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The race for Pittsburgh mayor: Now comes the ground game

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
R.J. Matson | Roll Call

As the 2013 race to become Pittsburgh's next mayor draws to a close, it is almost time for voters to kick back and reflect. With about 48 hours left, the wholesale campaigns will end with a solid pounding of television ads, last-minute mailers and robo-calls to those who have landlines.

On the retail side, the candidates will frantically crisscross the city straight through Election Day, leaving no hand unshaken, no baby unkissed. And while no one knows if this is effective, campaign staffs like that it keeps candidates busy and out of the way.

It has been a strange campaign. Luke Ravenstahl, the incumbent mayor, announced that he was seeking re-election and a week later, with Mom and Dad looking on, reversed that decision. For a while after that, you needed a scorecard to know the players.

Councilman Bill Peduto, in the race from before there was one, had been joined by City Controller Michael Lamb, and both were quickly joined by other candidates, some earnestly hopeful, others playing a game of political chicken.

Council President Darlene Harris was in and then she was out. State Sens. Wayne Fontana and Jim Ferlo were in and then they were out. Michael Lamb got out. Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner got in and stayed, as did state Rep. Jake Wheatley and citizen A.J. Richardson, forming the final four with Peduto.

For most campaigns, the third and decisive prong of politicking is the ground game on Election Day. Smart campaigns always enter this phase as if they are in a dead heat. In the end, the candidate who can identify and deliver more of his voters to the polls wins. It has never been left to chance.

Before computers, an organized candidate had representatives at every polling place, all day long, checking off voters on street lists, identifying likely supporters through personal knowledge and dispatching party loyalists in their own jalopies to fetch them.

Modern campaigns use computer programs to identify supporters based on voter contacts and profiles; they text message or email addresses and phone numbers to van drivers who are stationed in the field.

Jack Wagner will rely on the Wagner faithful and police and firefighter union members, tried and true, to mobilize his voters. Bill Peduto will launch an army of volunteers, hundreds recruited online, all awaiting the call.

Knock-down drag-out battles are likely to take place north of the Allegheny and south of the Monongahela. Wagner must shine here and Peduto needs to keep him even. But either outcome will set the stage for the decisive battle in the east, where Wheatley will be a factor among black voters.

Six of the last eight elected mayors have come from some part of that great expanse between the rivers, which includes Peduto's council district and political base. And whether it is on foot or online, the best ground game is sure to carry the day.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).

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