Fighting Only Half the Battle: Are Democrats turning out Republican votes?
by Alex Urevick, Sat Sep 16, 2006 at 06:12:23 PM EDT
Crossposted at Future Majority
Last week my co-blogger at Future Majority, Music for America founder Mike Connery, pointed to a new publication released by CIRCLE and Young Voter Strategies. The paper that they released, titled What Works: Getting Young Voters to the Polls (PDF). When I first read the study I was pretty focused on the parts having to do with the value of face-to-face/personalized contact, the cost effective nature of youth outreach, as well as the finding that when it comes to getting young people to the polls, the medium is more important then the message (in other words, contacting voters increases voting equally, no matter what the message is). Yesterday I was reading the blog of Peter Levine, Director of CIRCLE, and while reading his post which discusses the Young Voter Guide I found this passage:
3. Despite repeated efforts to find more effective messages, it appears that the medium matters, not the message. For example, if you organize a phone bank, it doesn't matter whether your callers use positive or negative scripts, simply provide information, or invoke civic duty. I find this a strange result, because calling someone is a communicative act, and I would think that what is communicated would matter. But perhaps the very fact that people are contacted makes them feel valued and encourages them to vote.I asked Peter to clarify whether any of these studies also looked at how people vote, and he responded that the measure that these studies used was voting, and voting only. None of these studies looked at either how the message or messengers effected the way that the people who got to the polls voted. This has important implications for outreach campaigns, and may indicate why the efforts of America Coming Together and the other big outreach groups failed to lead to a Democratic victory in 2006. It also ads some ammunition to the controversy brewing over the horrendous behavior of PIRG clone Grassroots Campaign, Inc. and the other for-profit "progressive" human resource firms. How so? Find out after the jump...
For as long as I can remember the election strategy of Democrats was simple- if get people to the polls and Democrats will win. This strategy assumed that the only thing that kept Democrats from winning was turnout, but the elections of 2004 showed the fallacy behind the strategy. As conservative pundit Byron York noted on his post-mortem of ACT:
A few days after the 2004 election, America Coming Together, the giant pro-Democratic voter turnout group that had raised about $200 million from George Soros, Peter Lewis, and a variety of Hollywood moguls, released a list of its accomplishments. Obviously, ACT, as big as it was, had not put John Kerry over the top, but the group had "held conversations at 4.6 million doorsteps about the truth about the Iraq war, about the state of our healthcare system, about the economy." It had registered half-a-million new voters. In the last days of the campaign it had made 23 million phone calls, sent out 16 million pieces of mail, and delivered 11 million fliers. And on top of it all, it had "launched the largest get-out-the-vote effort the Democratic Party has ever seen," turning out "unprecedented levels of voters in the battleground states."But, as we all know, this didn't lead to a progressive victory at the polls. In fact, I would guess that some of this outreach hurt Democrats. This is because ACT, as with so many other outfits, neglected to fight the other half of the battle- the battle for the hearts and minds of the American Voter. What the CIRCLE research indicates is that, by simply focusing on outreach while neglecting persuasion, Democrats may have actually turned out a good number of people to vote who voted against them.
I doubt anyone looked at who contacted those "Security Moms" that swung the election and how they ended up voting, but I would guess that a good number of them were contacted personally by one progressive group or another and encouraged to vote. This should, according the the literature on voting habits, have increased voting amongst this group by at least 10%. But- what if this group was turned out to vote by Dems, but convinced, through TV ads or, more likely, through personal contact from Republican operatives to vote for George W. Bush? Well, you'd prob. get something that looked like... the 2004 Presidential election.
You see, while Dems are busy trying to simply get people to the polls, the Republicans are focused on GOTV as well as making sure that those people who make it to the polls voted the way that they wanted them to vote. Republicans don't assume that people will vote their way, which is probably a smart move since most Americans disagree with many/most of the stated Republican platforms (hate, greed, ignorance, gluttony, an imperialistic foreign policy, and complete disregard for the environment are not usually great campaign slogans). And so Republicans engage voters on numerous levels and using all the techniques of persuasion they can, to convince voters to vote their way.
As CIRCLE noted, the more personalized the contact with a voter is, the more likely they are to vote, however, as I noted in my thesis, face-to-face persuasion, when done by a person familiar with some of the common persuasive techniques, is highly effective. When it is combined with a coordinated media campaign, the results should be even better (see my thesis section on the Agenda-Setting Effect for more on why this is so). But what happens when only one side effectively employs these techniques? This is really just a guess (based on research/experimentation), but I believe the result of this would be that not only would the side employing face-to-face persuasion techniques be better than the one that didn't, in fact the side that didn't employ these techniques might actually help to turnout voters for the other side.
In less abstract terms, this means is that Democrats, by failing to deploy "ground troops" adequately trained in the science/art of persuasion, may have actually turned out a good number of people to vote Republican in 2004.
This is where GCI and the other "progressive" groups working on "ground operations" come back in. By using methods that lead to large employee turnover, by paying a pittance of a wage (if any) to progressive activists (helping to ensure that the best and most persuasive move into the private sector), and by focusing on donations and registrations while (largely) ignoring persuasion, these groups are not only turning off young activists to the possibility of a life in politics. Depending on the type of operation, these groups may in fact be turning out voters for the very organizations that they purport to oppose.
To me this points to one big idea: if Democrats really want to win they must focus their efforts in two big areas where they currently lack. One of those areas, messaging (as well as Lakoffian "framing"), has received a great amount of attention since the last election. But looking at the bleak activist landscape in PA right now I can tell you for certain that the other piece of the puzzle- deploying professional persuasive activists in the field- isn't even on the radar.