The wisdom of urging everyone and anyone – regardless of how disinterested or ill-informed they are – to vote for voting’s sake could reasonably be disputed, but the reality is that Republicans have bought in wholesale to the ‘Rock the Vote’ movement along with their counterparts on the left. Agree with it or not, this movement has created a statistically significant rise in low-information voters turning out on Election Day.
Most in the chattering class believed turnout for these voters reached its height in 2008, but with four solid years of seeking out, registering, and turning out new voters, turnout actually rose in nine key swing states in 2012.
Low-information voters trend younger and are more likely to be unmarried. They typically remain at least nominally ‘undecided’ until the bitter end, and generally do not read or watch extensive political or news coverage. They may care about economic issues in theory, but the tax rate doesn’t impact their day-to-day existence.
This means that campaigns must develop clear, concise, and punchy messaging, and find a way to integrate it into these voters’ daily lives.
Democrats – Barack Obama in particular – go after these voters with gusto. The 2008 Obama campaign broke ground by advertising on Xbox video games, prompting thousands of stoners to get off the couch and out to the polls. In 2012, when young women visited a beauty blog, they were likely greeted with video ads of Eva Longoria or Scarlett Johansson telling them Obama was fabulous. And lest we forget the infamous ad where Girls star Lena Dunham invited her fellow young women to make their “first time” special with Barack Obama.
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The resulting votes are likely in large part responsible for Obama outperforming the majority of pre-election polling. Exit polls showed that Obama dominated among both unmarried and non-white voters under 30, winning them by 60 percent. In terms of late-breaking voters, Republican pollster Public Opinion Strategies wrote in a post-election memo:
[G]iven that late deciders voted Democratic on the generic ballot by double digits, (41 percent GOP/56 percent Democrat on the generic ballot), polls released prior to the election do not necessarily capture the final movement or turnout trends in a campaign.
Republicans, on the other hand, after buying into the concept of encouraging low-information voters, promptly abandon them.
A late October post on Twitchy, a twitter aggregation website run by conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, lambasting tweets from (largely pro-Obama) low-information voters who seemed to believe one of the candidates was named ‘McRomney,’ epitomizes the scorn held toward these voters by the right.
Case in point: In a bizarre development, tabloid-friendly actress Lindsay Lohan issued an apparent endorsement for Mitt Romney in the final weeks of the campaign. Alex Altman at Time’s Swampland blog asked whether Republicans would jettison the judgment and take advantage of Lohan’s status as a household name:
But the celebrity migration to the Romney camp…may be a symptom of a potentially serious problem for Barack Obama: an indication that so-called low-information voters, many of whom supported Obama in 2008, will abandon the president’s re-election bid.
But it was not to be. Republican operatives fail to understand that a campaign can still make hay out of an otherwise embarrassing endorsement as long as it is targeted at the right audience – say, celebrity gossip blog readers. Obama wasn’t touting the Lena Dunham endorsement on the stump in Ohio; the video led its shame-faced existence on websites visited by potential voters likely to find it appealing.
Democrats succeed by bringing the message to low-information voters where they already are and presenting that message in a creative, appealing manner. Conversely, when Republicans do try to target these voters – such as with YouTube pre-roll ads – we use the same ominous, grainy footage 30-second spot about how Americans “can’t afford” the Democrat that we’ve been running for 30 years.
Republicans cannot turn back the clock on encouraging low-information voters and it is unrealistic to think they will become more informed, so the only solution is to work within the electoral environment we helped to create. Because all the snark, eye rolling, and excuses about how it’s impossible to compete with a ‘celebrity President’ fall awfully flat when you lose.
Chassé is a vice president at Hynes Communications, a Republican online communications consultancy.