Dems Get New Tools, New Talent | The Nation


Dems Get New Tools, New Talent

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The first two Democratic nominating contests might have produced different winners, but what they shared was turnout staggeringly above normal levels. In New Hampshire, turnout for Democrats was up 31 percent from 2004, and in Iowa it doubled. Turnout in Iowa was so high that had 2004 caucus winner John Kerry taken his vote total into this year's competition, he would have placed a dismal fourth, 20,000-30,000 votes behind third-place contestant Hillary Clinton. And in Nevada, the turnout of more than 100,000 caucus-goers shattered expectations from the state Democratic Party and the top campaigns alike.

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Matt Stoller
Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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When compared with Republicans', the numbers look even better. About twice as many Democrats voted in Iowa as Republicans. "We'd better be careful as a party," Mike Huckabee warned his fellow Republicans in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, "because if we don't give people something to be for, and only something to be against, we're going to lose that next election, and there are some fundamental issues that we lose with it." Mike Podhorzer, deputy political director of the AFL-CIO, puts it this way: "You have dead turnout on the Republican side and insane turnout on the Democratic side."

There are, no doubt, a number of factors driving the disparity: the amount of money Democrats have sunk into the early states has quadrupled since 2004, and polls show that Democratic voters are confident their nominee will eventually win, while half of Republican voters are so demoralized they're considering a third-party option [see Micah Sifry, page 24]. But there's also a more prosaic explanation: since 2004, because of a mixture of improved technology, better organizers and more investment in voter contact, Democratic campaigns have simply gotten better at talking to more people.

To understand why turnout is going up, you have to know a little bit about how voters make choices. Since the 1960s, television has been the primary conduit for political information, with campaigns spending about 80 percent of their budget on media. But while broadcast television can reach millions of voters, it is, as Podhorzer notes, a dying medium. "The main thing that has changed is the heading to collapse of broadcast TV and heading to dominance of systematic, organized word of mouth and more targeted communication," he says. What's most promising about the shift from broadcast campaigns to those centered on "systematic, organized word of mouth" is the possibility of activating new voters, something TV has never been capable of doing. Political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green, experts on election turnout, conducted an experiment in 1998 with voters in New Haven, Connecticut, showing that person-to-person canvassing when the canvassers are ethnically and demographically matched to voters can increase turnout by 10 percent with a single contact and a nonpartisan message.

"Field," as person-to-person voter contact is called in campaign-speak, has traditionally been less important than paid media or television. In 2004, due to the unprecedented amount of money and energy thrown into the campaign, field received more attention than it had in previous cycles, but both the Kerry campaign and outside groups lacked the ability to absorb it. There were so many people trying to help in 2004, and the response from institutions was so poor, that groups sprouted up all over the country to canvass on their own. In New York City organizers even held a "micro-summit" of the different anti-Bush groups every week to coordinate activities outside the Kerry campaign, a structure replicated all over the country. While the GOP used a volunteer-driven set of church networks, on the Democratic side 527s like America Coming Together used paid canvassers instead of organic volunteer networks. For its part, the Kerry campaign oriented itself around television. One Dean house party organizer complained about this on a post on Daily Kos, relaying a conversation from a top Kerry aide, who told her, "To be blunt, this is a fat-cat, top-down campaign. The campaign staff doesn't really get grassroots."

As easy as it is to blame the Kerry campaign for organizing failures, the problems were systemic. The most famous field experiment of 2004 was Howard Dean's "Perfect Storm" in Iowa, when the campaign bused in 3,500 young volunteers from out of state, issued each an orange wool hat and unleashed them on the doors of Iowans across the state. The orange hat would later come to symbolize the flaws of a campaign bringing in outsiders to canvass, but whatever culture clash there was at the door was compounded by the campaign's tools. The key to any field effort is a database of potential voters, known as a voter file. If that voter file is incomplete or error-ridden or low-tech, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

Adam Mordecai, a Dean staffer who helped run the Perfect Storm, described the problem as follows: "The one major issue that really foiled the perfect storm...was the completely dysfunctional voter-file system. The company we contracted the voter file to was way out of their league. Their system would crash perpetually, field organizers would be lucky if they could ever access the system to download lists and said lists were usually way out-of-date or incorrect because no one could get access to the system to update them. Iowans would get repeated calls from different volunteers within the same hour. It was a disaster. It alienated a lot of Iowans who were simply tired of hearing from Deaniacs over and over again."

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