This is the second in a four-part, weekly series on voting in America.
Ask any party operative and they’ll tell you that a ground game wins or loses elections.
But new voter ID laws and expansive targeting technology have made get-out-the-vote efforts even more complicated and crucial for this year’s midterms and the next presidential election for both parties.
But Democrats are more immediately worried about 2014. After historic losses in the 2010 elections, when crucial voting blocs stayed home, the party is gearing up for another tough midterm fight by investing tens of millions of dollars in turnout operations in competitive Senate states to translate their presidential ground-game advantage to the midterms.
Jeremy Bird, the architect of Obama’s revolutionary data operation, is now involved in that effort with his consulting firm, 270 Strategies. Bird said while many of the same tactics apply, Democrats have to grapple with a different universe of voters in the midterm elections.
“We’re not trying to recreate the presidential electorate but trying to create a winning midterm electorate. We’re trying to figure out who are those drop-off voters. Who are the voters likely to vote in presidential elections and likely to vote in midterms if you engage them, educate them and turn them out?” he said.
Democrats are looking to last year’s successful Virginia gubernatorial race as a guide for their midterm turnout efforts.
They plan to more widely use tools that had been helpful on the presidential level but were not yet tailored for local races until Virginia, like an app to help voters find their polls and vote pledges they can have their voters sign as later reminders.
Matt Holleque, co-founder of BlueLabs, the data firm that helped guide Democrat Terry McAuliffe to a win in the swing state, said part of the effort relies on figuring out how to develop the right message for the right voters.
“We’re improving the accuracy of our modeling systems, identifying the right targets to turn out, and figuring out the best way to frame the importance of voting so that voters can appreciate the message that you’re bringing to them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republicans are also investing in their turnout operation and trying to catch up to Democrats. Republican National Committee communications director Kirsten Kukowski said, where the GOP had previously focused on the volume of its contacts in turning voters out, the party is now warming up to the idea that the quality of those contacts matters just as much, if not more.
“What we’ve been doing over the last year is really rebuilding the infrastructure that we maybe haven’t had for several cycles. And that’s across all communities, but particularly in some minority communities, where we haven’t been doing the same sort of [get-out-the-vote] effort we maybe should have been doing before,” she said.
But those efforts can only go so far, at least this year. Michael McDonald, a political science professor at George Mason University, said midterm electorates are historically very consistent.
“When we look at turnout in midterm elections over a long period of time, it’s very steady. The same sorts of people show up from election to election, going all the way back to 1974,” he said.
Ultimately, Democrats might have more to worry about in 2016 than Republicans catching up on the ground game.
State legislatures have passed a spate of new voting restrictions at a rate that’s been growing in the past five years, according to Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU.
“It’s really a huge, seismic shift in terms of the kinds of voting disputes we’re seeing when you compare today to even a decade ago,” Ho said.
Nine states have passed laws restricting voting since the start of 2013. Most implemented voter identification requirements, but some shortened early voting periods.
McDonald said the impact of many of those laws isn’t immediately clear. While restrictions on early voting are typically seen as detrimental to turnout among Democratic base voters, including blacks and young voters, that’s not true in every state or in every case.
In Florida, for instance, a federal court overturned laws reducing early voting days, ruling that they would impact black voting turnout because black voters in the state tend to participate in “Souls to the Polls” events organized by their churches on the Sunday before Election Day.
But a 2012 study of 2008 turnout in each of the nation’s 3,100 counties revealed that turnout in counties with early voting was about 3 percentage points lower than in counties without it. Changes to voting by mail have no clear beneficiary between the two parties either, McDonald said. States that require voters to offer an excuse to vote absentee tend to see higher proportions of Republicans use that option, but some states with the highest rates of mail ballots, like Oregon and Washington, see predominantly Democratic turnout.
Experts agree that strict voter ID laws or citizenship requirements could have a disproportionate impact on blacks, Hispanics and young voters — all Democratic base voters — but McDonald points out that they could also impact senior voters, who tend to lean Republican.
Both parties have launched groups looking to play in secretaries of State races, with one Republican super-PAC, SOS for SoS, planning to invest $4 million to $5 million in up to eight races, according to its executive director, Gregg Phillips.
“Secretaries of State and other election officials are truly the folks that run elections in the United States, and we’re committed to ensuring that the people that are in those seats have the strength of character, the strength of backbone, to stand up against the race-bating and the things these folks do to suppress free and fair elections,” he said.
Overall, MacDonald said, those laws are unlikely to have much of an impact on the 2014 midterm elections because they affect voters at the margins, those with a low propensity to vote during midterms anyway.
He said the real impact of these proliferating laws will be felt in the 2016 presidential election, but the long-term impact on turnout could last far beyond the next cycle.
“You shouldn’t put barriers in the way of people who have chosen to disenfranchise themselves. They’re just going to become more tuned out to a system they feel they have no stake in already,” MacDonald said.
Next Wednesday’s installment will examine voter ID laws across the country.