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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Limits and Uses of “Enthusiasm”

In a column for TPMCafe today, I continued to beat the drum for a clearer understanding of the turnout problem faced by Democrats this midterm cycle, and for a more rational assessment of the limits and uses of “base enthusiasm,” which some Democrats (and Republicans) often discuss with mystic intensity.

We’re at that time of the election cycle when you start hearing a great deal about the relative “enthusiasm” of each major party’s “base,” with the assumption being this is the key to a robust turnout in November. Do this and don’t do that, we are told (especially by conservative Republicans, but increasingly as well by progressive Democrats), or you will dampen base enthusiasm and court disaster.
But there are a couple of problems with this assumption, namely (1) “enthusiasm” does not reward the base voter with additional trips to the ballot box, and (2) there are quite a few factors other than “enthusiasm” that affect turnout rates….
Now a lot of Democratic progressives claim that a party message more focused on the perceived interests or ideological leanings of marginal voters (i.e., a “populist” message) will produce much higher turnout. That’s based on the assumption that non-voting is mainly attributable to “voter discouragement,” rather than to longstanding demographic patterns of participation. It’s fair to wonder if those making this claim are projecting their own attitudes onto marginal voters, and/or simply prefer a different message (an entirely legitimate desire, but not one inherently relevant to turnout).
But in any event, there’s plenty of evidence that turnout can be more reliably affected by direct efforts to identify favorable concentrations of voters and simply get them to the polls, with or without a great deal of “messaging” or for that matter enthusiasm (no one takes your temperature before you cast a ballot). Such get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts are the meat-and-potatoes of American politics, even if they invariably get little attention from horse-race pundits. Neighborhood-intensive “knock-and-drag” GOTV campaigns used to be a Democratic speciality thanks to the superior concentration of Democratic (especially minority) voters, though geographical polarization has created more and more equally ripe Republican areas.
In recent years, however, technology has made it increasingly feasible to use voter-to-voter contacts to expand and intensify marginal-voter outreach (pioneered by the Bush re-election campaign in 2004, which used email chains and informal civic connections to conduct “under the radar” GOTV efforts, and then raised to another level via social media by the Obama re-election campaign of 2012). And that’s where “enthusiasm” really might play a role. Perhaps highly “energized” base voters don’t get a personal ballot bonus. But if they are motivated to contact those who otherwise might not vote at all, their “enthusiasm” can be usefully harvested.

While there is nothing wrong with “enthusiasm,” a message-driven hyper-polarized approach to GOTV can sometimes help the other side increase its own “enthusiasm.” Better to chose the message most in accord with the party’s policy goals and enjoying the most public support, and use “enthusiasm” in synch with investments in technology to reach and get to the polls as many voters as possible.

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