The Turnout Imperative

Article excerpt

With no presidential contest to focus public attention, voter turnout this year promises to fall once again, to less than one-third of the electorate by some estimates--and low turnout generally means that blue-collar workers, the lower middle class, and the poor don't get to the polls. The last off-year election, 1994, saw fewer than 39 percent of eligible voters turn out to vote in the "Republican revolution." (That's compared to 55 percent turnout in 1992, when Ross Perot helped fire things up, and 47 percent in 1996, when Bob Dole helped cool things down.) A return to 1994 voting levels could help to entrench Republicans in both houses and keep liberal policies on the margins of debate.

Unfortunately, recent history suggests poor turnout trends will persist. Traditional get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts have long been neglected by political parties and campaigns in favor of increasingly specialized tactics that resemble targeted marketing more than traditional politics. Political operatives focus on smaller and smaller portions of the electorate in trying to win elections. In this climate, is there any hope for bucking voting decline?

Perhaps. With an eye fixed on the danger posed by 1994-level turnouts, labor activists have begun combining traditional and cutting-edge organizing techniques, going door to door to talk politics with members, then using computers and cellular phones to coordinate the election day tasks of calling households and driving the elderly and housebound to polling stations. Between 1992 and 1994, the AFL-CIO saw it share of voters fall from 19 percent to a paltry 13 percent. In 1998 the AFL-CIO and its member unions will expand a new get out-the-vote effort, which aims to build on the success of 1996, when fully 23 percent of voters came from union households.

Many factors have reduced voter turnout in recent decades, including negative advertising, the growing political convergence of Democrats and Republicans, and post-Watergate cynicism. Much of the responsibility, however, lies with the parties, which have allowed their grassroots organizations to atrophy and now find themselves without a built-in base of supporters to mobilize on election day. Instead of building or maintaining a party machine, parties have concentrated on attracting small blocks of swing voters--or keeping an opponent's wavering supporters away from the polls. These tactics replace widespread voter mobilization with expensive television commercials and "smart bombs" so precision targeted that they ignore whole swaths of the electorate in favor of narrow "market segments."

The largest group to be ignored, and the first eliminated from targeted campaigning, are the millions of voters who aren't registered. "The first thing that a candidate does is go down to the registrar and find out who's on the list of registered voters," says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters. "And if you're not on it, they're not interested in you." Next to be ignored are those who are registered but who rarely vote, since no campaign wants to waste its scarce dollars on them. Finally, using astonishingly complex computer technology, campaigns focus their GOTV effort laserlike onto what can be a tiny segment of the electorate statistically likely to vote the right way. Says Ron Faucheux, the publisher and editor of Campaigns & Elections, "It's not unusual for campaigns to concentrate on as little as 5 percent of voters."

The specialization of voter turnout efforts and the decline of traditional, precinct-based party organizations ought to be especially troubling for Democrats. The Democratic Party's constituency among lower-middle-class, working-class, and poor voters--and its alliance with organized labor, which can provide legions of election day volunteers--gives the party an organic advantage over the Republicans in getting voters to the polls. But by forsaking its built-in edge to engage the GOP in television "air wars" and in what one consultant calls "an arms race in the data business," the Democrats have chosen to meet the Republicans on a field of battle where the size of campaign war chests determines the advantage. …