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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Off Base

The headline of Ron Brownstein’s state-of-the-race piece in yesterday’s LA Times tells you everything you need to know about the parlous condition of the Bush-Cheney campaign a week before the GOP confab in New York: “Bush Aims to Solidify His Base.” If Bush, like Al Gore at this stage in 2000, were struggling to shore up support from his party’s rank-and-file, this focus on the conservative base might make sense. But no, Bush is already pulling well over 90% of self-identified Republicans.
As Brownstein explains, GOPers have convinced themselves they are going to win by boosting conservative turnout. “The Bush campaign believes that there are functionally no swing voters, that campaigns are about the mobilization of your base and expanding the turnout of your base,” a “veteran GOP operative” told Ron. And this kind of talk is not a new thing for the Bushies, who have apparently been reading old BlogForAmerica posts by Joe Trippi, avatar of “screw the swing” thinking among Democrats earlier in this cycle.
There are three big problems with this strategy:
(1) Undecided voters actually do exist, according to every survey, and even if you accept the lowest possible estimate of their numbers (say, 5% of the electorate), they will be decisive in a close election. Remember the basic rule of electoral math: if you “energize” someone to turn out whose vote is certain, you pick up a maximum of one vote, and if your “mobilization” strategy isn’t pretty damn quiet, you’re going to help the other guy “energize” marginal voters as well. If you turn an undecided voter, you get two votes by winning one and denying your opponent one as well.
(2) On the whole, marginal voters are more like swing voters than base voters. They are less partisan, less ideological, harder to reach and motivate, and more cynical about electioneering than voters. And this year, marginal voters as a whole, who are younger, more moderate, more independent, and more downscale than voters, are leaning towards Kerry. A general increase in turnout, which every measurement of voter interest is presently indicating, will help Kerry, not Bush. That’s not a guess; it’s an informed conviction.
(3) Selectively motivating marginal voters is not as easy as it sounds. They are by definition relatively disengaged from political and civic life, and unlikely to respond to campaign ads or the exhortations of opinion-leaders. Targeted GOTV works best when you focus on high geographical concentrations of marginal voters likely to go your way, and then literally go door-to-door to boost overall turnout in these areas (yes, phone banks and emails are helpful, too, but there’s still no more reliable method than the ol’ “knock and drag.”) While the advent of sunbelt exurban communities has given Republicans a ripe target for intensive GOTV efforts, Democratic marginal voters are still much more concentrated, especially in the midwestern battleground states. Moreover, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that Democrats and their allies in the new 527s are significantly outgunning the GOP in GOTV preparations.
In a dead-even election, of course, every vote matters. But the odds that Bush is going to prevail by ignoring undecided voters and winning the turnout wars fall somewhere on the scale that leads from slim to none. If the President’s wizards really believe the crap they’re saying on the subject, it’s a sure sign of a campaign in deep denial, and deep trouble.

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