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April 02, 2014 10:13 AM Curb Your Enthusiasm

By Ed Kilgore

So on Monday I wrote a meditation about the relative importance of message-driven “enthusiasm” and mechanical GOTV in dealing with the “midterm falloff” problem Democrats face this year. I’ve now elaborated my argument a bit more clearly for a column at TPM Cafe, to which the editors have given the calm, analytical headline of “Cutting Through the Enthusiasm Gap Crap.”

That states my perspective a bit too starkly, but I do get weary every election cycle of hearing those who favor this or that messaging approach in either party claim it will boost “base enthusiasm” and thus overall turnout. As I noted on Monday, the kind of voters most likely to react to, say, a “populist message” (liberal or conservative) are activists who are almost certainly going to vote—happily or unhappily, the votes count exactly the same—for “their” party. Unless their “enthusiasm” is harnessed by volunteer activity or a carefully designed and targeted voter-to-voter GOTV effort, it’s not all that inherently valuable. Lots of losing campaigns are just chock full of enthusiasm.

Does that mean those arguing for a more ideologically passionate message and agenda in either party are wrong to do so? Of course not. Achieving policy goals is what politics is all about. Sometimes risking everything in a campaign for radical change makes more sense than the maddening water torture of incremental and never-secure change by people you don’t trust. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a better idea for winning elections.

So if you’ve got, say, a hundred million dollars to deal with the midterm falloff problem this year, do you really want to spend it all on TV ads blaring a “populist” message? I’d say a heavy investment in state-of-the-art GOTV, utilizing “enthusiastic” volunteers and harnessing an effective message where possible but most of all just reaching, registering, and turning out voters, makes a lot more sense.

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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