then relaying those numbers via runners to various campaign war rooms.
From there, the voter data go into spreadsheets and specialized software programs, where they are matched against results from previous elections. That helps strategists decide where to redeploy ground troops, either to pick up the pace where their numbers are soft, or try to drive up the margins where they’ve shown unexpected strength.
“If you don’t have one now, it’s too late,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who nurtured an undefeated get-out-the-vote effort across five election cycles, said Sunday. “Planning a get-out-the-vote, you do that a month ahead of time. The execution of it goes in, starts on Sunday and goes to Tuesday.”
Different camps are operating from varying estimates of the number of people who will turn out to vote. In 2009, with City Councilors Michael F. Flaherty and Sam Yoon challenging Menino, 81,776 ballots were cast. Low-end projections for Tuesday call for upward of 100,000, while the most optimistic put turnout around 165,000.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin pegged turnout between 110,000 and 125,000, cautioning that such a forecast was “very speculative.” Galvin said the number of absentee ballot applications was almost double the amount four years ago, and said he noticed a particular surge in applications from places like Back Bay and the North End and West End, neighborhoods not known for political clout.
“That tells me that, in areas of the city that traditionally don’t take an interest in municipal elections, interest is high,” Galvin said.
The largest field operation belongs to state Representative Martin J. Walsh, whose base flows largely from his support from labor unions. Walsh staffers said they expected nearly 2,000 volunteers on the streets on Tuesday, working from 10 field offices across the city.
“I really don’t think there a simple way to quantify it, but we know the votes we need,” said Walsh campaign manager Megan Costello. “We know that they’re on the table; we just need to go and chase them down.”
A spokeswoman for City Councilor John R. Connolly predicted getting close to 2,000 volunteers, including more than 1,000 “walk-ins,” while a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said he expected more than 500 volunteers to be on the street or making phone calls Tuesday.
Councilor Michael P. Ross’s campaign, like that of his rivals, spent the summer trying to identify likely voters through house parties, phone calls, and door-knocking, said manager Cayce McCabe. On Tuesday, more than 200 volunteers will look to convert those outreach efforts into presence at the polls.McCabe said Monday that he was working to line up members of the city’s emergency medical services union to work the polls.
Barros has staked much of his survival on being able to reach beyond the realm of reliable municipal election voters, hoping that casual ballot-casters will also rally for him. To that end, the campaign targeted 42,000 households in a final push that started last Wednesday, hoping to knock on all their doors.
On Tuesday, plans called for more than 300 volunteers to start dropping Barros literature outside people’s homes at 6:50 a.m., with a second wave coming at 9:45 a.m. to begin the process of coaxing people to the polls.
Councilor Rob Consalvo said that his 300-person volunteer force would be augmented by the 50 paid organizers he invested in earlier this year, teens from city neighborhoods who have been “eating doors” — that is the campaign’s slang for contacting voters in their homes.
“It’s really the best thing we ever did, having the young kids. They’re so engaged,” Consalvo said.
In a six-month race that hasat times centered on public safety and education, the prospect of helping select the next overseer of those departments will likely draw some voters to the polls. So, too, will the chance to have a say in who gets to shape the city’s development over the next four years, or beyond. Or which candidate decides how long restaurants and bars and gyms can stay open, or where rental bikes can be had.
On those points, too, turnout operations will be making their appeals, and perhaps the most adept team can tilt the pivotal votes.
But none of the fledgling vote-wrangling apparatuses compares with the 20-year-old voter engine maintained with such care by the mayoral office’s current occupant. Menino won renown, and reelection, by meticulously wiring precincts with well-placed captains and attention to data, which made an already popular candidate essentially invulnerable on Election Day.
If this year’s crop surpasses the urban mechanic, they will turn the key on a new model for Boston political history.