Hotline On Call tells us that AFSCME President Gerald McEntee says that the Dem-allied 527’s dedicated to get out the vote (GOTV) efforts in 2004 were "‘trounced’ by the GOP's ‘neighbor-to-neighbor strategy.’”
I’m not so sure if you talked with McEntee in depth that he would so sweepingly dismiss the 527’s that did GOTV like America Coming Together (ACT), which received a huge portion of its funding from labor unions like AFSCME. There are two key differences between Democratic needs and funds that made ACT a good move for Democrats in 2004.
It’s important to understand that Democratic GOTV is in some important ways logistically easier to accomplish than Republican GOTV. There are many, many places in America—primarily communities of color in urban areas—where if you walk down the street and blindly knock on doors, 8 or 9 out of every 10 people will be prospective Democratic voters. The problem with many of these people, in terms of Democratic performance, is that many of them aren’t inclined to actually vote. Thus, there is a strong correlation between geography and Democratic GOTV targets. Furthermore, it’s easier to somewhat blindly pull everyone out to vote in the most strongly Democratic areas without worrying about pulling out Republican votes.
That leads to the second factor that justified a strong emphasis on the 527’s; namely, soft money. Loosely defined, “soft money” refers to specific types of funds that can’t be used by federal candidates or political parties. Such prohibited funds include corporate or union treasuries funds. These are separate from the PAC contributions that individual union members or business employees voluntarily contribute to Political Action Committees. [PAC funds are hard money.] The other main type of soft money donations are extremely large contributions (beyond the legal limit a person or a PAC can give to a candidate or political party). Soft money cannot be used for what’s called “express advocacy;” roughly any communication directed to the general voting public that conveys the message “vote for” or “vote against.” [Hence, all those adds that urge you to call your Congresswoman so and so and tell her to cut your taxes and quit torturing baby lemurs.]
After the Shays/Meehan campaign reform bill (AKA McCain/Feingold) passed, federal candidates could no longer solicit or use soft money. Since Democrats had access to much more soft money (because of organized labor and extremely wealthy donors, especially among the ranks of Hollywood types, high tech people and developers), in the lead up to the 2004 people looked around for what they could do with the soft money they had effectively used to blunt the Republicans’ typical advantage in hard dollars. Thus, the 527’s made sense, because the greatest number of easy GOTV targets were clustered, and you could blindly go through +80% Democratic districts—there are lots of those, and almost no +80% Republican areas—and pull everyone out with a generic “don’t forget to vote” message that didn’t depend on who they were voting for.
The Republicans had different needs. There are few places in America that are over 70% Republican. Thus, it’s dangerous for Republicans to blindly pull out all potential voters, because you might inadvertently pull out lots of Democrats, thus rendering your investment in GOTV of very low marginal utility. For the Republicans, they needed to make sure that they were identifying who might vote Republican and pull them out, and to leave the potential Democrats alone. They needed to use hard money to do that. Thus, their GOTV was paid for through Republican channels instead of the completely separate operations required of the Democratic 527’s. (It’s against election law to coordinate activities between 527’s and campaigns.)
As you see, the 527’s took advantage of an opportunity—lots of soft money that would otherwise go unutilized—and it made strategic sense. However, the problem is that it’s an insufficient GOTV operation. The 527’s achieved some major accomplishments in 2004. It was almost entirely because I knew that ACT and the others would significantly increase Dem turnout that I was confident Kerry would win. And Kerry did receive approximately 5 million more votes that Al Gore did, and Gore won the popular vote and received more votes than any candidate since Reagan in his 1984 landslide win over Mondale. The problem for us was that the for the first time the GOP focused on GOTV, and plucked out lots of votes from the ranks of independents and those who seldom voted. Some of them clearly were pulled out by the unprecedented church outreach, which in some cases is getting extra scrutiny from the IRS as possibly violating tax laws. But the Republicans also did a lot of hard money voter ID, leaving the likely Dems alone but making sure the potential Republican voters were nagged and practically dragged to the polls to ensure they voted.
It’s this targeted GOTV that Democrats need to emphasize more in 2006. It’s especially important in most Congressional districts, because if a seat is competitive it’s probably almost entirely white, rural or suburban, and contains few concentrated clusters of Dem voters who need to be pulled out to vote. But that doesn’t replace the need for the mass “pulling” of voters in wide expanses of solid Dem precincts, which are usually crucial for statewide success. (Just think about all the discussion about Louisiana if it never recovers much of it’s black population, as the huge Dem vote in NOLA was necessary for statewide Democratic success.)
So, Gerry McEntee is correct in emphasizing more targeted
GOTV, especially in a lower turnout mid-term election, and especially in evenly
matched Congressional districts and states without much of a minority vote
clustered in high-Democratic areas. But
I hope Democrats don’t give up entirely on 527’s. After all, there’s not much else we can do with out built-in soft
money advantage. And we can’t win in
most places if we ignore voters in the low-turnout, high-performance