How To Get Marginal Voters to the Polls

Thanks to a lot of insistent writing by a lot of writers (perhaps including yours truly), with assists from President Obama and from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the CW is finally beginning to settle on the proposition that the biggest challenge for Democrats this November isn’t to “win” this or that public relations battle over the president’s job performance or the economy or Obamacare or Ukraine–it’s the challenge of improving the likelihood to vote of demographic categories who never ever turn out as well in midterm elections as they do in presidential elections. As the L.A. Times‘ Memoli and Lauter succinctly put it:

[F]rom President Obama on down, influential Democrats have hammered away at the need for candidates to start now to work on reducing the number of so-called drop-off voters…..

Democratic candidates and strategists remain divided on how to do that. They also differ on which issues might fire up their voters the way repeal of Obamacare does for conservatives.

Memoli and Lauter are not particularly crisp, however, in distinguishing those who believe turnout is most affected by mechanical GOTV efforts backed up by lots of money and technological prowess, and those who assume issue appeals are the key to better youth and minority turnout.

Obviously both factors should work together, but I personally think those who argue “economic populism” or a more emphatic defense of Obamacare will make a huge difference in turnout may be minimizing the structural reasons for “midterm falloff,” especially for young voters who routinely ignore non-presidential elections no matter what is going on across the “issue landscape.”

So the most significant news about “midterm falloff” may be that the DSCC is investing so much in GOTV–nine times as much as in 2010, report Memoli and Lauter.

The X-factor is whether the social-media-focused, voter-to-voter motivational techniques deployed by the Obama campaign to such good effect in 2012 are replicable in a midterm. In the old days, for Democrats especially, GOTV centered on “knock-and-drag”–flooding heavily pro-Democratic areas with labor-intensive campaign contacts, especially immediately prior to or on Election Day. That is not so easy with geographically dispersed young voters (other than on college campuses), and with the spread of early voting. And that’s why the new GOTV techniques–less limited in time and place–are so important.

Yes, the relative level of “enthusiasm” among marginal voters can help or hinder GOTV efforts. But we sometimes forget that the bulk of grassroots “enthusiasm” exhibited in politics is among those most likely to vote. Unless it is communicated effectively to marginal voters, its value is limited; you don’t get an extra vote just because you are excited about casting it. Perhaps a campaign message that increases “enthusiasm” among very likely voters can boost turnout if combined with a GOTV effort focused on voter-to-voter contacts. Arguably, though, the latter component is the key. Otherwise, issue-related “enthusiasm” may largely be wasted.

The Memoli/Lauter piece both conflates and illustrates the issues involved in “midterm falloff” by noting the 2013 McAuliffe campaign–with its impressive boost in African-American turnout–is being thought of as a model for ’14–but a model of what, exactly?

McAuliffe’s campaign highlighted issues of concern to Democrats, including expansion of Medicaid coverage for low-income residents, support for same-sex marriage and his opponent’s opposition to abortion rights. It also poured money into repeatedly contacting occasional voters.

It would be helpful to sort out which of these efforts had the greatest effect, but again, I suspect the former without the latter might have just generated “surplus” enthusiasm. And frankly, many of those who argue a different Democratic message would radically boost turnout just want a different Democratic message as an end in itself, which is a legitimate objective, but not one that necessarily will produce electoral gains in 2014.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.