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72 hours to victory Maybe not

A campaign claiming it was going to “win on turnout” used to be regarded as a certain loser. Suddenly, it’s not a joke anymore. Republican operatives are claiming their 72-hour program can hold back this year’s wave.

A campaign claiming it was going to “win on turnout” used to be regarded as a certain loser. Suddenly, it’s not a joke anymore. Republican operatives are claiming their 72-hour program can hold back this year’s wave.

Of course, turnout can be vital in very close races, and since we always run like we are narrowly behind, campaigns properly focus on GOTV. But can turnout stem the tide in most of this year’s races? That’s precisely the argument being made by many Republicans and regurgitated by some commentators. In fact, few of this year’s races will be decided by 72-hour programs.

Here it would be wise to ask a few questions of those suggesting Republican salvation rests on the 72-hour program.

How much difference can turnout really make? Consider the punishing arithmetic. Take a House race that this year would otherwise be 52-48 Democratic. What would turnout efforts have to achieve to overturn the putative victory?

Use white evangelical Protestants as an example. They comprised 23 percent of the national electorate in both 2000 and 2004, so let’s say they are the same proportion of our imaginary Congressional District. Say the 72-hour program was spectacularly — increasing their turnout by 20 percent while every other segment of the electorate held constant. In that case, evangelicals would constitute 26.4 percent of the electorate.

Assume for the sake of argument they continued to give the GOP the same 78 percent of their votes they gave to George Bush in 2004. Such heroic efforts would still result in a Democratic victory. And if white evangelical Protestants only offered 68 percent of their votes to Republicans, all that work would result in less than a 1-point shift in the vote. And that calculation makes the very unlikely assumption that one side enjoys great success while the other does nothing.

How likely is a 20 percent increase in turnout based on a GOTV effort? The best serious academic estimate is that all the GOTV work in the presidential campaign of 2004 increased turnout not by 20 percent, but by about 3 percent. 

Experiments on turnout by Alan Gerber and Donald Green suggest that the most effective means of increasing turnout raise it by less than 10 percent —  and that’s for people who get canvassed in person. None of this is to suggest that GOTV efforts are not valuable. When 2000 or 200 votes decide an election there is no question that GOTV efforts can make all the difference in the world. But again, that is simply not the case that is being argued by GOP operatives.

Can’t micro-targeting help them achieve spectacular successes? Anyone who has ever modeled data knows there is much more salesmanship than science in Republican claims about these efforts. Our firm and others on the Democratic side have been using these models for half a dozen years or more and we know they can make our efforts much more efficient; expand our GOTV and persuasion universes; and provide message guidance. So when races are otherwise marginal, the lift models provide can make all the difference between winning and losing. But no model is going to turn what would otherwise be a 5-point loss into a victory.

But didn’t the GOP prove its efforts were much more effective than the Democrats’ in 2004? No. Check the data. In Ohio’s base Democratic precincts turnout was 8.2 points higher than it had been in 2000. In base Republican precincts, turnout increased by a slightly lesser 6.1 points. Winning a state is not the same as doing a better job on turnout.

As important as turnout and GOTV efforts can be, the GOP needs to find something more to hold back this wave.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.