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February 06, 2014 11:44 AM A Frontal Assault on the Midterm Falloff

By Ed Kilgore

If Ashley Parker’s report in the New York Times today on the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s midterm strategy is accurate, Democrats are for the first time really concentrating on addressing their biggest challenge in 2014. That would be the age-old “midterm falloff” phenomenon that has grown from being a marginal to a central problem for Democrats thanks to the unprecedented alignment of the two parties with demographic groups that do (older white voters) and don’t (young and minority voters) participate in non-presidential elections.

The Democrats’ plan to hold onto their narrow Senate majority goes by the name “Bannock Street project.” It runs through 10 states, includes a $60 million investment, and requires more than 4,000 paid staffers. And the effort will need all of that — and perhaps more — to achieve its goal, which is nothing short of changing the character of the electorate in a midterm cycle.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is preparing its largest and most data-driven ground game yet, relying on an aggressive combination of voter registration, get out the vote, and persuasion efforts.
They hope to make the 2014 midterm election more closely resemble a presidential election year, when more traditional Democratic constituencies — single women, minorities and young voters — turn out to vote in higher numbers, said Guy Cecil, the committee’s executive director.
While the goal is ambitious, Mr. Cecil has some experience. “Bannock Street” is drawn from the name of the Denver field headquarters for the campaign of Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, for whom Mr. Cecil was the chief of staff. Mr. Bennet won in 2010 by generating higher than forecast turnout.
“We’re making a fundamentally different choice,” said Mr. Cecil, who laid out the Democratic Senate strategy in an interview at the committee’s headquarters. “Yes, we have to be on TV and yes we have to help close the gap between Democrats and Republicans on the air, but we’re not willing to sacrifice the turnout operation or the field operation to do that.”

That’s a practical application of the belief that while persuasion of swing voters and mobilization of “base” voters will play a role in any successful national campaign, the latter is more important at the moment in midterms because of the highly disproportionate impact of the “falloff” factor. And what’s most interesting is that the DSCC doesn’t seem to be under the illusion that the key to dealing with this problem is boosting the president’s approval ratings or even getting “the base” excited about control of the Senate; this is about making heavy, data-driven investments in building the best GOTV operation ever seen.

“The question is whether the party’s Obama-era volunteer base will replicate itself for a Mark Pryor or a Mary Landrieu or a Kay Hagan,” said Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” referring to three vulnerable incumbent Democratic senators.
The committee is taking lessons from 2010 — when, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that prohibited government restrictions on political spending by corporations, individuals and labor unions, it poured the majority of its financial resources into trying to match Republicans in television ads. And it is using as models successful 2012 efforts in Montana and North Dakota, two states that were not presidential battlegrounds but which elected Democratic senators (Senators Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp) through the committee’s robust field effort that helped increase the turnout.
“Television is a fundamentally persuasive medium, and by transferring those resources to targeted mobilization, you see a party whose path to victory goes through changing the electorate, not through winning over the opinion of typical off-year voters,” Mr. Issenberg said. “Campaigns are realizing that the smartest way to win the next vote is by mobilizing a nonvoter than by trying to win over a voter.”

Now the traditional approach of focusing more on swing-voter persuasion was based on two factors: the presence of large numbers of “persuadable” voters, and the knowledge that turning a “certain” voter had double the net impact of mobilizing a marginal voter, in that it denied the opponent a vote while adding a vote to one’s own column. But polarization has reduced the pool of “persuadables” significantly, and more refined data-driven methods for mobilizing non-voters are looking more efficient than the old “knock-and-drag” Election Day GOTV techniques.

Both voter registration and mobilization efforts are at the center of the Democrats’ new strategy. In Georgia, for example, the committee estimates that there are 572,000 unregistered African-American voters, and that there are more than 600,000 likely supporters of Michelle Nunn, the Democratic Senate candidate there, who voted in 2012 but not in 2010. The goal, then, is to register the African-American voters, and to target the likely Nunn voters to show up to the polls during a midterm election.
But black voters who did not register to vote in 2008 or 2012, amid all of the excitement surrounding the nation’s first black president, could pose a challenge to register in 2014.
The Bannock Street project is specifically focused on ten states — Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Michigan, Montana, and West Virginia — with plans for senior field operatives and other staff members to be in place by the end of the month.

Promises of world-class “ground game” operations are a dime-a-dozen, of course; at some point we’ll read that Republicans are doing the same thing. But the GOP pool of “falloff” voters is a lot more shallow, and for once, it appears Democrats aren’t just talking the talk, but walking the walk. If that’s true, it could offer the best possible path to mitigating the damage of midterm “falloff.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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