Apr 15th 2014

Can Democrats Win in November?

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.

Much has been written about the difficult road faced by Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. But virtually all of it presumes that turnout among reliable Democratic voters will decline three to five percent more from 2012 levels than turnout among reliable Republican voters.

There is no question that most midterms do in fact follow that model.  The results of the disastrous 2010 midterms can be chalked up almost entirely to the fact that record numbers of Democratic voters failed to show up at the polls.

But before the pundits and ambitious Republicans get too cocky, it is important to remember that this kind of turnout differential is not at all preordained.   A three to five percentage imbalance in turnout can have a massive impact on in-play elections – but it is also small enough that Democrats can do something about it.

In fact, as recently as 2013 – in a completely off-year election in Virginia, Democrats kept the turnout mix at 2012 levels.  To win – as we did in Virginia – Democrats don’t have to turn out the same number of voters as we did in 2012. We only have to ensure that the turnout mix is the same as it was in 2012.  In other words, we have to make certain that the drop-off between 2012 and 2014 is no greater than the drop-off for Republican voters.

So what affects turnout?    

In general, electoral turnout is not affected by the factors that dominate the discourse of the chattering class.   For persuadable voters – voters who always vote but are often undecided in elections – the factors that affect the voters’ decisions involve the candidate.  Persuadable voters made their decisions based on candidate qualities like:

Is the candidate on my side?

Does the candidate have strong core values?

Do I think the candidate is a strong effective leader?

Does the candidate respect me?

Do I like or make an emotional connection with the candidate?

Is the candidate an insider or outsider?

Is the candidate self-confident?

Does the candidate have integrity?

Does the candidate have vision?

Does the candidate inspire me?

With one exception, turnout it not affected by any of these factors – or for that matter by the “issues” being used by the candidates to demonstrate that they are on the voter’s side.   That’s because low-propensity Democratic voters would already vote for Democratic candidates if they went to the polls – the question is not how they would vote, but whether they are motivated to go to the polls.

The messages that motivate low-turnout voters are not about the candidates or issues – they are about the voters themselves.

Democrats have the ability to motivate the voters in the fall to turnout at levels adequate to replicate the 2012 turnout mix – just as they did in Virginia last year.  But we need to focus 100% of our energy on motivation.   That requires that we follow several important rules:

1). Rule #1: Motivation is about emotion.  We must engage the voters’ feelings – their anger, their love, their passion, their humor.    You engage emotion by making things concrete and personal – not abstract or cerebral.    Our messages to low-turnout voters must engage the senses. The political dialogue between now and November needs to make people hear, visualize, feel – experience – the battle.

2). Rule #2: People are motivated (and convinced) more easily by getting them to take action than by explanation or argument. Getting someone to take an action engages emotion and commitment to the outcome of a battle much more easily than any form of rhetoric or discussion.

Action can include any level of activity from going to a rally or meeting, to rooting for a candidate in a debate, to making a donation online.  The more people have the opportunity to act, not just hear about the upcoming election, the more likely they are to vote.

Research has shown that this principle even extends to how we talk to voters about going to vote.  If we ask them to tell us how and when they plan to vote, they are more likely to vote than if we just ask them if they plan to vote. That’s because they begin to visualize the act of voting and begin to commit themselves to the act of voting through their own visualization of action.

If voters are asked to take the action of signing a pledge form committing them to vote – they are even more likely to cast a ballot.

3). Rule #3: The fight’s the thing. Motivation flows from engagement in a political narrative that involves a protagonist and an antagonist. When people root for a sports team, they become invested in the team.  

Democrats need to provide every opportunity to create a battle between the Rightwing’s leaders and our champions. We need to force the battle – proudly and visibly. And we need to enlist low-propensity voters to join us in the battle.  

4). Rule #4: People will be inspired to enlist in our cause, if our language focuses on values.  The fall election is not a contest of policies and programs – it needs to be about right and wrong.

5). Rule #5: It is much easier to mobilize people to stand up and fight to defend something concrete that the other side is trying to take away, than to enlist them in a battle for some abstract future goal.

This principle will play an important role – as it did in 2012 – among African American and other minority voters who are the targets of GOP attempts to take away their right to vote.

The same feeling that motivated people to stand in line for five hours after the election had already been called for President Obama in 2012 will likely play a big role in the coming election: “I will not allow them to steal my vote.”    

This feeling will have an even more palpable ring on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer – and the campaign for voting rights that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Voters can also be motivated to go to the polls to defend their Social Security or Medicare – or to prevent their new health care benefits from being taken away – or to protect their pensions or their rights to reproductive choice or marry the person of their choice regardless of gender.  

The fear of what someone may take away worked well for the Right who mobilized voters in 2010 and 2012 with its attacks on ObamaCare.  But it only worked so long as the program’s benefits themselves were abstract and they could stoke fear about the government “taking away” your health insurance.  Now that the horror stories about ObamaCare have proven baseless (there are no “death panels”), this principle works for Democrats and Progressives as more and more people are vested in Obama Care benefits that they do not want the GOP to take away.   ObamaCare can be used very effectively in the fall to mobilize low-propensity voters who have those benefits.

6). Rule #6: Meaning is the greatest motivator.  For most people there is nothing more important than their own meaning, significance, and dignity. That’s why being “disrespected” is so powerful.

Among African American voters one of the driving forces behind turnout in the Virginia election was the feeling that they had to “have President Obama’s back.”  That was not just because he was a President they liked – but because he is one of them—because they could not allow him to be disrespected and his work to be undone.  It was not “about” President Obama.  It was “about” the voters.

Respect will be especially important when it comes to the immigrant – and especially the Hispanic – vote this fall.  The GOP leadership has completely disrespected the Hispanic community by failing to pass immigration reform – and by pandering to GOP leaders who regularly make disparaging racist comments about Latinos.

The immigrant community is mobilizing to ask its people to demonstrate at the polls that they cannot and will not be disrespected and cannot be ignored.  But those feelings of disrespect must be coupled with another feeling as well.

7). Rule #7:  Inspiration.   The feeling someone is being disrespected – or the fear that something is being taken away cannot be left in isolation.  Disrespect or fear by themselves do not mobilize – they demobilize.   They must be coupled with a feeling that people can and will do something about it – by a sense of empowerment.

Inspiration is most fundamentally a feeling of empowerment.  When a speaker or leader “inspires” a crowd, they are made to feel empowered to act.  

This is the one quality that works both for persuasion and motivation.  Persuadable voters are prone to vote for candidates that inspire them.  Mobilizable voters are more prone to vote if they themselves are inspired.

8). Rule #8: Bandwagon. People are pack animals – they travel in packs.   This is true when it comes to voter opinion.   But it is even truer when it comes to whether someone believes he or she must turn out to vote.  

Ordinary voters need to feel that everyone else in his/her peer groups is voting – that to be part of the group, that they need to cast their ballot, and that everyone else will; that he or she is expected to vote.

In the face of predictions of low turnout – it is critical to demonstrate to low-propensity voters that people like them will prove the pundits wrong.

In other words, we don’t motivate low-propensity voters to cast ballots by wringing our hands about how few people are voting, but by making them part of an effort to show them that we will all turn out – a narrative that everyone is expected to join.

9). Rule #9: Mechanics.   The final rule of voter mobilization is all about execution. One of the most effective motivational messages is: “I won’t get off your porch until you vote.”

Studies have shown that one conversation at the door within the 72 hours before an election increases likelihood to vote by 12.5% -- and a second visit, by almost as much.

In 2012 the Obama campaign refined voter turnout mechanics and targeting to a new level.  The campaign’s ability to target each voter, predict likelihood to vote, and determine the message best suited to motivate that voter , massively increased Obama base turnout.  So did the campaign’s commitment to excellence in execution.

There are now thousands of trained Democratic field personnel steeped in the Obama field culture.  Many of them will manage the excellent field efforts that will be waged by the various Democratic committees and campaigns.

These field operations will provide the foundations for Democratic success this fall.  They – along with earned media programs and targeted paid communications – will deliver concrete, personal messages about respect, empowerment, preventing those in power from taking away health care benefits, Social Security, Medicare, rights to reproductive choice, the right to marriage equality, and your right to vote.

They will also seek to make this election a national referendum on the question of whether we should raise the wages of ordinary Americans.   The symbolic examples of raising the minimum wage, continuing unemployment benefits, making overtime fair, equal pay for equal work, and allowing employees a voice in their workplaces – all of these are very personal and motivational to many low-propensity voters.

The Romney campaign believed until election night that Democrats would fail in their efforts to turn out large numbers of average Americans. They were wrong.

I believe there is a very good chance that all the naysayers and pundits who are once again predicting a Democratic loss will be wrong again.


Follow Robert Creamer on Twitter @rbcreamer.

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