On October 29th Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean came here to UMF to talk to a packed room of students (not just a room, but the largest lecture hall on campus — and many couldn’t enter because the room was filled to capacity) about the importance of getting out the vote. It was a really inspiring talk, I like Howard Dean. The fact that Dean would come here — and was earlier in Orono — shows the importance they place on getting young people not only to vote, but to be enthusiastic. It also shows that they are not taking the second district of Maine for granted — Maine is one of two states that split it’s electoral vote by district, and our district is more conservative than southern Maine. Dean’s visit highlights what I think is Obama’s secret weapon: his ground game.
As a football fan I’ve always thought that a strong ground game wins championships. In politics, it’s absolutely essential. While some people vote all the time as a matter of course, many decide it’s not worth it. If lines are two or three hours long, like they often are, one can make a strong argument that it’s not rational to spend so much time in line when one vote isn’t really going to make or break the election. But if a lot of people make that decision, which is rational at the individual level (one person not voting doesn’t mean others won’t vote too), then low turnout can swing an election. This is known as the ‘collective action’ problem — actions that have negative collective consequences might be rational at the individual level. I get NPR on my radio, it’s not rational for me to pay, the service will be there anyway. But if a lot of people choose not to become members, programming will suffer.
There are two ways out of this bind for voting. First, though, one has to avoid trying to make the argument that it actually is rational at the individual level. Those arguments fail. “What if everyone does that” Answer: My actions don’t affect what others do. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Answer: the First Amendment says I can complain whenever I want. “If you don’t vote, you can’t be part of the decision making progress.” Answer: what is the probability anything I vote on will be decided by one vote? The bottom line: at the level of individual choice, voting is irrational.
The first way out is to emphasize one’s duty. Yes, you’re sacrificing time, but it’s part of being an American. It is how this great country works. This builds a sense of community, ethics, and belonging. If you don’t vote, you’re not really doing what Americans need to do to preserve this great democracy over time. The second way out is to focus on making voting an event. Bus a group to the polls, go with friends, enjoy talking to the people there, have voting be fun. I voted early, but for many of my friends or colleagues, going and voting is a joy.
Both of these methods have traditionally worked better for Republican voters than Democrats, and for older voters rather than younger. There is a huge chunk of the population — rural poor minorities, inner city minorities especially — who feel alienated from the country and its culture. They don’t see a lot of hope in their lives, so standing in long lines to vote makes no sense. They don’t feel that duty, they don’t feel America has earned it from them. Younger voters tend to focus on personal gratification over duty anyway, and generally make the “rational” (in an individual sense) choice. They also aren’t as connected to the ritual and community aspect of voting, so that doesn’t draw them. Pollsters know this, and thus limit their likely voter sample by weighting for age, ethnicity, and voting history.
Back in early September when the polls were suggesting a slight lead for McCain, my view was that Obama was likely to outperform the polls, thanks to his ground game. Although some of the national polls show signs of a slight tightening, the state polls seem to suggest real Obama strength. Given that the contest is really about the states, not overall popular vote, that’s good news for Obama. Yet state polls are far less reliable than national polls, and have shown real fluctuation. For instance, New Hampshire had within a week a poll that showed a 4% Obama lead and a 25% lead (others showed 11% and 18%). So if the national polls tighten more, one can’t take the state polls for granted. How will Obama’s ground game impact the result?
Obama’s ground game looks amazing on paper. He has offices all over the country, an army of volunteers mounting an effort that has Democratic insiders saying they’ve never seen or even imagined anything like this before. He has taken the skills and methods of community organizing and built a national campaign. The long primary fight helped him do it, as it brought him to states where he organized and built alliances while McCain was sitting back and watching Clinton and Obama duke it out. He also has the money due to his record setting fundraising to build a real infrastructure for the get out the vote (GOTV) effort. It has not been tested. But neither was Karl Rove’s targeted and well structured GOTV plan in 2000, and ultimately that’s what won it for George W. Bush — both in 2000 and especially in 2004. This goes far beyond what Rove built, and McCain seems to have a less solid organization that what Rove gave Bush in 2004.
Add to that early voting. Early voting allows your GOTV effort to span weeks rather than to focus it in one day. That creates an advantage for the team with the best GOTV plan. Places like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia are seeing surges of early voters, and these are states McCain must win to have a chance. Georgia, which had over 3 million voters in 2004, about a quarter of them black, have seen as of the morning of October 29th over 1.4 million early voters, 35% of them black. They are likely to hit a mark that is 2/3 of their total 2004 vote even before election day, meaning lines will be shorter for those who wait. In Florida Republican governor Crist has expanded early voting due to long lines to continue on Sunday, and go from 7 to 7. One Republican grumbled that this kills McCain — a sign that that GOP knows that early voting creates a structural advantage for Obama.
What is striking too is how many voters are waiting hours to vote early. Voting early was designed as a way to reduce election day congestion, but large masses of people are going out and standing in line in a way that completely defies the “individual rationality” point made above. The reason seems to be that voters have a strong sense of enthusiasm to vote. It appears there are a lot more early Democratic voters than Republican, suggesting that Obama has succeeded in making this election feel like an historic event people want to be part of. That means they will be more likely than not to stand in line, and take the time to vote. That means that voter turnout may break records. Moreover, if McCain voters are not as enthused, they might not be as willing to stand in long lines — especially if they feel McCain is going to lose anyway.
This gets me to believe that despite my warnings in the last week that McCain could still pull it off (and he could!), I’d place my bets on an Obama landslide. Gallup has an interesting poll which measures the “traditional likely voter” and an “expanded likely voter.” The traditional likely voter model shows a pretty tight race (Obama up three as of October 29). But given all the early voting and youth voting likely to take place (young people like to be part of something historic), I would bet that the expanded likely voter (Obama up by seven) might actually itself be under representing Obama’s support.
This is only an hypothesis. A race where McCain outperforms the polls will disprove my hypothesis. If Obama performs about as the polls expect (especially the expanded likely voter model from Gallup), then I’ll need to look at whether or not the Democrats picked up a surprising number of Congressional seats to see if voter turn out was a major factor. The Georgia Senate race, for instance, could be telling. I’ve always believed that if the Democrats could find a way to get especially young and minority voters to go to the polls at the same rate or near the same as other demographic groups, it would render major electoral shifts. Obama has done about all anyone can do to try to make it a reality. That makes this election fascinating — it’s the first real test of an hypothesis I’ve held for over 20 years.