Dems fear a debacle on turnout

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

Record-low primary election turnout is threatening to magnify Democratic midterm worries. 

Both parties have made their “get out the vote” programs a top priority for November, investing millions in building bigger ground operations earlier than ever before. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The challenge is most dire for Democrats, who are defending a fragile six-seat Senate majority that relies on a handful of races in hostile, GOP-leaning territory — and trying to pick up House seats in a difficult year, politically.

Their push this week to raise the alarm —  and campaign cash — over the GOP lawsuit against President Obama and to stoke fears of impeachment shows just how worried Democrats are. 

A report last week from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate had troubling news for both parties: turnout in the 25 states that have already held statewide primaries this cycle has declined about 3.5 percent from 2010, down to 14.8 percent of the voting-age population.

The report also says turnout in 15 of the 25 states hit record lows, and that only three had higher turnout this cycle than in 2010.

For Republicans, they were hoping good primary numbers would translate into increased enthusiasm for the party, and possibly signal a growing GOP wave. 

Right now, neither appears to be true. 

Both Republican and Democratic operatives said they weren’t alarmed by the findings of the report, noting that it’s difficult to extrapolate primary turnout to the general election campaign and that the comparison to 2010 was imperfect.

That year saw a GOP wave and record-high turnout in a number of cases, but Republicans say present-day comparisons don’t work. Many states that had competitive statewide primaries in 2010 didn’t this year, or vice versa, explaining the shift.

Michael McDonald, a political science professor at George Mason University, said that looking at the overall decline in turnout outlined in the report was an imprecise gauge. He noted that the individual parties saw bumps in turnout in states where there were particularly contentious statewide primaries, like North Carolina or Nebraska for Republicans and New Mexico for Democrats. 

“Where we do see higher participation in primaries is where we see competitive elections,” he said.

That’s because, McDonald noted, voters need to see “a real reason, a real choice between the candidates offered there” — a reason to get excited about the election. 

And that’s where, operatives of both parties acknowledged, the report’s findings may be problematic for 2014.

Mitch Stewart, Obama’s former battleground states director, said the lack of engagement at the primary level seems to be a systemic problem.

“It’s a symptom of our politics today. It’s hard to look at Congress and be super jazzed about voting,” he said.

But even there, the GOP has an advantage. A Pew poll out last week showed 45 percent who said they planned to vote Republican reported being more enthusiastic about voting this year than in years prior, while only 37 percent of those who supported a Democratic candidate said the same.

And GOP operatives note that in other states soon facing a vote, like Tennessee next week, early voting is on the rise — an encouraging sign they see as indicative of Republican enthusiasm this fall. An operative engaged in House races pointed in particular to GOP turnout in the special election in Florida’s 13th District, when more than 40 percent of Republicans went to the polls, as evidence of strong enthusiasm from their party.

The survey also showed that Democrats suffered a higher drop-off from 2010 than Republicans. Democratic turnout went from 8.7 percent of eligible voters in 2010 to 6.1 percent this year. Republican turnout dropped from 9.6 percent in 2010 to 8.2 percent.

McDonald said that’s largely because most of the action has been taking place on the other side, and that Democrats will tune back in once there’s a reason to.

“We haven’t really seen Democrats have a reason to be interested in the election yet, because we’re not close to the fall election and their primaries haven’t been contested,” he said.

Still, Democratic base constituencies become disinterested during the midterms at higher rates than GOP-leaning groups, which is why Democrats have a tougher fight to get their voters out this fall.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said the expectation that turnout would decrease this cycle was well-founded, but that he’s working to make sure it doesn’t hurt Democrats this fall.

To make sure they’re getting every voter to tune in and turn out, both parties are investing aggressively in their ground games, planning to use tried and tested techniques to improve turnout.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pledged $60 million to build its ground operation in 10 of its most competitive states, and spokesman Justin Barasky said the committee is making early and absentee voting a central focus this fall.

“In terms of our turnout operation this fall, an aggressive early voting push and an aggressive absentee push will be key parts of our strategy. As will voter-to-voter contact, knocking on doors, face to face,” said Barasky. 

The DSCC’s Republican counterpart has been making a play to expand the GOP’s appeal. National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Brad Dayspring touted the committee’s efforts driving Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to a win in his primary runoff fight, when the committee sent 45 NRSC staffers, who knocked on more than 65,000 doors, as a success story that will be replicated elsewhere.

“We invested approximately $200,000 in digital targeting and turnout. These investments helped to successfully grow the electorate, and when all was said and done, Senator Cochran picked up well over 10,000 additional Republican votes,” he said.

But Curtis Gans, the report’s author, warns those efforts can only go so far. He said that both parties will have to confront that disengagement if they don’t want their efforts to be in vain.

“An organization is just as good as how fertile the ground is that they’re tilling. These figures essentially say that neither party has particularly fertile ground to till,” he said.