By JONATHAN TILOVE
November 24, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ What gave President Bush his narrow margin of victory over Sen. John Kerry? Was it fear? Fraud? Preference for the likable versus the liberal, aversion to changing horses in midstream, revulsion at same-sex marriage? Or was it a voter mobilization campaign beyond anything the United States had seen for decades?
As they sift through results of the 2004 election, many leading political scientists and practitioners like this last explanation: Democrats and their allies surpassed their wildest expectations in getting out their vote Nov. 2, only to be stunningly outdone by the Republicans.
Pre-election, the effort on the Democratic side may have been noisier and newsier. But in retrospect, it is plain that the Republicans benefited from a more disciplined, self-critical and coordinated mobilization that took better advantage of cutting-edge research about what works, and what doesn’t.
“The Democrats exceeded their targets, but they were not at all prepared for what the Republicans did. It just wasn’t on the radar screen,” said George Mason University political scientist Michael McDonald, who tracked turnout nationally and was himself surprised by the GOP’s energy and effectiveness.
Yale University political scientist Donald Green, who with his colleague Alan Gerber wrote the book on voter turnout, concurred. “The thing that drove turnout up massively was both parties now engaging in unprecedented levels of ground-level mobilization,” Green said.
“Get Out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout” was released by the Brookings Institution in the spring and quickly became the dog-eared Bible of political organizers of every stripe. “I think both sides implemented the core of the book on a scale that is truly breathtaking,” Green said.
The book uses a variety of large-scale political science experiments to demonstrate that face-to-face contacts _ akin to what political machines did in the era before the mass-media air war _ are the most cost-effective method of mobilizing the vote.
The most-creased page, 94, presents a chart putting a price per vote on the range of usual tactics: Door-to-door canvassing _ $19, plus overhead. Volunteer phone banks _ $35. Hired phone banks _ $200 without special coaching, $45 with. Robo calls, in which the potential voter gets an automated message from the likes of Bill Clinton or Arnold Schwarzenegger _ “no detectable effect.”
In 2000, Green estimates, about $150 million was spent on mobilization efforts in battleground states. This year, he said, the campaigns and affiliated groups spent as much as $450 million on turnout in those same states.
But the Bush campaign did not wait for the Gerber and Green book. Shortly after its hairs-breadth victory in 2000, it convened a small group of political scientists led by University of Texas government professor Daron Shaw.
It is now clear that the Republicans, to a remarkable degree, studied and applied the work of academic political scientists. They relied more than the Democrats on volunteer social networks, from church groups to home-schooling associations, for canvassing and phone-banking. They redirected attention from voters who turn out regardless to infrequent ones and those who had recently moved, if only across town. And they used the latest technology to identify and bring out friendly voters in hostile political territory.
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The results were especially vivid in Florida.
In the Panhandle’s Santa Rosa County, one of Bush’s best, Kerry won 2,000 more votes than Gore did in 2000. But Bush improved his 2000 performance by 40 percent, gaining more than 15,000 additional votes.
Meanwhile, in Democratic Palm Beach County, Kerry added another 58,000 votes to Gore’s winning total. But Bush added, vote for vote, as many to his losing total.
Sid Dinerstein, GOP chairman in Palm Beach County, said that while he was infiltrating Democratic bastions where Republicans had feared to tread, “the amount of time, energy and money (Democrats) spent on getting their most hard-core supporters to stand in line for two hours to vote early was one of the most irrational things I ever saw.”
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More than 120 million people voted for president this year _ 15 million more than in 2000. Bush won by 3.3 million votes, about 2.5 percent of all votes cast.
McDonald, at George Mason University, said the turnout rate was the highest since 1992 _ when Ross Perot first ran as third-party candidate, drawing droves of new voters to the polls.
Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, uses a different methodology and calculates that the turnout rate was the best since the 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace race _ when the nation was riven by war, assassination, riots and rapid cultural change.
McDonald and Gans agree that about 59 percent of eligible voters cast ballots this year in an impressive reversal of recent trends.
In the battleground states, where the ground war was mostly waged, turnout was up 7.7 percentage points from 2000, McDonald said. He calculates that it was up 9.3 points in Florida and 8.3 points in Ohio.
It was up in the rest of the country, but not nearly as much, and surged more in the red states that Bush handily won than in the blue states that were Kerry country. Had the turnout in red America been the same as in blue America, McDonald said, “Bush would have gotten about 2 million fewer votes.”
Gans contends that the Republicans’ great advantage is having run a “centralized, professional and highly targeted voter identification and get-out-the-vote campaign,” while the competition relied on a decentralized effort by a wide array of labor, civil rights and other progressive activist groups that could not coordinate with the campaign.
Or, as Green said of the Democrats: “When it got to the point of knock and drag, there was duplication of effort.”
Just as important, he said, is what the Democrats and their allies missed as they trod the same, most obvious paths.
The promise and problem were evident in Florida, in the poor Palm Beach County community of Belle Glade. There was more going on its black neighborhoods than ever before. The Kerry campaign, the county Democrats, the NAACP and America Coming Together _ the most prominent of the so-called 527 groups working in concert with the Democrats _ all had offices and operations in Belle Glade. On Election Day, however, the Kerry office was starved for vehicles to take folks to the polls, while the ACT operation had vans and paid staff, but the impression that they were not permitted to give anyone a ride to vote.
Despite some inefficiency, Democrats scored major successes. Black turnout across the country was up by a quarter over 2000.
But Joe Leonard, field director for Unity ’04, the coalition seeking to increase black and Latino turnout, notes the Republicans have a huge advantage _ there are simply many more white people to mobilize. And, he marveled, the Republicans mobilized with ways both formidable and, to him, familiar.
“They’re using the best methods of the civil rights movement to get a larger body of people out to vote,” Leonard said. “They’re thinking outside the usual box and being creative, and we’ve got to do the same thing.”