Turnout, turnout, turnout

Democrats could be in trouble or we could have the upper hand — it all depends on the strategy for 2014 that we choose.

For those of us Democratic political media consultants, we are learning a pretty hard lesson: Even though TV may still be king for a while, it is becoming more and more about turnout. It is more and more about targeting. It is more and more about communicating with new media techniques and new ways to connect to get people to the polls.

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Republicans argue, with some degree of clarity, that Democrats face an "enthusiasm gap" much like in 2010 and that Republicans are energized to take back the Senate. They maintain that our strongest constituencies — young people, Hispanics, African-Americans — have historically been less likely to turn out in off-year elections.

If Democrats allow things to play out the usual way they may just be right.

But if Democrats in the key states with Senate races and in the targeted House races change the model, Republicans could well have egg on their faces.

Let's look at some historic numbers and some changing demographics. In the presidential election of 2000 we saw a rather anemic voter turnout, 105 million Americans, that dropped to 80 million in the off-year of 2002, up to 122 million in the presidential year of 2004, down again to about 80 million in 2006, way up to 132 million in 2008, down to 90 million in 2010 and, again, up to about 130 million in 2012.

Clearly, there is a fairly consistent pattern here — whether it is a 25 million vote drop-off or a more than 40 million drop, the numbers are big. The real question for 2014, of course, is just who stays home.

Now let's look at the demographics and the dramatic change in who votes. When Clinton was first elected president, the electorate was 87 percent white; when Obama was reelected, it was 72 percent white. In 2012, African-Americans were 13 percent of the electorate, Hispanics were 10 percent, Asians were 3 percent and 2 percent "other." And, of course, as has been true for a long time, women were a majority of the electorate, at 53 percent.

Gallup just released a report that looked at younger voters ages 18 to 29, about 19 percent of the electorate in 2012. In 1995, 71 percent of young people were non-Hispanic whites and 29 percent were non-white. Now, non-Hispanic whites are 54 percent of the electorate and non-whites have risen to 45 percent. Again, a serious shift.

Hmm ... and we have a Republican Party that is perceived as anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-immigrant and anti-middle class. Not exactly an enviable position with the current makeup of the electorate. 

Republicans do believe, however, that by counting on the traditional turnout model, a dispirited Democratic Party and putting all their eggs in the Obamacare basket, they can ride to victory.

But here is the rub for the Republicans. After 2008 and 2012, the Obama team members have done an amazing job of locating and identifying their voters in key states. They don't just know counties, or cities, or precincts — they know houses. They know the neighborhoods and the streets and the homes we live in. They know how often we vote, they know our interests, they know our Facebook friends.

In key 2012 battleground states with 2014 Senate races — like Iowa and Colorado and New Hampshire and North Carolina and Virginia — they are organized and ready. In other battleground states, with money and personnel and focus starting early, Democrats can do a great deal to impact the turnout of their voters.

My central point is not that media and message won't be critical in 2014 but that the targeting and voter identification and get out the vote operations could upend the traditional model we have seen in off-year elections. 

But the Democrats must think differently, must spend their budgets differently, must engage in a lot more hand-to-hand, house-to-house action than ever before. 

The tools are there, the skills are honed, the groundwork has been laid. Now Democrats must seize this advantage and must focus over the next seven months on turnout, turnout, turnout. Spoken like a true TV guy, right? 

Contact Fenn at pfenn@fenn-group.com.