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Mellman: Persuasion or turnout in campaigns

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Lynn Vavreck is a brilliant political scientist from whom I’ve learned a great deal and from whom I still hope to learn much.

However, I do hope Democrats do not take to heart her recent Upshot piece titled, “The Myth of Swing Voters in Midterm Elections,” in which she argues, “The 2014 fight is not over swing voters. It’s for partisans.”

Her conclusion, which overstates the body of her argument, has been simplified to suggest that campaigners not waste resources persuading nonexistent persuadables, but rather devote their efforts exclusively to turning out the base.

In future columns, I will develop a series of arguments against this get-out-the-vote-only posture. But at this stage I want to focus on one reason that I hope Democrats eschew the implicit advice: It’s a losing strategy for us.

Start with Vavreck’s evidence: “Fewer than 6 percent of 2008 voters in the presidential election voted for a congressional candidate from the other party in 2010, with the switchers roughly evenly divided across the parties, according to the [survey] … But on turnout, the numbers were not evenly balanced for Democrats and Republicans. Only 65 percent of Obama’s 2008 supporters stuck with the party in 2010 and voted for a Democrat in the House. The remaining 28 percent of Mr. Obama’s voters took the midterm election off. By comparison, only 17 percent of McCain’s voters from 2008 sat out the midterms.”

So the lesson would seem to be forget the measly number of “switchers” and focus instead on reducing the number of Obama voters who stay home.

Mitt Romney, not Barack Obama, won a majority of congressional districts in the 2012 presidential election. If each district reverts to its presidential partisanship, as Vavreck’s example implies, Democrats lose. If every Senate seat is won by the party that won the presidential race in that state, Democrats lose control of the senate.

Only 18 Republicans hold seats in districts President Obama won. Those are the only districts where (assuming Republicans do their job in a minimally effective way), there are enough Obama voters who could be turned out in a midterm to produce a Democratic victory.

That miraculous set of events would produce just enough seats for a Democratic takeover, assuming we lost not a single one of the 15 seats held by Democrats in districts Romney won.

Looked at differently, even if Democrats produced a 2.5 percentage point increase in party turnout beyond that which the Obama campaign generated in every district  (a nearly impossible task, as we shall see in future columns), no more than two additional districts would be added to the Democratic column. That’s a far cry from the number needed to take control of the House.

The much-discussed special election in Florida’s 13th District illustrates the point. An analysis by Yair Ghitza of Catalist reveals Democrats actually did better at turning out their voters than did Republicans. While both parties’ turnout naturally declined from the presidential election, Democratic turnout declined less than the GOP’s.

But 1.4 percent of those who had voted for Alex Sink as the Democratic nominee for governor four years before did not vote for her in the congressional race this year. Keeping those voters, who have to be considered persuadable by any definition, would have won the race.

To be fair, producing an extraordinary 2.5-point increase in Democratic turnout beyond what the party achieved would have also given her a narrow win that would probably have been decided in court. But relying on either getting out the vote or persuasion by itself would have been foolhardy.

The truth is the argument between turnout and persuasion is sterile and unproductive. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. Any strategy premised on one approach while ignoring the other is bound to fail for Democrats.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House. 

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