Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Back in September, Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said national Democratic operatives came in and tried to persuade Rep. Tim Bishop's campaign to move $22,000 aimed at targeting absentee voters into more TV ads.
"We stood our ground," Schaffer recalled.
And when the official tally was certified Friday, the absentees were the difference in the four-term Democrat's razor-thin victory over millionaire Republican Randy Altschuler.
After 196,000 votes were cast in the $5.5-million race, the Southampton Democrat had a final winning margin of 593 votes. That was double what it was when Altschuler conceded two days earlier and a nearly 1,000-vote swing, from the 383-vote edge Altschuler held after the initial machine count last month.
Conventional political wisdom is that absentee ballots largely mirror election day results. And locally, absentees even lean slightly Republican because those who vote by mail are often older or in the military. Yet Bishop's campaign upended that lore.
"We were basically down .1 percent after election night, and won the absentees by a 9- to 10-percent margin - it was an amazing gain," said Jon Schneider, Bishop's top local aide and Brookhaven Democratic chairman.
Rob Ryan, Altschuler's spokesman, said it's hard to pinpoint the reason for the difference between Election Day balloting and how absentees split.
"There are so many variables . . . ranging from when the ballots were mailed to whether the voter was physically in the district in the final weeks of the campaign," he said. "The fact of the matter is there is always a little mystery as to why absentee voters cast their ballots the way they do."
Schneider, however, attributed part of the Democrats' edge to the fact 25 percent of the absentees came from Bishop's East End political base, even though the area is only 12 percent of the district vote. He also conceded absentee votes, which must be mailed early, were sent before polls showed a GOP surge in the final week.
But the biggest factor, Democrats say, was the hostile political climate and Altschuler's money, which forced them to wage a more intense ground game.
While Bishop never made a special effort to reach out to absentees in the past, this year his campaign culled the county's lists of 5,000 permanent absentees and made contact with likely supporters. They also did robo-calls in August to any families with college-age children offering absentee applications and followed up with personal calls.
The campaign's ground forces, which contacted 150,000 voters, specifically asked if they planned to be home Election Day and offered absentee applications to those who said they needed them. Bishop staffers also tracked absentee requests filed at the elections board daily and made calls for supporters to mail theirs in.
Advantage in the field
When operatives from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee suggested moving absentee money to paid media, local Democrats balked. "We knew the climate was terrible and the other side could outspend us - and the only advantage was in the field," Schneider said. "There's no substitute to talking to people one-on-one."
Knowing how crucial absentees might be, campaign manager Lisa Wieber added, "We had all heard horror stories [of other close races] and no one wanted be the be the one to make that kind of cut."
While Bishop's race careened from an election-night edge of 3,461 to the 383-vote deficit after reporting errors were found, the race was nowhere near the closest in district history.
That honor belongs to Republican Frederick Cocks Hicks, who unseated Democratic Rep. Lathrop Brown by four votes in a 1914 rematch when the district spanned Nassau and Suffolk and former President Theodore Roosevelt was a constituent. On election night, Brown had a one-vote edge.