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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

That Ancient Choice: Mobilization Versus Persuasion

I was very happy yesterday to be able to cross-post Robert Creamer’s HuffPo piece laying out ten “rules” for Democrats in maximizing their performance in the 2010 midterm elections. Creamer is always a good read, and his take on 2010 was both succinct and comprehensive, which is rare.
But he indirectly raises an age-old issue that is important to get right, and that I’d like to comment on: the choice, in strategy, message and resource allocation, between base turnout “mobilization” and undecided
voter “persuasion.” Creamer says, in terms of this particular cycle, that “midterm elections are all about turnout.”
What he’s talking about here is the simple fact that the shape of the electorate is almost always different in midterm and presidential election cycles, with the smaller midterm electorate skewing towards Republicans. That’s a particular problem for Democrats in 2010, because of the especially large difference in midterm turnout between the oldest voters, who tend to make up a much larger percentage of the electorate, and the youngest voters, who tend to disappear in midterms. Obama’s unusually strong 2008 performance among the latter and weak performance among the former means that Democrats probably began the midterm cycle in the hole even when the president’s approval ratings were a whole lot better. Add in the excitement that atavistic conservative tactics have instilled in Republican voters, and the lukewarm attitude many Democrats have towards the White House and Democratic Members of Congress, and you can see why Creamer and other strategists are obsessed with turnout to the virtual exclusion of any other factor.
But in the end, a vote is a vote, and votes obtained by convincing Democrats to turn out count the same as votes obtained by convincing undecideds or even Republicans to flip in your direction. The resources devoted to these tasks depend on a lot of variables, including the votes available through different techniques; you can certainly argue today that partisan polarization has reduced the number of “persaudable” swing voters to a bare minimum, particularly in a low-turnout midterm election. On the other hand, capturing a “persuadable” voter who’s very likely to turn out produces a bonus by denying your opponent a vote. And if your base-mobilization efforts happen to help your opponent turn out his or her own base (as can happen if you deploy particularly abrasive or ideological public appeals), the net value of each “turnout” vote can be relatively small or even in rare cases negative.
All these factors have to be weighed in the mix, and applied in a carefully developed strategy. Ideally, one’s mobilization and persuasion efforts would be complementary, but more often, choices have to be made based on assessments of both opportunities and costs. Creamer is emphatically correct that old-school under-the-radar GOTV efforts to get “your” voters to the polls can be very effective if executed properly, and because they are conducted late in the game and behind the scenes, they rarely help opponents get out their own vote. But the recent massive upsurge in early voting in many parts of the country has complicated GOTV campaigns considerably by stretching out the “end-game.”
In other words, winning elections is rarely “about” any one thing, though if you had to pick one factor this year, maximizing Democratic turnout would be far and away the most important thing. For those interested in this topic, The Democratic Strategist published a roundtable discussion of the whole base-versus-swing, and mobilization-versus-persuasion debate back in early 2008 (Robert Creamer, in fact, was one of the participants) and most of it remains entirely relevant.

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