By Greg Smith
If you want to mobilize voters, give them good candidates and attractive ideas. Newt Gingrich understood that and led the Republican Party to an historic victory in 1994. By 2008 the party had forgotten this truism and has since suffered two defeats in presidential campaigns.
Now it is the Democratic Party’s turn to re-learn that lesson.
In 2012 the Obama campaign’s voter mobilization effort was credited as a main source of victory. Much has been written of it as a masterful use of technology to drive voter turnout by identifying and communicating at an individual level, even using Facebook pages to identify likely supporters to target in the ground game of phone calls and home visits.
In reality, the Republicans lost in 2012 because they nominated a bad candidate. I didn’t say a bad man, bad campaigner, bad debater or a potentially bad president. In 2012 I told everyone who would listen that Romney wouldn’t win the nomination because the GOP must have learned its lesson in 2008 about running another rich white guy who wants people to like him and believes some nebulous form of compassionate conservatism is a tonic for a lack of a specific plan and platform focusing on individual freedom. Republicans almost always fail when they try to soften their image and say ‘let’s be friends’ and only greatly succeed when running on specific plans.
In 2012 my prediction was almost correct. In the primaries Romney was the front-runner almost from the beginning, but couldn’t muster a majority of GOP support. Each time one of the rest of the pack would pull closer to Romney in the polls and then fade, another also-ran surged because Romney did not excite voters. They continued to look for an alternative in a group of poor candidates.
Romney won the 2012 nomination by default by pushing the usual generic Republican line that lacked a specific call to action. If you can’t even excite primary voters you can kiss the general election goodbye. In the end he only had real support from a plurality of Republicans who mistakenly think their party needs to soften its image rather than provide solid, specific ideas besides cutting taxes.
The conventional wisdom is Democratic candidates in 2014 have at least a small advantage in getting its base to turn out because of the lessons learned by the Democratic Party in Obama’s 2012 reelection. Predictions include Alaska Sen. Mark Begich driving large numbers of indigenous Alaskans, or Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina pushing enough blacks to vote to possibly pull out a narrow win. I disagree.
Politics is and will always be a game of ideas and candidates, in that order. Even a good idea needs a strong candidate building political support, and an otherwise personable candidate needs a platform to attract voters.
The impetus for the massive voter organization drives is the limit placed on how much of an individual’s political contribution can be used to expressly advocate for a candidate. Parties and political action committees can use the rest, called “soft money,” without limit for party-building activities like get-out-the-vote efforts. Since every possible dollar is shaken from the tree, parties have a lot of soft money with relatively few ways to spend it. There is a lot of pressure on parties and PACs to show donations have an influence. They have reason to point to the ground game as a necessary and useful expense.
The impact a get-out-the-vote drive can have on an election runs parallel to the quality of the candidate and platform. Run a gay vegan hairdresser for Congress in rural Texas and see how a sophisticated, well-funded get-out-the-vote drive helps.
Which begs the question, do Democrats have candidates with platforms that will benefit from a ground game? As hard as I am on the GOP for a lack of a platform, Democratic candidates have no platform either and have resorted to inflammatory statements on race and gender. What exactly are their plans if they won either the Senate or both houses? President Obama has refused to compromise with Republicans, and since GOP control of the House is considered a foregone conclusion, Democratic voters don’t have much to lose from a GOP Senate. Judicial nominees are about all, but with Obama nominating them Democrats don’t even have a motivating fear of another Antonin Scalia. A last minute knock at the door or phone call hardly seems like enough to overcome the disappointment Democrats have in Obama.
Get-out-the-vote drives do not begin days, weeks or months before an election. They begin the day after the previous election. Democrats have had, from most voters’ perspective, six years to make their case. Indications are they failed. Last-minute door knocking and phone calling comprise a bandage on a serious political wound.
As Sir Thomas More wrote in Utopia, “It is a wise man’s part rather to avoid sickness than to wish for medicines, and rather to drive away and put to flight careful griefs than to call for comfort.”
My view is Republicans in spite of themselves will wind up with at least 52 Senate seats with a good chance at 53. If turnout is lower than predicted they have a shot at 54. Of the eight Senate seats considered toss-ups, only New Hampshire seems out of reach.
We will have to wait and see if Harry Reid blames the Koch brothers when another Democrat is elected minority leader. ©
Greg Smith is a freelance writer and political consultant who lives in Bantam, CT. His blog is found at www.betterfatthanfascist.com.