Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

McEntee, Mom and mobilization

I love Gerry McEntee. I also love my mother, but that does not mean she is always right either.

I love Gerry McEntee. I also love my mother, but that does not mean she is always right either.

McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, recently labeled Democrats’ 2004 get-out-the-vote program a flop, arguing the Democrats’ “stranger-to-stranger program” was “trounced” by the GOP’s “neighbor-to-neighbor program.” That is what the Republicans would like us to believe. As usual, the truth is more complex.

Democratic mobilization efforts were unprecedented in scale, matching, if not exceeding, those of the Republicans.

The AP-Ipsos poll found each side reached precisely the same number of potential voters. The American National Election Study (ANES) provides evidence both of the vastly increased scope of mobilization and its bipartisan character.

In 2004, 43 percent reported being called or canvassed, the largest number since the study began in 1956 and up eight points from 2000. Here, Democrats slightly outperformed Republicans: 28 percent reported contact from the GOP, 31 percent from the Democrats.

The ANES also asks whether the respondents themselves tried to influence anyone else’s vote. While these efforts could be either organized or spontaneous, since stranger-to-stranger programs employed relatively few people we can assume that most of this activity on both sides was neighbor to neighbor. Nearly half the electorate reported trying to influence others, the largest percentage ever.

Democrats were only slightly less active in these personal efforts (49 percent) than were Republicans (51 percent), and this gap was narrower in 2004 than in most recent years.

Of course, the proof is in the turnout. Here meaningful numbers are difficult to come by. Don’t get me wrong; lots of numbers get floated, but they don’t mean much. The total number of Democratic and Republican ballots cast compared to four years ago says a lot about who won the election but absolutely nothing about how each side mobilized its voters.

One tantalizing set of numbers comes from the battleground state of Ohio. In base Democratic precincts, turnout increased by 8.2 percent, compared to 6.1 percent in the Republican base. By these measures, too, Democratic GOTV efforts seemed slightly more effective than the GOP’s — though not enough.

As groups lay mobilization plans, two facts should be kept in mind. First, McEntee is right in maintaining the superiority of neighbor-to-neighbor over stranger-to-stranger contact. Careful studies reveal live volunteer callers, able to engage voters in conversation, are up to 10 times more effective in generating turnout than quick professional calls.

Second, while mobilization efforts are critical, they do not tell the whole story. Analysis by Yale researchers indicates that, while turnout increased by 17 million votes from 2000, grassroots efforts produced just 3 million-4 million of the increase.

Thus turnout alone could account for Kerry’s defeat only if Bush won over 80 percent of the mobilized voters. Didn’t happen. While “first-time voters” is far from a perfect overlap with “mobilized voters,” Kerry actually won this group by seven points.

Turnout increased mainly because voters thought the 2004 election was more important than elections past, not mainly because of voter-contact programs, though they can be quite important.

The age-old debate between mobilization and persuasion is sterile. Both matter, but GOTV efforts count a little less than communicating the real importance of an election — particularly if that communication is neighbor-to-neighbor. So just like my Mom, McEntee isn’t completely right, but mostly.

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.