When Joe Andrew took over as Democratic National Committee chairman last March he said the party had to appeal more directly to its traditional supporters and make sure those supporters got to the polls.
Last Tuesday, Democrats won the mayor's office in Indianapolis for the first time in 36 years and elected a Democratic mayor of Columbus, Ohio, for the first time in 20 years. They also appear to have defied political odds--and the polls--and taken back the governorship of Mississippi, although Republican Mike Parker has yet to concede.
Party officials and outside analysts attributed these victories in large measure to the party's renewed focus on turning out core supporters while running candidates who appeal to moderate, suburban swing voters. Indeed, while complete exit polls are not available for the races decided last Tuesday, internal numbers provided by the campaigns and surveys by outside experts indicate a large turnout among African Americans, women and older voters.
In Philadelphia, one Democratic source close to outgoing Mayor Edward G. Rendell said internal numbers showed turnout percentage in some African American precincts in the high 90s after a passionate appeal from President Clinton, who campaigned for former City Council president John F. Street a few days before the election, and radio interviews conducted by Vice President Gore on black stations. Until Election Day, the race between Street and Republican Sam Katz had been too close to call.
In Mississippi, Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) trailed in most polls in a state that had not elected a Democratic governor since 1987 and has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1976, despite maintaining a high percentage of registered Democrats.
The Musgrove campaign and the national party relied on a two-pronged strategy. The campaign ran late ads on core Democratic issues--education, Medicare and Social Security--intended to peel moderates who were leaning to the Republican candidate, while at the same time the national party began a full-scale effort to persuade base voters, particularly in the African American community, to vote.
Jesse L. Jackson hit 17 different campaign events in the state and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) employed his powerful organization to motivate black voters. Gore gave more interviews on black radio stations. Emory University professor Merle Black estimates that Parker probably pulled close to 60 percent of the white vote, but it was not enough based on the large turnout for Musgrove in the black community.
"Even though [Texas Gov. George W. Bush] campaigned and it's Trent Lott's back yard, they were completely unprepared for what we did Tuesday," Jackson said in an interview.
Musgrove consultant Bill Carrick said that while his campaign was hitting hard on important issues to Democrats, the Parker campaign did not make similar efforts to activate conservatives. "Parker ran a campaign that was essentially about personality," Carrick said. "In some ways he was running the compassionate conservative, nonideological campaign and it just wasn't very effective."
Similar strategies were used in Indianapolis and Columbus, the largest cities in two midwestern states that will be key battlegrounds in next year's elections. In both cities, the party fielded candidates who did not alienate moderate voters and the Democratic Mayoral Campaign Committee, a low-visibility party organization, made a concerted effort to excite the base.
In Indianapolis, pollster Brian Vargus said he saw a "glacial" shift in polls from early October through Election Day as Democrat Brian Peterson's campaign simultaneously appealed to independent voters at the fringes of the city and courted voters in the inner city.
"The Democrats had one of the most well-organized and effective get-out-the-vote efforts that I've ever seen," said Vargus. "Their war room was more sophisticated than anything they've had in the past and it helped create a very large turnout, almost 200,000 voters. For a mayor's race that is pretty astounding."