While the mainstream media has grudgingly conceded that the GOP had the better turnout operation in this year’s election, no one in the MSM has bothered to explore exactly how much better it was. Perhaps it is done out of desire to not fully discourage the Democrats. And, indeed, the Democrats have been pointing to their efforts in order to boost spirits among their base. For example, in the Arlington Advocate, Gloria J. Steiner wrote:
…an entirely different variable should not be overlooked. Conservative-leaning author James Q. Wilson pointed out the key might have been the sheer numbers of new voters registered by each party and the effectiveness of their get-out-the-vote efforts.
If the Democrats had succeeded more than the Republicans in this area, he said, “the result might well have been a Bush loss in Florida and Ohio, and thus the loss of the election. Our press would now be running columns about the liberal shift in public opinion, the defeat of fundamentalism and the importance of anti-war sentiments.”
So the Democrats should not despair, especially since Bush’s winning margin means only about a third of the nation’s total population eligible to vote backed him. The rest may be up for grabs the next time around, and the Democrats ought to be poised to recruit and persuade them.
Sorry, but such hope for the Democrats is misplaced. The fact is the Republicans were far better than the Democrats at registering new voters and getting them to the polls. There is one man who is responsible for the illusion that the Democrats were effective at attracting new voters: Ralph Nader.
The results show that Ralph Nader received more than 2.4 million fewer votes in 2004 than he did in 2000. Where did those votes go? During the run-up to the election, numerous progressives urged Nader not to run. One website, now apparently merged with the Unity Campaign, had the URL of ralphdontrun.net. The Nation magazine wrote an open letter imploring Nader to “please think of the long term. Don’t run.” Many were the buttons and bumper stickers that warned, “A Vote For Nader Is A Vote For Bush.” Add to that the widespread hatred of the President among the political left, and it seems very likely that most of the former Nader voters defected to John Kerry this time round.
In 2004, Bush received 10.1 million more votes than he did in 2000, while Kerry received about 6.2 million more than Al Gore did in 2000. That means that the GOP had a new voter advantage of about 5 to 3. But if we assume that 2.4 million people who did not vote for Nader this time instead pulled the lever Kerry, then Kerry’s new voter total shrinks to 3.8 million. That’s a GOP advantage of better than 5 to 2. Since it was axiomatic, until this election, that the Democrats had a better ground game, that stat alone should be sending strategists at the DNC into a panic.
An examination of the state level makes Democrats’ fortunes look even worse. Of the states in which Nader was on the ballot in 2004, his vote decline averaged 73%. In the two battleground states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Nader’s vote decline was well above the average, at 85% and 82%, respectively. Yet despite picking up more Nader voters than the average in these two states, Kerry only slightly expanded his margin of victory over Bush than Gore’s margin in 2000. In Minnesota, Kerry only expanded the margin by 1.1 percentage points and in Wisconsin it was less than .2 percentage points. It is even more discouraging for the Democrats if they look at Pennsylvania, where Nader was not on the ballot this time. In 2000, Nader won just over 100,000 votes in the Keystone state. Despite probably picking up most of those votes in 2004, Kerry’s margin over Bush actually shrank 1.9 percentage points versus Gore. Unless Democrats get their act together, the GOP stands a very good chance of netting 41 new electoral votes in 2008.
So why did the Republicans do so much better than the Democrats at attracting new voters? Part of it was likely due to the Bush Campaign’s targeting of the GOP base, especially social conservatives. But the overriding explanation is probably the difference in the structure of the get-the-vote campaigns. The campaign for the GOP was directed largely out of the Bush Campaign and the Republican National Committee. The Democrats relied on a disparate array of 527 groups to mount such an effort, from America Coming Together to ACORN to MoveOn.org. This decentralized approach invariably led to coordination problems, not to mention the registration of phantom voters like Mary Poppins.
The prospects for the Democrats look increasingly bleak. Social conservatives won’t be going away any time soon, and it appears that the Republicans have finally figured out how to be more effective than the Democrats at getting their voters to the polls (thank you, Karl Rove!) It won’t be impossible for Democrats to win the White House in the future, but the 2004 results suggest that it is getting much harder.