Political Strategy: Voter Mobilization genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

The following posting is the sixth entry in a continuing Thought Theater dialogue on political strategy. The first posting, Political Strategy: The Opening Dialogue, can be found here, the second posting, Political Strategy: Beyond Extremist Labels can be found here, the third posting, Political Strategy: The Numbers Speak can be found here, the fourth posting, Political Strategy: Splitting The Baby can be found here, and the fifth posting, Political Strategy: Examining Potential Outcomes can be found here. In addition, other related postings can be found here, here, and here.

In previous postings, Thought Theater has discussed the existing division within the Democratic Party with regards to Howard Dean's fifty state strategy. Rahm Emmanuel, Chairman of the DCCC and Charles Schumer, Chairman of the DSCC, have both voiced reservations about the Dean strategy for the Democratic National Committee. Emmanuel has been far more critical and has expressed frustration that Dean may be squandering the best opportunity in years for Democrats to make significant gains in both the House and the Senate. The Washington Post reports on Wednesday that Nancy Pelosi has joined the chorus of Dean strategy skeptics.

At a meeting last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) criticized Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for not spending enough party resources on get-out-the-vote efforts in the most competitive House and Senate races, according to congressional aides who were briefed on the exchange. Pelosi -- echoing a complaint common among Democratic lawmakers and operatives -- has warned privately that Democrats are at risk of going into the November midterm elections with a voter-mobilization plan that is under funded and inferior to the proven turnout machine run by national Republicans.

Under Dean's guidance the DNC has spent significant dollars building a Party structure in each state, a move that Thought Theater has previously equated with the business model of building a middle management team. While the Party clearly needs to have a presence in more states, funding that effort this election cycle may take money away from competitive races and hamper the overall effort to fund get out the vote initiatives.

It appears that the DNC will have far fewer dollars than the RNC come November...a situation which has led to a number of independent Democratic efforts to mobilize voters...a model that Republicans have shown to be inferior to their centrally organized and funded RNC get out the vote effort that is called the 72-hour program. Thought Theater has previously raised doubts that the Dean model can be completed such that the middle management team can muster a voter mobilization effort...they may simply not have the time needed to finish the job.

Many Democrats said that despite a favorable political climate and record-setting fundraising, the campaign to recapture the House and Senate could fall short if the organizational problems persist. "What the party really needs is to get serious about local, volunteer-based" operations, said Jack Corrigan, a longtime Democratic operative. "The last-minute, throw-money-at-it approach . . . does not really solve the fundamental failure to organize that is there. The DNC is moving in the right direction, but needs to do more, fast," he said.

In a letter sent to Democrats on Monday, Dean said: "We've got a big secret . . . and it is going to help us win." He asked Democratic donors for $25 a month to fund mobilization programs nationwide. "What many people do not realize is that . . . we are turning our operation into a 50-state, get-out-the-vote effort."

But many Democrats are not convinced. "We are concerned in certain parts of the country, and that is why we want to have this insurance policy" of the DCCC effort run by Whouley, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

Republicans are far more united in their approach, building on what both sides said worked well in 2002 and 2004. They are routing all turnout efforts through the Republican National Committee, which had $45 million in the bank -- four times as much as the DNC -- as of June 30.

The RNC runs a strategy known in political circles as the 72-hour program. It focuses on using phone calls, polling data and personal visits to identify would-be GOP voters and their top issues early in the cycle. The information is then fed into a database, allowing party leaders to flood them with pro-Republican messages through e-mail, regular mail and local volunteers. On Election Day, they receive a phone call or a visit to remind them to vote.

Not unlike Dean's presidential campaign in 2004, he has set out to create a similar structure within the Democratic Party for 2006. If the November results mirror the problems Dean experienced in Iowa...where he had built a similar middle management structure that was unable to mount the necessary ground game, Dean may find that 2006 is a repeat of 2004...however this time the ramifications could be devastating for the entire Party.

Initiating the voter mobilization effort Dean called a secret on Monday, a mere three months prior to the election is, in my opinion a high risk, low return equation that is unlikely to succeed...but more importantly...even if it achieves some success...if that success fails to eclipse the proven Republican model, it will invariably be viewed as a colossal failure. Dean's use of the words, "What many people may not realize" may turn out to have foretold the very problem...the effort and the results were never realized because he failed to make them materialize.

As previously reported by Thought Theater, if the results from the special election in the San Diego area (CA-50) are an indication of things to come, Democrats may well be destined for disappointment. Keep in mind that the Democrats failed to increase turnout in that election...despite the fact that CA-50 was the seat held by the now jailed Republican, Duke Cunningham. What could have been the testing and proving ground for a Democratic strategy may ultimately be seen as the bellwether for a major miscalculation.

In a prior posting Thought Theater suggested that many progressive Democrats view the Dean grassroots strategy to be a replication of the Karl Rove model. Unfortunately that assessment may be inaccurate as I'm inclined to believe the Rove concept is actually a counterintuitive effort designed as a top down strategy that seeks to deliver targeted message to specific constituent groups through the co-opting of influential leaders within each constituency. The effort is designed to provide a sufficiently charged message to evoke the necessary motivation and then simply provide the tools to get the emerging and self-sustaining groundswell of voters to the polls.

In other words, Rove isn't as concerned with Party building as he is with a calculation that he has assembled a majority voter coalition created by narrowly targeted issue messages. Party loyalty takes a back seat to coalition building...winning over individual voters and hence large blocks of voters on an issue by issue basis is far less complicated than having to craft a salable consensus message (platform).

In the end, the November midterm elections may well turn on voter turnout. In 2004 Democrats were arguably more successful in getting out the vote than most recent elections. Unfortunately, their efforts were exceeded by an even superior Republican structure. Three months before the next election cycle, it seems doubtful that enough has changed to conclude that 2006 will be any different. That may well mean that the Democrats will have to depend on sufficient voter sentiment if they are to take control of the House or the Senate. If that doesn't happen, one can easily imagine a further divided Democratic Party as it approaches the 2008 presidential election.

Daniel DiRito | August 1, 2006 | 8:04 PM
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