Unlikely Voters

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Turnout for this year’s Presidential primaries has been higher than usual, but still nothing to write home to Mom about.  Among the non-caucus primaries to date, New Hampshire was the standout with an estimated 52.48% of eligible voters going to the polls.  (That’s based on a statistic called “VEP” which stands for estimated “Voting Eligible Population.”)  The closest other state primary was Massachusetts with 38.71%.  New York was the worst performer at 18.83%.  In the other 20 states, voter turnout ranged from 19.25% in Louisiana to 32.57% in Illinois.  Of the total 23 non-caucus primaries held so far, 13 didn’t even manage to turnout 30% of eligible voters.  Six didn’t even make 25%.  How pathetic.  We are a nation where the minority rules.

Why don’t more people vote in the primaries?  For one thing, in some states registered independents, like me, can’t vote in the primaries, but that effect has got to be minor.  The fact that there is no national law requiring employers to give employees time off with pay to vote is a big deal, probably affecting the lower half of the economy, and hourly workers in particular, to a greater extent.  (If we believe the media analysts, more of the people not showing up are more likely Clinton than Obama supporters.)

Understandably, the polls that the candidates use to understand the electorate, and which the media show us with reckless disregard for their impact on voter opinion, these polls are of “likely voters.”  Results identify the percentage of people who say they are going to vote who currently favor this or that candidate, or who admit to being undecided.  There’s so much room for error.  Even if the polls are valid today, the election isn’t, today that is.  Precisely how likely are these people to vote?  And how sure of your preference do you need to be for your response to classified for any specific candidate, or still up for grabs?  Naturally, the campaigns focus their pitch on the undecided, because they’re easier to convince than someone who has already decided, who actually has to change his or her mind to vote for you.

I’m wondering, if by focusing on the undecided, if the campaigns are missing the boat.  You’ve probably heard the term “GOTV,” Get Out The Vote.  Political party regulars have long known the importance of getting their party’s voters to the polls, although crossover voting has become increasingly common.  The trick, obviously, is making sure the voters you get to the polls are actually voting for your candidate, which is easier said than done.  Even during the general election, like the one we’re about to have, when it’s one party against the other, and the contrast between the Republican and Democrat candidates is great, getting out the vote is a process requiring considerable finesse.

In the Bush-Kerry Presidential election of 2004, national turnout was 60.7%, which I understand was higher than it had been since 1968 when Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey against the backdrop of the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the war in Viet Nam.  60.7%.  Round numbers, that’s twice that, or better, than the voter turnout this primary election season.  Forget about “likely voters” and the “undecided” among them, what about the approximately 30% of eligible voters who are going to vote in November, but not now?

What does a candidate have to do to get these people who would have voted for her or him in the Fall, off their tushes now?  With the Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries coming up, you’d think Senator Clinton’s campaign management would be asking itself that very question.  The answer has got to be contrast.  I’ve thought about it, and it’s got to be that November voters just don’t perceive the difference between the Democratic (or Republican) candidates to be all that great.  As long as one of them – Senator Clinton or Senator Obama – wins in the fall, they’re okay.  Other than that, these one-time-only voters can’t be bothered.

I don’t know, Senator Clinton if you’re listening, if I were trying hard to stop the rock star momentum of my opponent, and no one seemed to care that I was more qualified to be President, I think I’d spend some quality time pitching the differences between me and Senator Obama directly and explicitly, not just to the undecided among the likely voters, but to the voters who haven’t cared enough to participate in the primaries.  Call them on it, in no uncertain terms.

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