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.
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!