Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Republicans aim to drive down voter turnout
THE PROGRESSIVE OCTOBER 1998 ISSUE
BY JOHN NICHOLS
Randall Terry, the Operation Rescue activist who this year has undergone a metamorphosis from abortion clinic terrorist to serious Republican Congressional candidate, has a simple strategy for achieving political success. "Pray for a low turnout," he tells supporters in a competitive upstate New York district. Terry explains that if mainstream voters shy away from the polls in record numbers this fall, as expected, extreme rightwing candidates will have an opportunity to win contests that were once beyond their reach.
Terry and his followers may be relying on prayer to keep turnout down. But the nation's most savvy Republican operatives are taking matters into their own hands. They're working a strategy that seeks to make the 1998 elections a private party to which most American voters are not invited.
"Politics is about two things: Mobilizing your voters, and not mobilizing the other side. Both are valid goals," says Bill McInturff , a Republican pollster. He argues that conservatives can score unprecedented victories this fall if they "reduce the juice"--lower the interest level to such an extent that the small percentage of voters who zealously back conservative causes can dominate.
The Republicans are leaving nothing to chance.
On any given day, in climate-controlled studios in suburban Washington and a handful of other locations around the country, carefully selected groups of adult men and women settle into comfortable chairs and insert their fingers into monitoring devices. The devices measure surges and downturns in their pulse rates as the nation's top political consultants show videotapes of candidates delivering speeches, present mock newscasts, and screen television commercials extolling or defaming particular politicians.
"It's all about message," explains Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who drew up the list of ideas that became Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America." "You look for a message that gets your voters to the polls on election day. But it has to be well thought out, because you don't want to stir up your opponent's voters. You want them to stay home."
Since 1990, Luntz and his colleagues have presided over a steady decline in American voting participation, and a parallel process of shifting the political system further and further toward the right.
In 1994, Republicans helped hold voter turnout to just 38 percent of registered voters. In 1998, GOP strategists quietly acknowledge, they are shooting for a record low turnout of 35 percent or less.
They are well on their way to achieving that goal. Already, says Curtis Gans, founder of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, "voter turnout is sharply down in 1998." Gans analyzed turnout in primary elections this spring and summer and found that average turnout was 16.8 percent, half of what it was a quarter-century ago.
Primary turnout is down 14 percent just since 1994, says Gans. When the numbers are down in the primaries, they usually are down in November, he adds.
Low turnouts tend to favor Republicans--particularly conservative Republicans with a message that appeals to a small yet highly motivated core of activists. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says she is worried that this year's minuscule turnout will be dominated by what she calls the "when God tells you to vote" crowd.
If the turnout actually drops to the 35 percent range or below, as now appears possible, Republican strategists figure they will be able to significantly expand their control in the Senate, improve their position in the House, maintain dominance of the nation's governorships, and win a sufficient number of state legislatures to guarantee control of the redistricting process that will follow the 2000 census.
"When things happen that make one side's partisans unhappy, they stay home," House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, told a Young Republican rally in Atlanta in August. "When they stay home, they stay home for the whole ticket. I believe this fall we're going to see a surprisingly big Republican victory almost everywhere in this country."
An August Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of all adults found a clear preference for Democratic candidates and more liberal positions on the issues. But the same poll found that, among the most likely voters, Republican candidates and conservative positions had a solid lead.
So how do Republicans plan to reduce the juice? Here is the strategy:
Step one: Undercut the appeal of issues that favor Democrats in general and economic populists in particular. Republicans do this by offering warmed-over versions of Democratic plans to reform health care, protect Social Security, and improve public education--and by promoting them heavily, as they will do this fall with a planned $37 million national advertising campaign that will seek to blur distinctions between the parties.
"The idea is to take the power out of Democratic issues rather than confront them," says Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., author of the bestselling book Why Americans Hate Politics. "If Republicans avoid too many fights, they figure they should do just fine." The key to what Dionne calls "me-too" politics is to persuade Democratic voters that, with both parties agreeing on key issues, there isn't much at stake.
In New York state, for instance, U.S. Senator Al D'Amato, a conservative Republican who faces a serious challenge in the fall, has suddenly emerged as a noisy proponent of consumer protection and women's health legislation.
Republicans are particularly pleased with their success in blunting the appeal of a Democratic initiative to pass a "Patients' Bill of Rights" that would curb HMO abuses. Republicans in the House and Senate came up with their own "Patients' Bill of Rights." The GOP plan is much weaker than the Democratic one, but Republican strategists believe it has created enough confusion to limit any Democratic advantage. This summer, U.S. Representative John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican who is a key party strategist, made the remarkable admission that, "with the task-force bill, we will largely deal with the political problem of health care. We may not solve the public policy problem, but it will move us in the right direction and give us political cover."
Step two: Undermine support for Democrats among key constituencies, such as women and African Americans. Republicans have placed special emphasis this year on courting African American voters, who since 1960 have been the most consistently pro-Democratic voting bloc in the nation. GOP leaders such as Gingrich have recruited African American candidates. And even the most rightwing Republicans are appealing to blacks. Ultraconservative South Carolina Senate candidate Bob Inglis, who earned a zero rating for support of civil rights issues while serving in the House, is now campaigning to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol. "From the very first day of the campaign, I want to say 'Welcome' to black South Carolinians," declares Inglis. "I share an appreciation of the historic civil rights struggle, and I passionately agree that economic empowerment is the key to completing that work."
Step three: Let Monica Lewinsky work her magic. From the start, most Republican candidates have followed Luntz's advice--delivered in a memo widely circulated in GOP circles last January--to downplay talk of Presidential scandal. Luntz's theory is that the media will do the dirty work, causing Democrats to grow increasingly discouraged, while energizing prime Republican voting blocs.
After analyzing polling data from key precincts around the country, Democratic consultant Bob Beckel has concluded that the most likely voters this fall will be conservatives whose anger with Clinton has been crystallized by the scandal. Traditional Democratic voters, content with a reasonably good economy and turned off by the negative nature of contemporary politics, are less likely to vote. Political commentator Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, sums up the circumstance: "Democratic and Republican commentators and strategists have detected a clear GOP tilt, based largely on expected turnout this fall. The most motivated voters, those all but certain to go to the polls, are the ones furious with Clinton. They aren't happy with Congressional Republicans, but they're ready to register a protest against Clinton on election day by voting against Democratic candidates."
Republican strategists are taking advantage of voters' low spirits. After the President acknowledged to the nation in August that he had lied about his affair with the White House intern, Republicans launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to link Democratic contenders such as California Senator Barbara Boxer with the increasingly disparaged President.
Of particular concern are women voters, who in recent years have provided the margin of victory for Democrats in many races. This year, says veteran political reporter Jill Lawrence, "They may be so disgusted by the lurid sex and other details expected in the Starr report that they just stay home."
U.S. Representative Martin Frost, Democrat of Texas, admits, "It is possible this could cast a pall on the election."
Meanwhile, Republicans are mobilizing social conservatives who follow the lead of groups such as Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and James Dobson's Focus on the Family.
For a time, early this year, it appeared as if Republicans faced a threat from Dobson. In meetings with top Republicans, Dobson attacked Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and other GOP Congressional leaders for failing to advance an aggressive Christian right agenda on issues such as gay rights, abortion, school prayer, and public funding of religious education.
If key Republicans didn't move quickly, Dobson said, he might just lead his followers out of the Grand Old Party--a prospect that would have spelled electoral disaster.
Republicans got the message. U.S. Representative John Linder, Republican of Georgia and one of Gingrich's top electoral strategists, circulated a confidential memo in April that said Republicans would lose control of the House and power in the Senate if they did not satisfy Dobson by throwing red meat to Christian conservatives.
That's exactly what they have done. Congressional Republicans quickly organized to promote a "Religious Freedom" amendment to the Constitution. If passed, that amendment would permit organized prayer in public schools for the first time since the 1960s. Republicans attached amendments restricting aid to family-planning organizations when the House and Senate took up spending authorizations for U.N. dues. The House also endorsed a pilot program that would use tax dollars to provide children with vouchers to attend private religious schools. And House leaders have intentionally scheduled another vote on banning "partial-birth" abortion just as the fall campaign season hits its stride.
But the big play to Dobson and his followers came on gay rights issues. Lott stepped forward with a carefully scripted statement saying homosexuality was equivalent to alcoholism and kleptomania. In the Senate, he moved to block the confirmation of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg solely because the nominee is an openly gay man. And the House passed a measure that would block federal money for San Francisco and other cities that require contractors doing business with these municipalities to provide health insurance to the partners of their gay and lesbian employees.
"This is a very well-orchestrated political campaign against the gay community," says Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian organization. Policy isn't the point, says Stachelberg, since most of the GOP initiatives face the threat of a Clinton Administration veto or a court challenge. Rather, the onslaught is all about galvanizing the GOP base for November.
So why don't Democrats and their allies in organized labor counter the GOP with a sweeping get-out-the-vote drive?
Still shell-shocked from their 1994 losses, outgunned in the campaign-finance arena, and reeling from daily Lewinsky revelations, the Democrats have done little work when it comes to responding to the Republicans.
They have actually played into the Republicans' hand by emphasizing their own "targeted voter" strategies, which operate on the premise that it is cheaper and easier to win 16 percent of the electorate in a 30 percent turnout than it is to energize new voters. Plus, a campaign that emphasizes issues of broad popular appeal might turn off corporate contributors. That's something Democratic insiders fear since, as their party has moved further and further to the right, it has come to rely on the same Wall Street donor base as the Republicans. This leaves many voters with a clear sense that the political choices they make don't matter.
Ignoring populist appeals is a terrible blunder for the Democrats. Polls show majority support for basic progressive issues: universal health care, restraint on corporations, a graduated income tax, increased spending on public education, and fundamental campaign finance re-form.
As Ralph Nader puts it, "We don't have two parties any more. We have two versions of the Republican Party fighting over the crumbs that the special interests throw them and completely neglecting the great majority of Americans who don't even vote anymore."
Not long ago, different priorities prevailed. In 1986, when California liberal Alan Cranston faced a serious Republican challenge, he poured millions of dollars into get-out-the-vote efforts that brought hundreds of thousands of new voters to the polls. Cranston won. So, too, did dozens of other liberal Democrats in key races around the state.
By emphasizing high turnout strategies, Cranston said, Democrats freed themselves to be more progressive. Better to be beholden to broad ethnic and economic constituencies, he argued, than to big-money contributors and special-interest groups.
Could a big-turnout strategy work in the politically cynical 1990s? The answer is yes. But the proof doesn't come from Democrats.
This year, the best example of a candidate challenging the right's voter suppression strategies comes from a Republican. Kansas Governor Bill Graves angered social conservatives within his own party by supporting abortion rights and ditching other planks in the religious right platform. As a result, he faced an aggressive primary challenge this summer from David Miller, a former state legislator who had served as state Republican party chair.
Miller hoped his anti-abortion followers would assure him of victory in a low-turnout context. Graves countered by pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a sophisticated get-out-the-vote drive that even urged Democrats to switch parties and vote in the GOP race. The strategy worked. Kansas saw a near-record Republican primary turnout in August. The governor prevailed by a stunning 73-27 margin.
Some Democrats look at those numbers and wonder why their party isn't working to boost turnout with a populist message that could draw voters to the polls.
John Nichols is the editorial page editor for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.