by Frank Schnittger
Sporadic, Unlikely, and New Registrant (SUN) voters are the key to this and any other election in the US because the US does not have automatic registration or mandatory voting. The acronym is apt, because the weather can have a strong influence on turnout. However there are also many other structural factors at play. Turnout was as low as 49 to 55% of the voting age population from 1972 to 2000 through a combination of non-registration or nonvoting by registered voters. People who do vote tend to be disproportionately white, older and wealthier than those who don't, and thus political reality has tended to have a conservative bias. So how has the Obama campaign sought to overcome this systematic bias?
The Supreme Court in its Citizen's United ruling effective copper fastened this position by equating corporations with people, and money with free speech. Consequently billions of "dark money" has entered the electioneering process through what are known as "SuperPacs" or huge political action committees which do not have to disclose their sources of funding. Mass corporate bribery by any other name.
The Republican Party, in particular, has also sought to benefit from this phenomenon by making it more difficult to register and vote particularly if you don't have accepted visual identification documents, private transport, or a lot of stamina and free time on your hands. In Florida, voters have had to stand in line for up to 9 hours to vote, thanks to Republican Governor, Rick Scott's reductions in early voting hours, locations, and voting machines available at voting locations.
In Ohio, GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted has become an infamous figure for aggressively limiting early voting hours (in Democratic leaning areas only) and in restricted the ability to cast or count provisional ballots. There have also been numerous instances of partisan election officials providing misleading or false information to voters in an attempt to suppress the vote.
However there are also structural factors which tend to discourage voters. The "first past the post winner takes all" system means there is little incentive for voters to bother voting if one party or the other has a clear lead - as indicated by often partisan and tendentious opinion polls. Gerrymandered constituencies at congressional and local levels mean there are more such "non-competitive" constituencies than would be generated by random and rural-urban factors alone. Consequently all election resources tend to be focused on a few "battleground" states and "competitive" races. There is also little incentive to vote if you do not support one of the two major parties as your chances of successfully electing your preferred candidate are almost nil.
The Obama for America campaign organization has sought to counteract many of these factors with one of the most remarkable change management programs I have ever seen. A combination of marketing, behaviour modification and information systems that any commercial organisation would be proud of - and all largely manned and powered by volunteers. A Memo from the Obama For America leadership team sets out the broad parameters of the approach:
"This morning, as our volunteer Neighborhood Team Leaders opened 5,117 get-out-the-vote (GOTV) staging locations in the battleground states that will decide this election, they began to execute the final phase of a ground game unlike any American politics has ever seen. These staging locations are even more localized versions of our field offices - set up in supporters' homes, businesses or any area that can serve as a central hub for a team's GOTV activities in the final days.
It's worth reading the memo in full to get a flavour of the strategy. But what has been even more remarkable has been the the reports of volunteers on the ground.
In my county in 2008, Obama's campaign had no office. Volunteers met and coordinated their efforts from a local Panera Bread cafe. Early this year, I read about an OFA office opening just a mile from my office. I decided to attend the "Grand Opening". Since this is a very reliable Republican area, which went 67% for McCain in 2008, my expectations were not high. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to find over 150 people crammed into this office space. I was floored. I had no idea there were even that many Democrats in our county. The energy was palpable. I felt like the prodigal son returning home. It was incredible. I didn't know it at that time, but I was hooked.
Basically the OFA organisation has turned a large number of ordinary citizens in trained community organisers - with the skills required to work on all kinds of political and community campaigns in the future. But what has been even more remarkable, to me, is the level of organisation which has supported and reinforced this effort. Volunteers report being put in touch with their local OFA office almost immediately they contact OFA by phone or email. They report excellent follow-up work on all their questions and early commitments. They report good training and mentoring. But they also report a level of information systems support which most commercial sales and marketing operations can only dream of.
Volunteers are given call or knock lists when they are phonebanking or door knocking giving information on the previous voting history of the household. Early phone and knock lists focused not on reliable or "likely" voters who had voted in previous elections, but on "sporadic", unlikely and new registrant (SUN) voters who had only occasionally voted if at all. Where early or postal voting was available, they were encouraged to vote immediately. Once they voted they were sent a thank you e-mail, removed from phone and knock lists, and asked would they like to volunteer to get others to the polls. The campaign then moved on to the more "likely" voters to make sure they had the means to get to the polls etc. No calls were wasted on people who had already voted, or who had indicated they were not open to persuasion, one way or the other. The volunteer who phone banked a voter is often the same volunteer who door knocked them or gave them a ride to the polls facilitating the building up of a more personal relationship.
The early voting statistics in almost every state with early voting indicate a huge rise in the number of early voters, but also a significant rise in the number of voters registered as Democrats or others contacted by the OFA campaign. Republican voters have also voted in greater numbers (often reducing the Obama lead in early voters relative to 2008), but what these figures don't show is that while Republican voters are generally reliable voters voting early, the whole focus of the Obama early voting campaign has been to get SUN voters to the polls, voters who generally wouldn't have voted at all, and whose voters are thus a net addition to the Obama potential (and likely) vote total.
Another feature of the OFA information systems support has been the amount of micro-targeting of voters it enables. College age students are sent information on what the Obama administration has done to improve the cost and availability of student loans. Older voters are sent information on the improvements in their medical entitlements under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Data from the voting centres is integrated with the system each night to ensure that those who have voted are sent a thank you e-mail, and a suggestion that they might like to donate or volunteer.
The Romney campaign, on the other hand, seems to be based much more on TV advertising, robocalls, paid "volunteers" and blunderbuss direct mail campaigns - sending wildly inappropriate messages to the wrong demographics. GOTV efforts seem to be indiscriminately targeting likely as well as unlikely voters, thus reducing potential Republican turnout on Nov. 6th. Sending a pro-choice voter lurid information on abortions is not likely to change their mind and may even increase their likelihood of getting out to vote and voting Democratic. Republican operatives admit that OFA is "cleaning their clock" in Florida in particular. There is record African and Hispanic turnout in all early voting states and the traditional Republican advantage in mail-in voting has been eroded.
So how will all this effect the final outcome of the election? To a certain extend the effect of the OFA ground game is already "baked in the cake" as opinion polls take early voters into account in their "likely" voter models. There has been a pronounced swing toward Obama in the polls since his Denver first debate debacle. Whether it will be sufficient to swing Republican leaning swing states like Florida and North Carolina is still too close to call. A lot depends on to what degree Obama can hold onto the white vote. Even a 40% poll amongst white voters could result in a 6% margin for Obama - way beyond what any opinion poll is currently predicting.
The other concern I have is that there may have been insufficient linkage between the Presidential campaign effort and other, down ticket, races in this election. Obama will be able to do little in his second term if he has to deal with a Republican dominated Congress pursuing a scorched earth policy as in the past two years. I would have preferred an explicit and high profile "GIVE ME A CONGRESS I CAN WORK WITH" message from Obama - capitalising on the unpopularity of congress, and implicitly putting a lot of the blame for lack of progress on a "do nothing congress". It would also help to undercut Romney's message that he could work better with a Democratic Senate than Obama could with a Republican Congress.
Perhaps a low key approach, focusing on cooperation at ground level will work just as well and avoid raising fears of Democrats dominating all branches of Government. Perhaps also, different approaches are required in different states. In Indiana, for example, Democratic Senate candidate Joe Donnelly seems to be polling better than Obama, so why risk a senate win for an unlikely and unnecessary win in the Presidential race by tying Donnelly too closely to Obama? In Nevada, on the other hand, Obama seems to be running ahead of Shelley Berkley, and she could probably do with the public linking her campaign to his as closely as possible.
However, what is not in doubt is that the OFA campaign has built an infrastructure which may enable the Democratic Party to counter-balance the effects of Citizen's United in the immediate future, and hopefully for as long as it takes for Obama to appoint a few more sane Supreme Court Justices. Hopefully it will also enable Democrats to obtain more control at local level, so that Republican voter suppression tactics are neutralized on the ground.
What seems clear, however, is that 2012, even more so than 2008, marks the beginning of a mobilisation of progressive and minority voters such as the country has never seen before. As US demographics change, a campaign such as that run by Romney, based largely on TV advertising, MSM control, corporate donations, voter suppression, and racial fears amongst older white and less educated males will never be viable again.