Democrats, uncurb your enthusiasm


Polling hasn’t brought much good news to Democrats this spring. In the latest blow, a Pew Research survey for USA Today reported Monday that 47 percent of voters said they expect to vote for Republican candidates in November’s congressional election, against only 43 percent who plan to vote Democratic. If those numbers hold up, control of the Senate is likely to flip from the Democrats to the GOP.

And if that weren’t enough, the enthusiasm gap is back. Most Republican voters report being certain they will vote this fall; by comparison, many Democrats are wavering. And one reason for Democrats’ irresolution, it appears, is President Obama: “At this early point in the campaign, Obama inspires far less enthusiasm among Democratic voters than he did four years ago,” Pew reported.

The Democrats’ core problem in recent congressional elections has been simple: Their voters don’t show up. They flock to the polls in presidential elections, but when the contest is merely for seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives, they don’t leave the couch.

As Sasha Issenberg wrote recently in the New Republic, in a congressional election there are now two Americas: one of “reliable voters” who turn out every two years; the other of “unreliable voters” who don’t. And Republicans have way more of the reliable kind than Democrats do.

Overcoming that gap is the great challenge for Democrats this year, which is why they’ve launched an audacious strategy that, if it works, could change the way future congressional campaigns are waged.

It’s based on the Obama campaign’s success in turning out more votes than expected in 2012 through a massive field operation that knocked on doors and made telephone calls to persuade wavering Democrats and Obama-friendly independents to vote.

The goal, Matt Canter of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told me, is “to make the electorate in 2014 look more like the electorate in 2012.”

The DSCC says it plans to spend $60 million on field operations this year, a huge increase from the $7.5 million it spent in 2010 – when Democrats lost their majority in the House.

“Turnout is vital, but enthusiasm has almost nothing to do with turnout,” says Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Turnout has more to do with habit than with anything else. If you know whether someone voted in the last congressional election, you know whether they’re likely to vote in this one.”

Mellman has direct experience overcoming an enthusiasm gap. In 2010, he helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) win reelection despite the fact that Nevada Republicans were significantly more gung-ho than Democrats were. “We got them to come to the polls anyway,” he said.

The Democratic effort has two main parts: message and mechanics.

The message involves both positive and negative components. Democrats will portray themselves as fighting for what they call a “fair shot” agenda, including a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women, and they'll portray Republicans as defending the top 1 percent of the income scale at the expense of everyone else.

Those messages aren’t intended solely to mobilize unreliable Democrats. They’re also aimed at a category of voters the strategists call “persuadables,” the people once known as swing voters. In this case, the targets are blue-collar workers who resent the 1 percent, and women (especially unmarried women) who worry about social conservatives.

It won’t be a soaring, inspirational campaign, and Republicans are already denouncing it as trashy and cynical. But the Democrats’ backs are against the wall, and, as columnist Finley Peter Dunne wrote in 1895, politics ain’t beanbag.

Equally important, the Democrats say they plan to devote far more money and effort than before to the mechanics of voter turnout: the canvassing, phone calls and individualized mailings that can get wavering voters to show up.

Indeed, Mellman says, “Research suggests that mechanics matter more than message. I’m not encouraging messageless campaigns; message still is important. But message won’t matter much if you don’t get voters to the polls.”

The DSCC says it hopes to help register tens of thousands of new voters, including African Americans in Georgia, Louisiana and Arkansas, where Senate seats are at stake. And by November, the DSCC plans to have no fewer than 4,000 paid field organizers in at least a dozen states.

Will all this on-the-ground effort make the difference in November?

The odds are still against the Democrats, if only because they are trying to hold on to endangered Senate seats in no fewer than seven states where Mitt Romney won in 2012. Republicans plan to match their spending and, if they can, much of the field effort. And so far the GOP hasn’t nominated any eccentric candidates who look like easy pickings, as they did in 2010 and 2012.

But if the Democrats’ big new field operation manages to increase their turnout by even a percentage point or two, it could change the way future congressional campaigns are run.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.

©2014 Los Angeles Times

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • There’s a better way to rescue Malaysia Airlines

    On Friday, Khazanah Nasional, the parent company of Malaysian Airline System, announced the airline’s fourth and most radical restructuring since its founding in 1972. This one, too, is likely to fail. The real challenge, though, isn’t overcoming the twin tragedies of MH370 and MH17 and the loss of passenger confidence (and ticket revenue) that followed. Rather, the problem is the spectacular growth of Southeast Asian discount airlines, which have wreaked havoc on state-subsidized flag carriers such as Malaysia Airlines that used to have the region all to themselves.

  • Between Godliness and Godlessness

    Almost midway through Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up, he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists.

  • There is no free pass for a free press

    New York Times reporter James Risen may soon have to decide whether to testify in a criminal trial or go to jail for contempt of court.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category