Sunday, September 26, 2004

Three Votes and a Cloud of Dust

Throughout this election cycle, spinmeisters from both parties have regularly boasted "their team" was going to have a big advantage in the "ground game" of turning out voters on Election Day (or even before that, in the case of absentee ballot voters). For the most part, media types have blandly reported both sides' claims, creating the impression that Democratic and Republican GOTV efforts would cancel each other out.

Finally, somebody went out and checked.

On the front page of the Sunday NYT, Ford Fessenden reports on a Times study of registration numbers in the two most crucial battleground states, Ohio and Florida. And it confirms two things I've felt strongly about, but had little more than anecdotal evidence to support: (1) this is going to be a high-turnout election (which in itself is helpful to Democrats), and (2) Democrats are way, way ahead in the ground game.

I won't go through the numbers; you should read the whole story yourself. But they are overwhelming in Ohio. In Florida, the Democratic advantage is equally striking, but the actual number of new voters being registered is much lower, for a very obvious reason: stormy weather. And that, too, is a special problem for the GOP, since Republican-leaning areas of the state have been hardest-hit. It's kinda hard to run phone banks or send emails (much less run television ads) in places with no electricity or phone service. Parts of the Florida panhandle will be literally dark for weeks, even if the horrific wave of hurricanes finally ends. The same problems, of course, make accurate polling difficult, so we should all take any Florida polls with a large shaker of salt over the next couple of weeks.

Even the Times report slips over the line from empirical data to partisan mythology in citing Republican ground-game success in 2002 as an indication that the GOP may do better than the Ohio and Florida registration figures suggest. As always, the example used is Georgia, where Ralph Reed got a chance to test-drive the GOP's state-of-the-art "72 Hours of Hell" (or whatever it's called) GOTV effort, producing upset wins in Senate and gubernatorial races.

I know a little bit about Georgia, and it's clear to me that the 2002 Republican GOTV effort in that state is not generally replicable in battleground states across the country.

What happened in Georgia is that the massive growth of Atlanta's exurban communities gave Republicans something they've rarely had in the past and still don't have in most parts of the country: heavy geographical concentrations of conservative voters where a big uptick on total turnout guarantees a large partisan harvest, just like the minority neighborhoods that have long given Democrats a better reason to invest in GOTV.

Georgia Republicans figured that out, flooded the exurbs with every dollar and every knock-and-drag technique imaginable, and won.

Republicans may be able to use the same techniques to boost their turnout in states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, though there are pro-Democratic demographic trends in all four states that may be equally or even more significant.

But states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin, simply don't have the kind of massive exurban growth that makes Republican GOTV investments pay off so handsomely. And even in states like Minnesota that do have rapid exurban growth, it's worth noting that non-sunbelt exurbs are not as culturally conservative, or as overwhelmingly Republican, as those in the South and parts of the West.

I think it's increasingly clear that if Kerry (and other Democrats in battleground states) are two or three points behind on November 1, they might still win. Getting to the point where the "ground game" can be decisive, however, means succeeding in the "air war" of convincing persuadable voters to smile upon the donkey.
-- Posted at 3:18 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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