Apathy, Inc.: Republicans Aim to Drive Down Voter Turnout

By Nichols, John | The Progressive, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Apathy, Inc.: Republicans Aim to Drive Down Voter Turnout


Nichols, John, The Progressive


Republicans aim to drive down voter turnout

Randall Terry, the Operation Rescue activist who this year has undergone a metamorphosis from abortion terrorist to serious Republican Congressional candidate, has a simple strategy for achieving political success. "Pray for a low turnout," he tells supporters in a competitive upstate New York district. Terry explains that if mainstream voters shy away from the polls in record numbers this fall, as expected, extreme rightwing candidates will have an opportunity to win contests that were once beyond their reach.

Terry and his followers may be relying on prayer to keep turnout down. But the nation's most savvy Republican operatives are taking matters into their own hands. They're working a strategy that seeks to make the 1998 elections a private party to which most American voters are not invited.

"Politics is about two things: Mobilizing your voters, and not mobilizing the other side. Both are valid goals," says Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. He argues that conservatives can score unprecedented victories this fall if they "reduce the juice"--lower the interest level to such an extent that the small percentage of voters who zealously back conservative causes can dominate.

The Republicans are leaving nothing to chance.

On any given day, in climate-controlled studios in suburban Washington and a handful of other locations around the country, carefully selected groups of adult men and women settle into comfortable chairs and insert their fingers into monitoring devices. The devices measure surges and downturns in their pulse rates as the nation's top political consultants show videotapes of candidates delivering speeches, present mock newscasts, and screen television commercials extolling or defaming particular politicians.

"It's all about message," explains Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who drew up the list of ideas that became Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America." "You look for a message that gets your voters to the polls on election day. But it has to be well thought out, because you don't want to stir up your opponent's voters. You want them to stay home."

Since 1990, Luntz and his colleagues have presided over a steady decline in American voting participation, and a parallel process of shifting the political system further and further toward the right.

In 1994, Republicans helped hold voter turnout to just 38 percent of registered voters. In 1998, GOP strategists quietly acknowledge, they are shooting for a record low turnout of 35 percent or less.

They are well on their way to achieving that goal. Already, says Curtis Gans, founder of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, voter turnout is sharply down in 1998." Gans analyzed turnout in primary elections this spring and summer and found that average turnout was 16.8 percent, half of what it was a quarter-century ago.

Primary turnout is down 14 percent just since 1994, says Gans. When the numbers are down in the primaries, they usually are down in November, he adds.

Low turnouts tend to favor Republicans--particularly conservative Republicans with a message that appeals to a small yet highly motivated core of activists. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says she is worried that this year's minuscule turnout will be dominated by what she calls the "when God tells you to vote" crowd.

If the turnout actually drops to the 35 percent range or below, as now appears possible, Republican strategists figure they will be able to significantly expand their control in the Senate, improve their position in the House, maintain dominance of the nation's governorships, and win a sufficient number of state legislatures to guarantee control of the redistricting process that will follow the 2000 census.

"When things happen that make one side's partisans unhappy, they stay home," House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, told a Young Republican rally in Atlanta in August. …

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