Campaign strategists try to be in fashion. Just as clothing designers conform to the tastes of the times, consultants tailor their campaign tactics to conventional wisdom. The emerging consensus of this election seems to be that victory can best be achieved by mobilizing and energizing your hard-core or base voters so they will go to the polls. Forget your slackers. Forget the swing voters. Rally the base.
Look at liberal Democrats’ glee over the Connecticut primary results. They are ecstatic that a “real Democrat” that appeals to the “true base” defeated the waffler Joe Lieberman. These Democrats are on fire, hoping that having more genuine Democrats on the November ballot will push more rank-and-file Democrats to the polls.
Democrats are welcome to pursue this strategy. It’s a loser. The Democrats on fire for candidates like Ned Lamont will soon enough find themselves consumed by the inferno. Hopefully, Republicans will be smart enough to avoid getting burned themselves by a comparable over-emphasis on courting the base
In the 1970s and 1980s there was appropriately a focus on ticket-splitters and swing voters, but as partisanship waxed and turnout waned during the 1990s, the fashion scene changed. In most instances, the shift in strategies made sense. With fewer voters going to the polls, and with campaign finance restrictions limiting spending, it was logical to focus more resources and messaging on the base. But the long-term trend of declining turnout may be bottoming out. If so, the independents, ticket-splitters and other floating voters that are still participating in elections, even if they are only 10 to 15 percent of the electorate, are going to play a decisive role in the election outcome.
Let me be clear about my point. I’m not suggesting that Republicans reduce spending or effort on pure get-out-the-vote (GOTV). So long as the money is spent on proven techniques, I’d favor even more spending for GOTV efforts during the decisive last 72 hours of campaigns. But I don’t think it’s a winning strategy to focus all the advertising and campaign messaging from Labor Day to Election Day on the hard-core base. More attention needs to be given to wooing swing voters and even soft Democrats. While Democrats are focused on reinforcing Lamont voters, let’s find some Lieberman Democrats to persuade.
One silly polling fad that’s fueling this focus on base voters are questions designed to measure likelihood of voting and interest in the election. A case in point is the recent NPR poll conducted by the bi-partisan team of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (Democrats) and Public Opinion Strategies (Republicans). The poll sampled opinions in 50 swing congressional districts. Voters were asked to use a 10-point scale to indicate their interest in this year’s elections.
The Democratic side of this research team seemed particularly jazzed that Democrats in these important districts are more likely than Republicans to express interest in the elections, as measured by the 10-point scale. This conclusion, of course, overlooks the fact that, as a group or class, Democrats always go to the extremes on scalar questions. It’s something that social psychologists refer to as “positional response set” – a tendency of groups or classes with less formal education to answer questions based on criteria other than that of the question itself. Most Republicans have too much education and are too “cool” to answer “10” on any 1 to 10 scale. Most Democrats are not so restrained. Thus the Democrats’ inclination to score their interest as a 10 is more of a response style than a reliable prediction of their behavior on Election Day.
But if Democratic strategists want to build their base-courting campaigns on the premise that most every Democrat is on fire, go ahead and burn down the house. We’ll bring the marshmallows.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.