In R.I., a Model for Voter Turnout
Thursday, September 14, 2006
The turnout campaign that Republican operatives used to help pull Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee to victory in the Rhode Island primary was a potent demonstration of how money and manpower can transform a race even in an unfavorable political environment -- and a preview of the strategy that national party officials say they plan to replicate in the most competitive House and Senate races over the next 55 days.
In the past two national elections, in 2002 and 2004, Republicans outperformed Democrats in bringing their backers to the polls, but many Democrats and independent analysts have suggested that the competition may be different this year, in part because of slumping morale among GOP activists. But Chafee's performance -- combined with reports of late-starting organization and internal bickering on the Democratic side -- suggest that the Republican advantage on turnout may remain intact even as many other trends are favoring the opposition.
The Republican National Committee, convinced that Chafee is the party's only chance of keeping a seat in a Democratic-leaning state, spent $400,000 to ship 86 out-of-state volunteers and several paid staff members to Rhode Island. They targeted not just Republicans but also independent voters during the final days of the campaign, following a blueprint developed months ago by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Chafee campaign.
The effort helped Chafee survive a spirited challenge from Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey by boosting primary turnout to an all-time high. In June, GOP leaders used a similar turnout program to help lobbyist Brian Bilbray win a special California election for the House seat vacated by indicted GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
There were several factors behind Chafee's 54 percent to 46 percent win, including his popularity among independents and his decision to attack Laffey in television ads during the final weeks of the campaign. But it was the repeat success of the GOP voter-mobilization program that had Democrats anxiously examining returns.
"Their turnout operation is exquisite," a senior Democratic strategist said. "We are not going to match them."
While Democrats are confident they are on track to capture the House and possibly the Senate, top party leaders are privately expressing concerns about the RNC's $30 million financial advantage over the Democratic National Committee and how the money will be used to maximize turnout in pivotal races.
Events this week put the GOP edge in sharp relief. While the RNC was fine-tuning its "microtargeting" program in Rhode Island, Democrats were announcing they had finally resolved a months-long dispute between Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) over a budget for mobilizing voters.
The DNC will spend $12 million to help Democrats up and down the ballot this fall. Some party leaders privately acknowledge that House Democrats in particular are only beginning to put in place an operation to turn out voters and that Republicans are many months ahead in planning.
Democratic leaders, who agreed to speak about the matter on the condition of anonymity, said their turnout strategy will be sufficient even if it is not equal. Senate Democrats have already put $10 million into turnout for contested races and began a detailed voter-identification effort months ago, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has brought on grass-roots organizing expert Michael Whouley to head up its turnout efforts. Democrats said they have one advantage this year that Republicans cannot match: voter intensity. Numerous polls show that Democrats, disdainful of President Bush and the Iraq war, are motivated to vote on Nov. 7, while Republicans do not have similar enthusiasm.
Still, Republicans said the combination of the Chafee win and new polling data showing renewed voter confidence in GOP anti-terrorism policies suggest their election plan could limit losses and protect their congressional majorities. An ABC News poll released yesterday found that Bush's relentless focus on terrorism in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks benefited the White House and the GOP. Republicans held an edge of seven percentage points when respondents were asked which party they trust to handle terrorism, a 14-point change from last month.
Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster involved in competitive races this fall, said he was not surprised by Republicans' improving numbers on the fight against terrorism but added: "If this blip holds, it should be something that concerns us."