10/18/2010 01:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats Working Ground Game As Conservative Groups Storm The Airwaves

From mid-August through mid-October, nearly every dime of independent expenditure money spent by the conservative group American Crossroads went to political advertising. It was a lot of dimes.

The organization, founded by former Bush strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, wrote checks totaling more than $10.9 million during that time period, according to a review of records kept by the Federal Elections Commission. More than $9.8 million of that total went to "TV Media Productions," $77,000 went to "radio," $493,000 went to direct mail, another $493,000 went to "postage," and $20,000 went to online advertising.

"The majority is on the airwaves," acknowledged Jonathan Collegio, communications director at American Crossroads, "but much will be spent on mail, phones and other platforms."

Such a tab has been a source of pride and marvel for Republicans, who welcome the financial assistance provided by American Crossroads. But the detailed breakdown of expenses has also, inversely, given Democrats a glimmer of hope. While outside conservative groups have dominated the airwaves, more progressive institutions are spending their resources on the ground.

Take, for instance, the League of Conservation Voters, one of the nation's leading environmental advocacy groups. According to its October quarterly report, the organization's independent expenditures have totaled just over $1.7 million. Of that total, $46,700 has gone to "canvassing," $35,000 has gone to the salaries of those canvassers, $2,245 has gone to "gas" (likely the fuel costs for canvassing), an $174,688 has gone to "field consulting." The trend has been true on a micro-level as well. In its October 15th filing, for instance, the organization Blue Green Alliance (a coalition of labor and environmental groups) listed $98,000 in total expenditures just for the re-election of Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.). Of that, $90,000 went to "canvass operations - door knocking."

The labor conglomerate, AFL-CIO, meanwhile, sent out a strategy memo on Monday morning relaying that union volunteers had given out 17.5 million leaflets, "while talking to workers one-on-one, at over 4,000 worksites." In all, AFL-CIO workers had knocked on 1.3 million doors in the cycle.

In-person contact tends to be a much stronger way to persuade voters than television ads. And while the AFL-CIO is limited to talking to union members, an allied group, Working America, has the leeway to make election pitches to non-union laborers. An official with the group says they've knocked on "at least 700,000 doors in 13 cities and 9 states across the country" to date.

Democrats pining their electoral hopes on a fine-tuned ground game shouldn't necessarily hold their breath. In 2006, Republican leadership made the same exact pitch as massive Democratic spending helped fulfill the narrative of massive election losses. But among top members of the Democratic Party, the hope is that direct persuasion can be an antidote not just to the massive deficit the party faces on the airwaves but also to the enthusiasm advantage held by conservatives heading into the election.

"We can make up that enthusiasm gap because we have a far better field operation than they do. And it is funded," said a senior Democratic lawmaker. "The resources being spent outside the [Republican] party are being spent on the wrong thing... if their cavalry came in a month ago, we would have had a much harder time digging out of it."

The saving grace, this lawmaker added, was that no Republican cavalry came, at least not yet. Indeed, one of GOP strategists' more serious complaints with the Republican National Committee doesn't have to do with chairman Michael Steele's penchant for rhetorical misfires, but rather his inability to fund an effective get-out-the-vote strategy. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Ohio state GOP chairman Kevin DeWine was "desperate for RNC support," having been promised $1.1 million from the committee while receiving only $566,900.

"In past elections, the RNC has provided major financial help to House and Senate campaigns. In 2006, it transferred $25 million each to the NRCC and its Senate counterpart. This cycle, it sent $2 million apiece to the two committees in early 2009 but nothing since."