Liberal activists are pondering how pro-Democratic advocacy groups, such as America Coming Together and MoveOn.org, exceeded their goal in turning out record numbers of voters on behalf of John Kerry yet still lost to George W. Bush.
The answer is simple. While Democratic groups did a good job in mobilizing their base, the Republicans did a great job. The reasons for the GOP’s success are mainly due to a better use of volunteers and a centralized, Party-based strategy that allowed for more effective coordination.
To a significant extent, the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party depended on “527” committees to get out the Democratic vote. A 527 group, named after a portion of the federal tax code, can accept unlimited donations for spending on ads, voter mobilization, and other activities as long as it doesn’t directly coordinate with a political party or candidate. America Coming Together (ACT) and the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, the leading pro-Democratic 527s, spent $125 million and $21 million respectively during the campaign.
These 527s employed thousands of paid, professional organizers to contact potential voters. ACT, for instance, brought in activists from New York, California, and Massachusetts to work in key battleground states such as Ohio. In that state, ACT’s army of canvassers knocked on 3.7 million doors, held more than 1.1 million doorstep conversations, and registered 85,000 new voters. Including the efforts of the MoveOn.org Voter Fund and other 527s, liberal activists registered a total of 300,000 new voters in Ohio.
Traditionally, Democrats won in Republican-leaning Ohio by boosting turnout in Democratic counties and minimizing the GOP-margin of victory in Republican counties. In Democratic Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, ACT’s goal was to get at least 350,000 votes for Kerry, which presumably would ensure victory statewide. ACT exceeded that number; Kerry received 433,262. Overall, Kerry’s 2.66 million votes were the most a Democratic candidate had ever won in Ohio.
But it wasn’t enough. The Republican voter mobilization campaign in Ohio as elsewhere was run strictly by the Party and did not include 527s. And unlike the Democrats, the Republicans relied on unpaid, local volunteers. This gave the GOP a major advantage over the Democrats. Living in the communities targeted by the GOP, these volunteers took advantage of social networks, such as church groups and home-schooling associations, to contact friends, neighbors, and relatives. Nationally, in the last 72 hours of the campaign, the Party’s 1.4 million activists contacted — either by phone or knocking on the door — at least 15 million voters.
As a result, in Ohio, while the 527s significantly boosted the Democratic vote in a few key urban counties, the Republicans broke records in dozens of GOP-leaning counties. Indeed, the 10 counties with the highest percentage of voter turnout went for Bush.
Florida was no different. Thanks in large part to ACT, Kerry received far more votes than Al Gore in 2000. For example, in the nine critical counties running along the Interstate-4 corridor between St. Petersburg and Daytona Beach, Kerry picked up 206,000 more votes than Gore. While impressive, Bush did even better, adding 334,000 votes to his 2000 numbers. The Democratic victory strategy was premised on the notion that Kerry would win Florida if he could get 3.31 million votes. Kerry in fact received 3.57 million votes. Yet Bush comfortably won the state by 52-47 percent.
The Florida case again showed the superiority of the GOP’s use of community-based volunteers conducting face-to-face canvassing. Bruce Cain, a University of California Berkeley political science professor, says that the Democratic 527s actually irritated potential voters. “They have to rethink the strategy of bringing people in from out-of-state. This tactic seems to backfire,” concluded Cain.
The issue of coordination highlights the limitations in using 527s. The Republicans were so successful because they employed the Republican Party apparatus to mount a centralized voter mobilization campaign. The Democrats, on the other hand, were plagued by an unwieldy network of labor, civil rights, 527, and other groups that were legally prohibited from coordinating with the Democratic Party. This frequently led to situations where the groups were working at cross-purposes to the Kerry campaign, causing a duplication of effort and sending confusing messages.
Prior to the election, many political analysts were impressed by the emergence of the 527s, some even speculating that they might replace the political parties. This is not going to happen. As evidenced by the superiority of the Republican Party-led voter outreach effort over the 527-led Democratic effort, the 2004 election proves that the political parties still reign supreme.
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