The Turnout Imperative

With no presidential contest to focus public attention, voter turnout this year promises to fall once again, to less than one-third of the electorate by some estimates—and low turnout generally means that blue-collar workers, the lower middle class, and the poor don't get to the polls. The last off-year election, 1994, saw fewer than 39 percent of eligible voters turn out to vote in the "Republican revolution." (That's compared to 55 percent turnout in 1992, when Ross Perot helped fire things up, and 47 percent in 1996, when Bob Dole helped cool things down.) A return to 1994 voting levels could help to entrench Republicans in both houses and keep liberal policies on the margins of debate.

Unfortunately, recent history suggests poor turnout trends will persist. Traditional get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts have long been neglected by political parties and campaigns in favor of increasingly specialized tactics that resemble targeted marketing more than traditional politics. Political operatives focus on smaller and smaller portions of the electorate in trying to win elections. In this climate, is there any hope for bucking voting decline?

Perhaps. With an eye fixed on the danger posed by 1994-level turnouts, labor activists have begun combining traditional and cutting-edge organizing techniques, going door to door to talk politics with members, then using computers and cellular phones to coordinate the election day tasks of calling households and driving the elderly and housebound to polling stations. Between 1992 and 1994, the AFL-CIO saw its share of voters fall from 19 percent to a paltry 13 percent. In 1998 the AFL-CIO and its member unions will expand a new get-out-the-vote effort, which aims to build on the success of 1996, when fully 23 percent of voters came from union households.

Many factors have reduced voter turnout in recent decades, including negative advertising, the growing political convergence of Democrats and Republicans, and post-Watergate cynicism. Much of the responsibility, however, lies with the parties, which have allowed their grassroots organizations to atrophy and now find themselves without a built-in base of supporters to mobilize on election day. Instead of building or maintaining a party machine, parties have concentrated on attracting small blocks of swing voters—or keeping an opponent's wavering supporters away from the polls. These tactics replace widespread voter mobilization with expensive television commercials and "smart bombs" so precision targeted that they ignore whole swaths of the electorate in favor of narrow "market segments."

The largest group to be ignored, and the first eliminated from targeted campaigning, are the millions of voters who aren't registered. "The first thing that a candidate does is go down to the registrar and find out who's on the list of registered voters," says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters. "And if you're not on it, they're not interested in you." Next to be ignored are those who are registered but who rarely vote, since no campaign wants to waste its scarce dollars on them. Finally, using astonishingly complex computer technology, campaigns focus their GOTV effort laser-like onto what can be a tiny segment of the electorate statistically likely to vote the right way. Says Ron Faucheux, the publisher and editor of Campaigns & Elections, "It's not unusual for campaigns to concentrate on as little as 5 percent of voters."

The specialization of voter turnout efforts and the decline of traditional, precinct-based party organizations ought to be especially troubling for Democrats. The Democratic Party's constituency among lower-middle-class, working-class, and poor voters—and its alliance with organized labor, which can provide legions of election day volunteers—gives the party an organic advantage over the Republicans in getting voters to the polls. But by forsaking its built-in edge to engage the GOP in television "air wars" and in what one consultant calls "an arms race in the data business," the Democrats have chosen to meet the Republicans on a field of battle where the size of campaign war chests determines the advantage. If the struggle is to mobilize just a few thousand fence-sitting, likely Democratic voters in a congressional district before the other side can rally a few thousand more of their voters, an extra $50,000 can be invaluable—and is generally more likely to come to Republicans than to Democrats. "I'm convinced that all of this serves to further enhance the power of money, to substitute technology for substance," says Marshall Ganz, a veteran grassroots organizer.


The blitz of phone calls and mail from a campaign headquarters, party organization, or special-interest group can hopscotch tornado-like through a neighborhood, sparing many homes seemingly at random and then overwhelming one here and one there with enormous power. While one citizen may never hear at all from a campaign's get-out-the-vote effort, his next-door neighbor can be deluged by a barrage of mail, telephone polls, automated recorded-message calls, persuasion calls, literature drops, and canvassing by paid workers following a computer-generated "walk list."

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All of this comes courtesy of striking technological advances in the past few years. Campaigns can now analyze and cross-tabulate voter files in ways that were previously unthinkable, according to Hal Malchow, a Democratic direct-mail guru in Washington. His system, like many others, starts with a voter identification survey that allows the campaign to track voter attitudes on a wide range of issues, matching those attitudes to specific characteristics such as sex, ethnicity, age, income, level of education, home value, and type of automobile driven. Once completed, this survey—based on as many as 10,000 calls—creates a profile that then can be mapped onto voter files and data from census blocks of perhaps 800 households in a given area. In turn, all of that data can be gridded onto the post office's nine-digit zip code system, giving telemarketers and mailers the ability to target voters with incredible precision.

"For any particular voter, we would know what the median income of their census block is, what the average travel time to work is, the home ownership percentage, the average length of residence," says Malchow. "There are hundreds of census block characteristics." So, for instance, if a candidate finds a positive response among young, college-educated white women with children, living in homes valued at more than $250,000, the campaign can sort out those with a 50 to 75 percent probability of voting and then target them for messages tailored to appeal to their most cherished issues.

Yet all this can be expensive. Campaign software packages that can process voter lists and collate data start at $3,000 and can cost much more. Basic lists of registered voters, complete with voter histories, can cost up to $30 per thousand names, and the cost escalates when campaigns ask for lists to be sorted according to specific criteria, such as age, income, or ethnicity. Hypotenuse, a New Jersey firm, can generate up to 30,000 calls per hour to targeted lists of voters with its "predictive dialing technology," which uses computers to screen out answering machines, busy signals, and no-answers, and then—for up to 50 cents per call—transmits a recorded message in the candidate's own voice to the targeted voter: "Tomorrow's election day! Can you be sure to get out and vote?" Overall, for a single congressional campaign, a GOTV campaign organized in this way could cost a minimum of $30,000, and in a highly competitive race perhaps twice that or more, says Wally Clinton, president of the Clinton Group in Washington, D.C., whose firm provides telemarketing services to Democrats.

Some of the most prosperous campaigns start at the Web site of GeoVoter, a product of the Wisconsin-based voter-targeting consulting firm Map Applications Inc. A typical ad for GeoVoter reads: "When people say the NRA has an unfair political advantage, they're absolutely right. The NRA has GeoVoter." Reads another: "GeoVoter: A liberal candidate's worst nightmare." A tape the firm distributes to potential customers features one of the GOP's staunchest conservatives, Wisconsin Representative Mark Neumann, saying, "I probably wouldn't be in Congress today without . . . GeoVoter."

The key to GeoVoter is its ability to use vast amounts of data to sort desirable from undesirable voters—right down to the individual household. Among other uses, GeoVoter can generate GOTV walk lists, complete with maps, for canvassers who want to crisscross a neighborhood visiting only selected voters who meet specified criteria, as well as phone lists and mailing lists. The cost of the software for a single congressional campaign is $6,900.

Dave Opitz of GeoVoter, a former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, is frank in admitting that Republicans need companies like his because the GOP lacks the army of volunteers that Democrats can call on. "Phone banks and direct mail are really the only tactics available to you unless you're a union and you have the membership that can go door to door and lug people to the polls. Republicans in this state don't have the volunteers to turn out 2,000 volunteers on election day," he says. "The grassroots have kind of dried up. That's why you have the Christian Coalition and the NRA so powerful within the Republican Party, because they do have grassroots. The party itself doesn't."

Using GeoVoter, a GOP candidate can input lists from pro-life groups, the Christian Coalition, the NRA, and then check members against other affiliations and even the magazines that they read. Says Opitz, "You bring in all these different lists, and they get tagged back to a particular house and to the person in the house, and you're able to look at a house like it was a virtual precinct. The guy's a hunter, and the woman is pro-life, and there's a kid that gets Car and Driver magazine. And you direct your message right to that house. If you want to reach the woman, you send a pro-life message; if you want to reach the man, send him a pro-gun letter."


GeoVoter is only one of countless firms that offer voter targeting services, for GOTV, voter persuasion, fundraising, and other purposes. Their ads fill the pages of Campaigns & Elections, with names like TeleMark, VoteTech, Ballot Box, and VoterLink. Though most of them emphasize their ability to help campaigns reach supporters, they also allow campaigns to reach those voters likely to support an opponent. In the latter case, the object of the contact is to suppress voter turnout by targeting those wavering voters likely to cast their ballots the other way, often by providing negative information about the opponent. "Sometimes as a candidate you want a large voter turnout," says GeoVoter's Jerry Baumann, "and sometimes you don't."

A couple of weeks before the November 1996 elections, the phone rang at the home of Lydia Spottswood, an alderman in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The caller identified himself as a pollster surveying voters about their attitudes toward the Republican and Democratic candidates in Wisconsin's first congressional district. Within minutes, however, Spottswood says that the caller launched into a polemic, describing the Democrat as a "very liberal, tax-and-spend, baby-murdering candidate." It was, she says, a classic "push poll," in which a partisan call, usually from a paid telemarketing firm, is disguised as coming from a disinterested source.

Unbeknownst to the caller, however, Spottswood herself was the candidate running against Neumann, a fiery GOP freshman, in one of the most hotly contested House races in the country that year. Other prominent Democratic Party officials and an editor of the Kenosha News received similar calls. Some callers purported to represent the fictitious "National Research Center." Though the Wisconsin Republican Party admits that they hired several telemarketing firms to make more than a million campaign calls, including persuasion calls and voter ID surveys, it denies that it conducted any push polls, which would be illegal under Wisconsin law. Brian Nemoir, the political director of the Wisconsin GOP, calls Spottswood's charges "horseshit." In the same breath, however, he admits that other, outside groups who supported Neumann might have engaged in borderline push polling. "There were a lot of fires going on in that district because of the heated race," he says.

What's important about vote suppression efforts is that they combine the power of negative advertising on television and radio—with its proven ability to erode support for the candidate under attack—with the power of personalized voter contact, often connecting with hot-button issues that move small but important segments of the electorate. Call it SOTV, for "Stamp Out the Vote." Dick Dresner, a prominent GOP campaign consultant, says, "You take your opponent's hard-core supporters, that you've identified, and you call them up, and you tell them evil things about their candidate, and you move them from support to undecided, and then maybe they don't vote." Democrats, caught off guard to some degree in 1996 by the proliferation of negative persuasion calls and push polls, are likely to participate more enthusiastically this year. "It's worth it," says a Democratic Party official in Washington. "To be competitive, people have to think about what they're up against."


The Democratic National Committee knows what it's up against. And more and more, DNC leaders recognize that their best response is in traditional methods of bringing as many voters as possible to the polls. Predictions of turnout for 1998 range from a high of 37 percent to as low as 29 to 31 percent. With numbers like that, said a DNC official, "What you're trying to do is to get half of a third of the vote." Already the DNC is conducting workshops and training exercises for GOTV efforts, training 400 people at a time in California, the Midwest, and elsewhere, and paying lip service to the notion that the party needs more on-the-ground organizations.

"I think that after the '96 campaign there's conversation happening on our side about turnout, and that people know that there has to be some community-based campaigning going on to affect turnout," says a DNC official. But both Democratic and GOP officials say that it's much harder now to secure volunteers and organizers, since in most households both husband and wife work and have less time—not to mention inclination—to get involved in politics. At the DNC, organizers plan to concentrate on young people (through the 1,200 campus branches of the College Democrats) and on seniors.

But what's likely to save the Democratic Party from itself are the efforts of independent organizations. First and foremost is the AFL-CIO, but there are also organizations dedicated to GOTV efforts among women, African Americans, Latinos, and others:

  • The League of Women Voters in 1996 ran GOTV pilot projects in 20 locations around the country, including Santa Cruz, California; Broward County, Florida; and DeKalb County, Georgia. In each, they targeted women, minorities, and low-income voters, often in partnership with other organizations. "In those 20 places," says Becky Cain, "at a time when voter turnout was the lowest it had been in decades, in those sites it actually went up." The league found that personal contacts, including door-to-door canvassing and literature drops, paid off. In one case, they teamed up with local car dealerships to provide vans that could transport voters to the polls. This year, and expanding again by 2000, the league plans to use the results of its 1996 pilot projects to mobilize all 1,000 leagues around the country, supplying them with a 146-page handbook called "Get Out the Vote!" Many other women's groups, too, are planning GOTV work.
  • In California, the Latino-oriented Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project is planning to target 70 projects in San Diego, San Jose, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The effort aims to turn out at least 1.3 million Latino voters in the state, up from the 900,000 who voted in 1994, says Ruben Villarreal, the group's regional field coordinator. With a $1.5 million budget for California, the project will print bumper stickers and door hangers and help organize "precinct walkers, house forums, election day activities, phone banks, and other activities," Villarreal says. According to the National Council of La Raza in Washington, in 1996 Latinos were the only major racial-ethnic group to increase their voting numbers significantly, jumping one-sixth over 1992. In 1996 the Latino vote was 5 percent of total voter turnout, compared to just 3 percent in 1992. The bulk of that vote went to the Democrats, with President Clinton winning the Latino vote 72 to 21 over Bob Dole, a margin of difference 30 percent greater than his 1992 margin over George Bush. The Latino vote is even more powerful in congressional races, since it is so heavily concentrated in California, Texas, Florida, and a few big cities.
  • Efforts to turn out African-American voters are spread among a wide range of institutions, from black churches and the NAACP to the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation and the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus. According to David Bositis, a pollster with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, while overall turnout was falling between 1992 and 1996, black voter turnout rose, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the electorate, from 8 percent of all ballots in 1992 to 10 percent in 1996. Exit poll data show that African Americans voted approximately six to one in favor of Clinton.


In 1994, the AFL-CIO and its member unions utterly failed to encourage voting among union members, and labor's share of the voting population fell to 13 percent. Two years later, labor's 23 percent share reflected a sporadic but intense mobilization effort. Labor's 1998 effort aims to retain the intensity of 1996 while adding a concerted effort to turn union members into a coherent bloc of politically aware voters.

In 1996, while most of the attention to organized labor's political work focused on its multimillion-dollar advertising blitz, the AFL-CIO also made a significant departure from its standard practice in its field work. In many areas of the country, unions distanced themselves from lock-step support for Democratic candidates and instead turned inward, focusing on educating union members about the issues in the election and then getting them out to vote. According to Donald Cohen, who heads labor's Committee on Political Education (COPE) in San Diego, California, "We had to get back to our own real strength and create a labor vote. So we had to disassociate from the parties and adopt an issues approach."

Throughout the San Diego area, the unions called, wrote, and knocked on the doors of their members' homes all summer long, bringing up issues like prevailing wage rates and daily overtime, then connecting those topics to political campaigns. "We were able to surface issues that our members truly cared about, in such a way that those became the issues that people voted on," Cohen concludes.

In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Central Labor Council—perhaps the most advanced body in labor's new politics, according to the AFL-CIO—organized a sweeping GOTV effort that began a year before the election with training programs for union leaders, targeting issues like the minimum wage and Medicare cuts. "Rather than the old, traditional thing where candidates would call labor and say, 'I need 20 people to put up yard signs,' we focused on our own people," says Sarah Rogers, vice president of COPE in Wisconsin. "Prior to 1996 we had not really focused on our internal capacity building. We'd just plugged ourselves into traditional candidates' campaigns."

Instead, Wisconsin labor organizers spent thousands of hours visiting union members in their homes, talking politics with them, and calling them on the phone. "We identified our members, set up a walk list, and went door to door," says Rogers. "People would say, 'Wow, my union never called me or stopped in to see me before!' " On election day, the AFL-CIO worked a precinct-based strategy, with runners watching the polls, crossing off those who had voted and organizing calls and visits to members who hadn't voted yet. "It was the good old days of political organizing, except we were using computers and cell phones," says Rogers.

At AFL-CIO headquarters, political director Steve Rosenthal observes ruefully that labor was taking back a chapter of its own history that had been usurped recently by the right. "Ralph Reed went around for years saying that what the Christian Coalition did is to take a page from organized labor's organizing manuals from the thirties and forties," says Rosenthal. "All we're doing now is what they stole from us. Having the ability to organize the community and worksite again, something we did so effectively a generation or two ago, is something we're trying to relearn."

For 1998, labor plans to double the number of state and regional field coordinators from 150 to 300. Unlike 1996, when many of those organizers were flown in from out of state, this time the vast majority will be homegrown organizers already familiar with the political terrain, and many will be assigned to specific, targeted congressional districts. "We've developed plans for each state, overlaying the various races, from state legislative to statewide offices, to congressional and Senate races," Rosenthal says. "Our goal now is to institutionalize this. We've got to change the culture in how we do this, so we don't have to jury-rig this every two years."

For the AFL-CIO, the numbers look like this: in their files, they have approximately 15 to 16 million union members' names. Of those, something like 58 percent are registered voters. Then, counting spouses and children, there are about 20 million union household voters that the AFL-CIO can try to mobilize. (Actually, adding in retirees and extended families, the total ends up being significantly higher. In 1996, more than 22 million voters from union households went to vote, according to exit poll data analyzed by the AFL-CIO.)

It's long been common knowledge that union members tend to favor Democrats, but the exit poll data are truly startling. Two years ago, nonunion voters supported Republican candidates for Congress by a 53 to 45 margin, while union members voted Democratic by more than two to one (68 to 32). On the presidential ballot, nonunion voters were evenly split between Clinton and Dole, while union voters went for Clinton by an overwhelming 64 to 28 percent. And while Clinton lost the nonunion male vote by a margin of 58 to 30, union men went for Clinton 61 to 30.

Still, despite the efforts of traditionally Democratic-leaning constituency groups like the AFL-CIO, GOTV efforts across the political spectrum remain more dependent on money and technology than on grassroots political organization. Politicians and campaign strategists know that decreasing voter turnout weakens America's democracy—but in the heat of a campaign, expedience usually subordinates principle. Campaigns are about winning, which means that getting one more vote than the other candidate is more important than getting everyone out to vote. Perhaps this cynical pragmatism will discourage some potential voters enough that they'll stay away from the polls in November. If so, one thing is certain: they'll be joining the majority.

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