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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Swing Voters Vs. New Voters

Is Dean’s campaign dead? Maybe. Maybe not. DR doesn’t pretend to know the answer to that question.
But DR feels a little surer about something that should be dead: the Dean campaign’s theory that an influx of new voters can make up for deficits among the swing voters who typically show in national elections. Dean has said: “We can’t beat George Bush with the same people who voted in 2000. The only way we can beat George Bush is by attracting people who have given up on politics.” (See articles last week by John Harris in The Washington Post and by John Harwood in The Wall Street Journal for details on the Dean campaign’s orientation toward new voters.)
Dean’s campaign is obviously rethinking its approach to a lot of things. Time to rethink their approach to this one as well. Most obviously, an influx of new voters didn’t help Dean much at all in the Iowa caucuses. In fact, those new voters surged in the direction of the caucus winners, Kerry and Edwards. Is there any reason to think this result will be different in the general election? Nope, that’s what usually happens with new voters: they go for the winner and therefore amplify, not change, the result we would have seen without the new voters.
But Dean’s campaign apparently believes they can make up, say, a 52 percent to 48 percent split against the Democrats among the previously-existing electorate (pegging it at 2000’s 105 million voters) by attracting 8 million new voters into the process.
This is nuts. Even assuming they can increase turnout that much, they’d have to get a 3:1 split among these new voters (that is, win these 8 million new voters by 6 million to 2 million) to dig themselves out the hole they’d dug themselves among the rest of the electorate.
It ain’t gonna work. Time to bury this particular idea and bury it deep.

14 comments on “Swing Voters Vs. New Voters

  1. Tony G on

    It is true that voting studies have generally shown non-voters to be similar to voters in their political attitudes and (when prodded) candidate preferences, so there is no reason to expect a random, one-time increase in turnout to help the Democrats. Still, non voters are different in that they are generally of lower socio-economic status, so their “objective” interests would place them in the Democratic camp. If Democrats could figure out how to overcome this disconnect between objective and subjective interests, they would be the majority party for the indefinite future. A major reason why this country’s politics and public policies are so skewed to the right (compared to, say, Europe’s) is that our restricted electorate is composed disportionately of the relatively well-off. Even if there are no easy answers to the question of how to mobilize non-voters on the basis of their economic interests, I don’t see how any progressive can be indifferent to this challenge.

  2. Sebastian James on

    I come from a liberal lakefront ward in Chicago. Our ward is more renter than owner, with a sizeable portion of recent immigrants. We continue to register new voters. We have to. With the natural turnover of the population if we don’t reach out to new voters, then its easier for someone to come in and take the Committeman’s or Alderman’s seat.
    The lesson for Dems at the national level is that if we have to aggressively reach out to new or first-time voters. If we don’t, and just depend on registered voters, then we begin to die. In the long run, no new ideas, no new energy equal no party.

  3. Gerald de Heer on

    The real problem, which Dean begins to address and which, to my knowledge, the party seems to miss the point, is that traditional Democrat Voters simply aren’t registering to vote and that Republican ‘get out the vote’ operations have been more effective. The “Emerging Democratic Majority” is real, and will move into the forefront of general consciousness sooner if we simply sign up our people. What do we have to do to ensure that every segment of the EDM registers, including the aliented voters Dean is reaching out to? Get all associated with the labor, women’s, environmental, minorities, and civil (including gay) rights/interests out to the polls, and the Democrats win every time.

  4. CalD on

    Another common myth I’ve heard the Dean campaign promoting is the myth of the disappearing voter, as Dean himself did when he told an AFL-CIO forum:
    “We’re going to give the 50% of Americans who don’t vote anymore a reason to vote in the Democratic Party.”
    There’s no question that there’s a large percentage of people who are old enough to vote but don’t show up on election day, for whatever reason. On average, it’s more like 45% but that’s a small point. The problem I have is with the word “anymore.”
    As far as I know (I have yet to find turnout numbers for elections previous to 1824), the all-time record for turnout in a presidential election was 63% in 1960. The average for all the elections between 1928 — the first general election where turnout exceeded 50% — to 2000 was 56%. The turnout for 2000 was 55%.
    By the way, those percentages are for the entire universe of voting age adults. Turnout for registered voters has been in the 80-90% range for decades.

  5. Chris on

    Also, Edwards seems the most likely to do that and he is not preaching a moderate/conservative record, but one with a populist tone. Unless you define “liberal” as against eliminating the marriage penalty and against child tax credits and conservative as anyone who thinks the parts of Bush’s tax cuts that Democrats introduced in Congress are a good idea.

  6. Chris on

    There is a big difference between new primary voters and new general election voters. In Iowa, more people chose to participate in the caucuses, but I’d be willing to bet all of them usually vote in the general election.
    The whole point of the Dean failure is that he didn’t get those new voters (non-caucusers/non-general election voters) to show up as promised. The leaked hard count for the Dean campaign was 50,000, which would have made him the clear winner at 42%. He actually had about half that.
    What you had in Iowa was a failure of new voters to emerge, and an emergence of “old voters” who don’t usually participate in primaries or caucuses coming out and letting it be known that they didn’t want Dean to be the nominee.
    Sure, Dean has 616,000 committed supporters, according to his website. And that’s something. But even if half of them are new voters, they’d all pretty much have to live in Florida to put Dean anywhere near over the top in the general.
    Awakening old constituencies is probably the best strategy to win the White House and Congress back, and a Democrat who can actually appeal to ex-Democrats in the South has the best shot of making a big impact.

  7. ten nights on

    The problem with this DR post is that it contradicts itself out of what might be a barely-restrained desire to “bury” the Dean campaign “and bury it deep.” Dean will be quoting Mark Twain on Feb. 3, as reports of his demise are mighty premature. And I say that as someone who is powerfully ABB and inclined to vote for all the candidates about equally.
    Still, I won’t stand for Dean abuse. We have to take the best from all the campaigns, and Dean’s focus on new voters and Dean’s call for record turnouts is one of the best ideas, if not THE best idea, of the entire nomination season. Beating on Dean for everything he stands for is like beating on your ugly red-headed stepchild: it’s wrong. Like it or not, if you are a Democrat, Dean is your family. Treat him that way – with respect. There is a lot of good as well as bad in the Dean movement.
    Now, on to this post. First, Dean didn’t say Dean would win by bringing out new voters; as you write yourself:
    “the Dean campaign’s theory [is] that an influx of new voters can make up for deficits among the swing voters who typically show in national elections”
    Dean says that the Democrats will win by adding an influx of new voters to the share the Democrats will get of the likely-to-be smaller pool of swing voters.
    Then you go on to concede that there WAS an influx of new voters in Iowa. That is a FACT, and high turnout is something we’ll see again in NH.
    “Most obviously, an influx of new voters didn’t help Dean much at all in the Iowa caucuses. In fact, those new voters surged in the direction of the caucus winners, Kerry and Edwards.”
    Damn the new voters, then? Where would Kerry and Edwards be without them? Democrats need all the voters we can get. It’s tremendously great that turnout in Iowa was so high and included so many first-time caucus-goers.
    Any Democrat will benefit from an increase in voter turnout in 2004. The only way to maximize this turnout is to make it a priority, as Dean has done. There’s no doubt that Dean wore out his welcome in Iowa with his 3500 orange-capped volunteers stomping all over the place. There’s also no doubt that Dean’s early-and-often approach, combined with the open-arms we’ll take anyone spirit, strongly impressed Iowa Democrats with the notion that voting was critical. They didn’t vote for Dean, sure, but there decision not to vote for Dean does not invalidate Dean’s correct prediction that turnout can be very high if we work for it.
    To read a political “pundit” trashing the theory that “new voters” can be found and brought to the polls is like reading a football coach who says his team can win without scoring more points.
    Earth to Donkey Rising: Why have the Democrats lost SO MANY ELECTIONS recently? Why are we the party that LOSES?
    Because we don’t get enough VOTES.
    If we are going to win, we need NEW VOTES. Now where are we going to find them? NEW VOTERS!
    Do you think there is any prayer of persuading a large percentage of Bush’s rabid base? Or would it be easier to gather up the left-leaning people who didn’t like Gore in 2000, or who just moved and don’t know how to register in their new state, or never figured out where the polling station is?
    Getting votes is not rocket science. Recruiting new voters must be the most OBVIOUS and EASIEST way to get the NEW VOTES that Democrats need to win elections again.

  8. Night Owl on

    “Is there any reason to think this result will be different in the general election? Nope, that’s what usually happens with new voters: they go for the winner and therefore amplify, not change, the result we would have seen without the new voters.”
    Your ‘we don’t need no stinking new voters attitude’ is typical of the failed attitudes of the current party leadership. Woe is the day that the rest of the Democratic Party decides that DEPRESSED voter turnout is a good thing. A more self-defeating strategy for the party of the ‘average voter’ I can not possibly imagine.
    When you guys start winning elections against actual REPUBLICANS, then come tell me how smart you are. In the meantime, quit slamming one of our own for his noble efforts in recruiting new members to the party that you would otherwise turn into an elitist clique.

  9. Ashami on

    Sorry, can’t agree with you here. I agree with the following theory: energize the base enough and the middle will follow. This will draw the swingers. Then, add a concerted effort to bring in new voters (esp. women and minorities) and any Democrat can make a solid win in November. The Dem nominee cannot make the same mistake that Gore made by pandering to the middle…this only ends up sounding muddled and wishy-washy. Sound familiar?
    Summation: energize base, middle will follow, get new voters to put it over the top.

  10. DavetheHun on

    Just sent this to the dean campaign. I feel bad about the bribe, but every message I see from them, it seems like the message is just a vehicle for the contribute link… am I wrong here?
    Maybe direct sarcasm would have been more effective there?
    I hope this is all obvious, but just in case….
    For the last few weeks (ever since he achieved front runner status really), Dean has been polling VERY negatively in my neck of the woods, even relative to the other Dems. I suspect this is a more general phenom as well. (i.e. His internet buzz is atrocious and dropping.)
    The youth vote didn’t materialize in Iowa, and very likely won’t carry you very far in any case.
    Think adult swing voters. They are a much meatier demographic.
    To that end, I think you folks really need to get back to the “straight talking fiscally responsible moderate who thinks bush has screwed up”– (and supports genuinely middle class tax cuts– soak the rich is fine) and away from cult of personality/ maximum leader dean.
    He needs to focus on issues, deficits, jobless recovery/outsourcing and general republican corporate obesiance…not fuzzy messianic anti-war populism. The rabid anti-war folks aren’t going bush(or anyone else but kuninch…).
    Ironically, that being said, IF he clarifies his position on israel (VERY strong support suggested)that would also be good. For the most part Jews despise Bush’s agenda, but he’s got a good israel rep, and no clear alternative is available. Get out there FIRST. If you need details on the policy side here, (oh so unlikely, I hope) contact me.
    In fact, clarify positions more generally. People apparently think dean stands for some bizarre things… and this is killing him, esp. see iraq below…
    He might also consider saying *very* publically that even though iraq was a truly horrible idea, and poorly executed, we *are* in it now and need to make sure we “win” there (by instilling genuine democratic reforms, and winning the cultural war) rather than running because of casualites… which will set a truly devastating precedent.
    This is not to say we need to be a punching bag, or let GWB off the hook for making us one, and an international pariah to boot. Being a lying obsessed warmongering arrogant imperial weasel, is also still game, but only as (subtle) subtext.
    But we can’t withdraw prematurely, and average people(quite correctly) don’t want us to…
    This is the single biggest dean complaint. People are afraid he will “screw-up” iraq, when we are committed, for better, or more likely, for worse.
    Otherwise we may end up with Kerry (shudder!!) and he’ll get butchered in Nov. Why?
    Say it with me now…
    “Oh no, Not Kerry!!! He’s just UglyGore!!” 😉
    If I get a noncanned response to this within 72 hours, I’ll send you $20.(!)
    I really want you to succeed. Our country and political culture needs it, badly. I fear the current positioning simply won’t.
    Think november, (because the voters are!) and the nomination will take care of itself.
    Regards and Good luck in NH,

  11. Sara on

    With low income new voters (such as those in subsidized housing) you need to create a mutual support network. It isn’t just getting people registered, they need to get together and talk about voting, and have someone demonstrate how it all works. The votes are possible, but it takes work and local leadership.
    Democrats best bet is a campaign for parents of 18-26 year old children of Democrats to get their kids registered — either at home for absentee ballots, or in their new home. It’s a variation on the advertising theme, “Do you know where your kids are?” — But research shows that strongly committed Democratic Parents produce Democratic voters if they can get them to vote.
    But beyond this — looking for new voters is not the answer — we have to be prepared to play the middle well, and we need to make certain the entire Democratic Base gets properly registered and votes. That’s not new voters per se., it is turn out.

  12. Dan on

    While the previous comment by Newt about a swing voter being worth two new voters in that you deny the opposition a vote is certainly true, it does not follow that new voter efforts are wasted or do not lead to important changes in voting patterns.
    First – The Republicans have stated that they believe they have an advantage in young voters and will be targeting that age group. The Democrates in reality seem to have an advantage but must invest effort or Republican organization will trump Democratic demographics.
    Second – Latinos and Native Americans helped stem a powerful Republican trend in Oklahoma in 2002. With similar efforts, more of the Southwest will shift to the Democrats.
    Third – We need to start considering that Bush may be down to his base by November [that is to say in the low to mid forties] and how to make this a 1932 style shift of power. If Bush’s negatives are bad enough, districts currently merely “leaning Republican” could be seriously in play and at that point we could be looking at a House and Senate and state legistlatures. Small gains at that point can make disproportionate differences. As you say, new voters follow the winner. Do not assume the “winner” will be a Republican.

  13. Newt on

    Though I am a Dean supporter, I agree with this entry.
    (I also like Edwards, and will support Clark, Kerry, or Lieberman quite happily; I’d probably vote for Sharpton or Kucinich, too, against Bush)
    A swing voter is worth two new voters, because when you win him over, you deny him also to your opponent.
    Also, the non-voters of this nation are pretty much determined not to particiapte in civic activities. I canvass my precinct hard and volunteer for all the Democratic campaigns that need votes in my city, and I run a voter registration drive with my family and also, lately, with my church. I have met a lot of non-voters in my life. And those non-voters fall into very few groups, to wit:
    -young people, eighteen year olds, college students. I can get them voting a few years earlier by registering them, but they would eventually vote or not vote according to personal preference. And often they move in the months between registration and election, or simply forget to show up on election day. You can turn out students if you physically buttonhole and corral them to the polls.
    -recent movers. I can update their registration, and some of them will vote.
    -apartment and duplex renters. For reasons I don’t understand they simply refuse to register to vote and are often hostile. There are a few who will, but their turnout is shockingly dismal.
    -latinos. This is the most rewarding group; they simply vote in numbers far less than they should.
    -felons (there are more than you think!). They mostly have been told they can never vote again, which is never true in my state. The registration form details our liberal laws on the matter so I read it to them, and then I register them. Turnout is not so good.
    There is not a lot of potential here and the people who don’t vote don’t seem likely to be excited by any issues-based movement either. I do think my efforts help some, but few campaigns should make that kind of work their focus.
    We might spend time on some of these groups, but none of them are going to turn the nation around. I especially like working on the latinos. There are a disproportionate number of them in swing states -AZ, NM, FL, CO, NV, they are reliably 2 to 1 Democrats, and it is fairly easy to persuade them to vote. In one county in my state the Navajos have taken over a county commission seat for themselves after years of discrimination and now have a voice; similar work has been done in SD, but there are just not that many NAs left after all that genocide.
    It’s just not a real national strategy. Non voters are not simply disappointed with dishonest politicians. Mostly they really, genuinely don’t want to vote. I’ve had enough doors slammed in my face to know that.

  14. MattinBrooklyn on

    “that’s what usually happens with new voters: they go for the winner and therefore amplify, not change, the result we would have seen without the new voters.”
    and the evidence for this is….?
    Glad to hear you’re coming out for the status quo.


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