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The battle of the airwaves gets most of the attention in an election, but it's the ground war that holds the key to victory.

That looks to be particularly true in 2014, which promises to be a base election that will be decided by which party can best motivate its voters to the polls.

Millions have been spent on the air bombardment, softening up the electorate with ads depicting doomsday outcomes if one party or the other prevails on Election Day.

But millions more is being spent on the less flamboyant but critical mission of making sure partisan loyalists act on the messaging and actually vote.

Both Democrats and Republicans claim they are ahead of where they were at this time in 2010 in terms of absentee voting and voter contact. And of course, each claims to be slaughtering the other in these essential drives.

Talk to new Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson and he'll wear you out with voter turnout models and formulas for uncovering latent Democratic votes.

Democrats are trying to avoid a repeat of 2010, when 200,000 or more of their more loyal voters stayed home and Republicans scored historic wins in Michigan.

They're targeting those stay-at-homes first, then moving down the list to more nominal party loyalists.

Republicans, who have traditionally lagged Democrats in get-out-the-vote efforts, say their GOTV is in high gear this time, and boast of being ahead of their rivals in absentee ballot returns.

Together, the parties say nearly 100,000 voters who didn't cast ballots in 2010 have already voted absentee.

Both parties concede that the overall electorate is not excited about this election. None of the major office candidates have voters burning to cast ballots.

And there are no hot-button ballot issues this time to boost turnout — unless, of course, wolf hunting keeps you awake at night.

As always, the election will be decided by which way non-aligned voters break. But winning independents only works if the base shows up.

That's why Michigan Democrats saw Bill Clinton this week, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama last week, and will see President Barack Obama next week. Republicans Mitt Romney, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush have made appearances.

They weren't here to sway the undecided vote; they were whooping up party loyalists.

Pollster Steve Mitchell believes Republicans have an advantage in rallying the base because of the anti-Obama factor.

He expects turnout in Michigan to be 1 million less this year than in 2012, and predicts 700,000 of the missing voters will be Democrats.

But there are more Democrats than Republicans in Michigan to begin with, so the GOP starts in the hole.

"Democrats had a tremendous get-out-the-vote effort in 2012, when they got large numbers of African-Americans out across the state," Mitchell says. "If they can replicate much of that, they can defy the polling. But it's not showing up yet."

Democrats have also traditionally enjoyed an edge on Election Day in knocking on doors and hauling their voters to the polls, in part because of organized labor — UAW workers get Election Day off as a holiday — and because Republicans are less eager to be stuffed into vans and driven to the polling place.

Credible polls are a good snapshot of voter sentiment. But they can't always account for extraordinary variations in turnout. That was true in 2010. It could be true again this year.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2064

Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.

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