An increasingly prevalent school of thought holds that the distribution of power in the United States is going to be determined by razor-thin electoral majorities for the foreseeable future. In his widely cited essay “The Forty-nine Percent Nation,” Michael Barone argues that the two parties have reached an impasse, unable to expand their electoral coalitions to 50 percent and beyond without raising the (unacceptable) risk that their existing coalitions will unravel. Under these conditions, seemingly innocuous political tides could have enormous implications for public policy because control of Congress and the presidency hinges on relatively minor swings in votes. Moreover, these conditions create powerful incentives for the parties to make the most of their campaign operations.
There is reason to believe that the parties have, in fact, reconsidered their campaign tactics (not so much their strategies, mind you, which are defined by issue agendas and candidate appeals, but rather, their tactics, the means by which the parties communicate with voters). In particular, both the Democrats and the Republicans appear to have decided that television advertising is no longer (if it ever was) the most effective means by which to activate latent partisan predispositions. Since 1996, evidence suggests that both parties are shifting their resources into outreach plans that Republican National Committee (RNC) deputy political director Curt Anderson has described as a “back-to-the-future approach.” Although television spending continues to increase, investment in personal contacts has been increasing at a greater rate.
The Democrats Mobilize
After the 2000 presidential election, it was apparent to many observers that the Democrats had beaten the Republicans on the ground on election day. Furthermore, this advantage seemed likely to persist. Most traced its origins to the stunning Democratic defeat at the hands of Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in 1994. After that election, the Democrats began to reemphasize phone, mail, and door-to-door outreach programs. Using the manpower of organized labor and the money and computer technology of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democrats developed a mobilization program based on personal contacts in the days immediately before an election. Party-based contacts were augmented by the efforts of local affinity groups, resulting in a more personal (and, presumably, persuasive) appeal.
The breadth and scope of this effort have not been uniform but have tended to be sophisticated and thorough in critical areas. For example, affinity group workers (usually labor union workers, college students, or members of left-leaning issue groups such as the Sierra Club) in swing precincts in large battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida have typically been outfitted with Palm Pilots or other handheld computers to record the results of their voter contacting efforts. The resulting data are quickly downloaded into voter files so that information on both voter preferences and campaign contacting can be used to tailor subsequent efforts. Then, in the final hours before election day, the Democrats have blitzed high-potential neighborhoods with direct mail and phone calls, largely from the aforementioned affinity groups or credible spokespeople (e.g., Jesse Jackson). In addition, block walkers have made last-minute personal visits to Democratic or swing households.
This targeted outreach carries through to election day itself, though the focus shifts to delivering voters. Buses, cars, and even taxicabs have been provided to get voters to the polls in predominantly Democratic areas. For example, nursing homes in Jewish, black, and Hispanic neighborhoods receive bus service, as do black churches.
The core ideas behind these efforts are that (1) more personal contacts can increase the probability some voters will turn out, and (2) money invested in this outreach is more cost-effective than additional broadcast advertising, especially with the proliferation of cable channels, remote controls, TIVO, and other technologies that undermine the reach and influence of television advertising.
By 1996—and certainly by 1998 and 2000—pundits and practitioners not only knew about these programs but also credited them with the success of Democratic candidates on election day compared to pre-election polls. In a 2003 article in the Washington Times, Steven Dinan noted: “The toughest pill for Republicans to swallow from the 1998 and 2000 elections was why final opinion polls promised victory in so many key races that Republicans ended up losing.”
The main finding supporting the claim that Democratic outreach efforts have been effective is that Democratic coalition groups constituted a higher portion of the election day electorate than they constituted in the general population. For example, polling data showed labor’s share of the vote increasing from 1996 to 2000, as did the number of black voters.
Republicans also believed that the Democrats had achieved an edge by the late 1990s. “What we saw across the country was that we were under-performing and Democrats were overperforming in the final 72 hours,” said Blaise Hazelwood, political director at the RNC. “It seemed that they had a really good ground game. I think we did, too, but theirs was stronger than ours.”
Evidence that the Democrats amassed a mobilization advantage between 1996 and 2000 is largely uncontroverted. In fact, scholarly research lends credence to the observational accounts of the mainstream news media and the conventional wisdom of partisan practitioners. If the Democrats did invest more heavily in getting out the vote and personal contacting, political science research over the past decade or so suggests this was a sound decision. In particular, a number of recent studies attest to the effectiveness of phone calls, direct mail, and door-to-door contacts—the clear implication being that personalized contacts have an appreciable influence on the likelihood that an individual will vote.
The Republican Response
In January 2001 the RNC embarked on an extensive research project designed to estimate the magnitude of the Democratic turnout advantage and to ascertain the most effective means by which the Republicans could respond. On the basis of conversations with RNC personnel and a review of the news media, it is possible to sketch a fairly complete picture of the plan. The mission statement for the 72-hour plan was to examine Republican and Democratic turnout efforts, conduct tests to determine the most effective ways of turning out voters, develop a blueprint for success, and train activists for successful implementation. The 72-hour plan focuses on seven key areas:
1. Increasing person-to-person contacts. The Republicans’ grassroots development plan was detailed and aggressive in 2002. One team leader was recruited and trained for every 50 targeted voters. These team leaders were given monthly training, specific responsibilities, and a clear time line. The results were impressive: The RNC reports that 130,272 volunteers enlisted and that these volunteers made 12,604,410 phone calls and knocked on 8,405,119 doors. College campus recruiting—an area of particular concern—drew in 22,151 College Republicans.
2. Registering new voters. The registration outreach program was driven by detailed analyses of census block characteristics. Residents in neighborhoods deemed “likely Republican” were contacted using booths, door-to-door approaches, and mail. The goal was to register 10 percent of the total universe of unregistered Republicans. The preliminary data indicate that the registration efforts were successful (although the Democrats often matched or even exceeded the GOP’s registration increases).
3. Growing the party. The 72-hour plan targeted groups with which the GOP has recently underperformed: women, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. The details are unclear, but we do know that the RNC and state parties attempted to identify team leaders in minority communities and to identify conservative members of these groups based on voter lists provided by gun, religious conservative, home school, and sportsmen’s organizations. We also know that they communicated group-specific messages via direct mail and paid advertising in newsletters and on radio stations.
4. Increasing coalition activity. The coalition program looked to identify prominent individuals with credibility within a specific coalition or formal leaders of coalition groups. The coalitional groups of particular interest include the right-to-life associations, family policy councils, home school associations, sportsman alliance groups, veterans’ groups, small business associations, farm bureaus, chambers of commerce, and anti-tax groups. Party personnel were charged with hosting regular conference calls with key leaders to invest them in Republican efforts and to motivate them on issues they care about. Events, in particular, were targeted—Republican representatives were present at every gun show, state fair, Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Christian music festival, business expo, anti-tax rally, and fish fry they could find.
5. Improving voter identification and message targeting. Ultimately, much of the coalition work was designed to obtain lists of voters associated with the above groups. These lists—essential to the RNC’s voter identification and message targeting—added to the size and scope of the voter list; identified favorable, unfavorable, and undecided voters; targeted efforts; saved valuable campaign time and resources; and improved existing voter lists by adding new and valuable information.
After collecting and augmenting voter lists, the Republicans engaged in “micro-targeting”—that is, supplementing voter identification calls with polling information and then tailoring mail and phone calls to the interests and concerns of specific voters. This is not to say that each targeted voter received a personalized message. Rather, a range of messages, matched to the appropriate voters in a state or district, was devised to cover all important issues and concerns.
6. Enhancing early and absentee voting programs. Assuming that convenience voting reduces vote loss arising out of uncontrollable election day circumstances, state parties were encouraged to gather information from state secretaries of state and to create schedules to allow for voting deadlines. Mail and phone contacts were designed to provide absentee ballot request forms and information on precinct locations and deadlines.
7. Planning for the final 72 hours of the campaign. Fittingly, the 72-hour plan demanded that state, county, and precinct representatives have detailed and aggressive plans for the last 72 hours of the campaign. The RNC asked block workers to consult with activists on collecting information and creating a calendar of events, training, scheduling, time commitments, and personnel.
After conducting tests on special elections in 2001, the 72-hour plan was implemented as part of the 2002 midterm elections. These efforts resulted in more than 130,000 volunteers, each of whom worked one week. These volunteers were dispersed over 39 states, which presumably gave the Republicans an army of workers to turn out election day votes.
In raw numbers, the results also appear to have been positive. In 2000 the Democrats enjoyed a 3-point party identification advantage among voters; in 2002 the Republicans had a 4-point edge. Similarly, on average, in Senate and gubernatorial races, the GOP candidates exceeded pre-election poll forecasts by 3.2 points (+2.9 in the Senate, +3.4 in gubernatorial races). Religious conservatives went from 14 percent of the 2000 electorate to 18 percent of the 2002 electorate, whereas union members fell from 26 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2002.
Both the Republicans and the news media believe that the GOP is on the right track. Consider the assessment of the Washington Post: “Republicans have spent more than $1 million trying to correct the problem [of neglecting personal contacts]. In the process, they rediscovered an elemental truth about political organizing: Volunteers and personal contact count more than high-tech weapons and even television advertising. Republicans say they mistakenly believed that ‘GOTV’ meant ‘get on television,’ not ‘get out the vote.’”
Of course the critical and immediate question is what all this means for the 2004 elections. Who has the advantage? Have the Republicans caught up to or surpassed the Democrats when it comes to mobilizing their supporters? There are reasons to think this may be the case.
Setting aside GOP successes in the 2002 midterm elections, it is likely that the Republicans will be better off in the upcoming election than they were in 2000 simply because they have commanded the presidency for the past three and a half years. The RNC has worked closely with the White House to build an infrastructure for mobilizing voters. In contrast, the Kerry campaign has only had since March 15 to work with the DNC on building a national organization; the question is how effective has the DNC been in laying the groundwork for such a campaign before Kerry’s emergence. In this sense, Kerry now occupies the position that Bush did in 2000. On the plus side for the Democrats, however, is the passionate desire of many left-leaning groups to defeat Bush.
Then there is the issue of whether a small mobilization advantage can be enough to swing the presidential election. In a one- or two-point race, it is likely that even a small edge would be enough to tip some states. As of early October, such a tight race appears likely. More to the point, states such as Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin might be tipped one way or the other based on particularly effective mobilization efforts.
And although the House of Representatives looks relatively safe for the GOP, certainly the Senate might hinge on campaigning advantages. The Republicans maintain a slim 51-48-1 margin in the chamber, but Senate races in Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina could all be decided by two points or less; and a slight advantage in turning out supporters could usher in a new majority.
Finally, there is the broader issue of how a return to personal contacts and communication might affect voter engagement, interest, and turnout in 2004. Predicting turnout is always treacherous, given the strong tendency of Americans to find other things to occupy their time and attention besides politics. But already there are signs that voter interest in this election is unusually high (at least by recent standards). It could be that attitudes will be matched by technology and outreach in a way that drives turnout up after 44 years of largely uninterrupted decline. And after the Clinton impeachment episode, the 2000 election controversy, the tragedy of 9/11, and the contentious politics of the Iraq war, a good, old-fashioned, high-turnout election with a clear winner would undoubtedly be a good tonic for the Republic.