Will the Ground Game Help the Democrats?


As a football fan I believe very much in having a strong ground game.  I’ve always thought games are won or lost by the offensive line.  Yes, Super Bowl champions also need good skill players, the line can’t do it alone.  But the ability to control time of possession and keep the other team’s offense off the field can provide a real advantage late in the game when players tire.

It is with that in mind that I consider a New York Times article which notes that Democrats are spending far more than Republicans on their ground game – early voting, voter registration, absentee voting and of course election day get out the vote efforts.  Republicans are focusing media, especially television ads.

As a social scientist, I find this an interesting test.  The Democrats have always been hurt in the midterms because their voters are less likely to vote than Republicans.   In Presidential elections the turn out is good, but it drops off dramatically in the midterms.


So the Democrats are placing a bet.   They believe that if they invest heavily in their ground game, they’ll alter the election dynamic and fare much better than polls anticipate.  Pollsters show very tight races in at least ten Senate contests.   If the Democratic get out the vote effort changes the usual voting pattern, Democrats might out perform poll expectations.  The polls weight their results based on anticipated voter turnout, after all.  Democrats are trying to change that dynamic.

Consider: young voters tend to vote Democratic.  In 2008 youth turnout (18 and 19 year olds) was 51%.  In 2010 it dropped to 20%.   Voter turnout was back up in 2012.  If you expand the age to 18-29, Obama won with 60% of that vote.  If those voters stay home in 2014, the Republicans will have a very good year.


The same is true when it comes to race; voter turnout among blacks surpassed white turnout in 2012 for the first time.  Youth and black voters were a major reason Obama won handily.  If the voter demographics were the same as they had been in 1980, Romney would have won a landslide victory.   Yet those voters tend not to vote in midterms.  This gives the GOP an advantage, and helps explain the discrepancy between the 2010 and 2012 elections.

voter turnout

So the Democrats are trying to wage a different form of midterm fight.  Rather than trying to win votes (i.e., market share) by advertising heavily and hoping to convince voters (consumers) that their brand is best, they’re putting money into trying to get new customers into the market with more contact on the ground.

Will it work?  It’s probably a better strategy than simply matching the Republican ad blitz.  It’s not clear how persuasive campaign ads are to swing voters, most people have made their minds up.

Consider the South Dakota race.   Despite being outspent by 13 to 1, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, running now as an independent, has surged to 25% in the polls, becoming a real factor.   While one can attribute this climb to skillful media use, name recognition and dissatisfaction with the gridlock in Washington, clearly media spending is NOT the reason he rose in the polls.

So this is an interesting test.   The GOP is focusing on the air waves, the Democrats on getting out the vote.    If the Democrats out perform polls and do better than expected in key races, that will be strong evidence that emphasis on the ground game pays off.  If not, well, the Democrats need to find a good QB for 2016!


  1. #1 by SShiell on September 30, 2014 - 14:57

    Scott: You may be right about the Democrats putting lots of $$ resources into their ground game but I don’t think the GOP advantage in air time is as you state. Echelon Insights (http://echeloninsights.com/#header), a reputable firm, has been tracking advertising buys between now and November and this is how they say that aspect of the race shapes up:

    Governors Races: GOP: $22 Million Dem: $14 Million
    House Races: GOP: $26 Million Dem: $26 Million
    Senate Races: GOP: $26 Million Dem: $43 Million
    Statewide Races: GOP: $3.6 Million Dem: $3.6 Million

    Total expenditures reserving advertising buys: GOP: $78Million Dem: $87Million

    That does not look like a GOP edge in advertising spending except in the governors races. All else is fairly even until you look a the Senate and there the Dems are outspending the GOP by some 65%. And when you consider the Democrats overall lead versus the GOP in money, the amount the Dems are spending on the ground game may be substantially more than the GOP. But to characterize the advertising side of the race as have a GOP advantage is just not true – unless you have links that dispute the $$ numbers I have found.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on September 30, 2014 - 15:13

    To make things murkier this websight shows total raised for Senate races gives a slight edge to the GOP, but the GOP has spent more and has less on hand. So if the Democrats are outspending the Republicans for advertising and the ground game, what are the Republicans spending that money on? Here: https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/

    • #3 by Scott Erb on September 30, 2014 - 15:16

      I explored the website more, and may have found the inconsistency. If I change from “all candidates” to current candidates only, the GOP has $152 million and the Democrats $197 million, thus making your numbers more in line with the data. I suspect the Republicans spent more money in primary contests than the Democrats. I still am intrigued by the Democrats putting resources in the ground game – that might be their best hope to keep the Senate.

      • #4 by SShiell on September 30, 2014 - 19:22

        Again, the #s I found are for the commitment reserving air time, not $$ spent.

  3. #5 by lbwoodgate on October 1, 2014 - 14:51

    Very interesting. The Dems were able to win big victories in 2008 and 2012 by changing their strategy. Let’s see if this will work for them too in a year they are expected to lose seats.

  4. #6 by Lisa Chesser on October 11, 2014 - 10:02

    I hope you’re right in so many ways. The state of Florida is so Republican, I feel like we’re drowning in corruption. I know neither party is pure of heart, but I can’t take an entire country steeped in Republican “values.”

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