Will Parties Try to Score With the Core or Take a Big Swing?

Posted September 5, 2003 at 4:01pm

New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney caused a stir among political insiders recently when his article titled “Political Parties Shift Emphasis to Core Voters” appeared in the pages of the Gray Lady a week ago. [IMGCAP(1)]

The nub of his article was that key strategists from both parties, seeing a “polarized and evenly divided electorate,” have shifted their priorities away from swing voters. That change, notes Nagourney, has dramatic implications for next year’s campaign, including bigger helpings of “red meat” messages from each party to its base.

I don’t dispute the importance of base voters in any election, the polarized nature of the electorate, the limited effectiveness of television ads in presidential races or the success of the GOP’s “72 Hour Task Force.”

And more party money for GOTV phone banks and mail is entirely understandable, since every election cycle is different. But a fundamental shift to sharper, more partisan appeals intended to bring out each party’s base and less attention to swing and casual voters is risky.

Next year’s presidential race will produce a much different electorate than the one that showed up for the 2002 midterm elections, when turnout was more of a question mark.

In midterm elections, House turnout usually ranges from 32 percent to 38 percent of the voting age public, according to Vital Statistics on Congress (published by the American Enterprise Institute), which relies on Census Bureau data. In contrast, turnout during the past seven presidential elections has ranged from a low of 49 percent to a high of 55 percent.

In other words, the 2004 electorate will be filled with casual voters who turn out only for presidential elections, pay less attention to politics, have weaker partisan attachments and vote less on issues than on personality. In short, it will include more non-core voters who require both persuasion and GOTV messages.

Even if independents make up only 12 percent to 20 percent of next year’s electorate, they will constitute a larger number of voters than the alleged “core voters” who are turned out by “red meat” appeals and additional get-out-the-vote efforts.

And there is this: If base voters can’t get excited by George W. Bush versus Howard Dean, Bush versus Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) or Bush versus Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), are they really base voters?

Unless the Democrats pull a fast switch and nominate Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) or Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) for president, the 2004 fight for the White House looks as if it will have enough ideology and partisanship to mobilize most members of each party’s base.

Yes, of course, there are always some partisan voters who need to be dragged to the polls, and both parties need to spend cash to make sure that they turn out every supporter they can find. And it is even reasonable to argue that the parties need to direct more of their resources to turn out their own partisans. But that’s a far cry from a fundamental shift of strategy, which is what strategists apparently told Nagourney.

Actually, strategists don’t really mean that core voters matter. They mean that core voters in Florida, New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon, New Hampshire and a few other states matter. Nobody cares about base voters or swing voters in most states, since most states aren’t “in play” in the 2004 presidential race.

Given the handful of states that do matter, do the parties really have to choose between potential voters? Won’t they target ideological and partisan messages to those kinds of voters and nonideological, personality messages to swing voters and independents? Of course they will.

The problem with “red meat” appeals aimed at core voters is that, unlike targeted messages and GOTV mechanics, they risk alienating independents and party moderates, whether Republican or Democrat. And even in a “polarized” environment, a large number of voters are not likely to respond favorably to partisan or heavily ideological messages.

Finally, since the parties are of nearly equal strength, if they succeed in maximizing the turnout of core supporters, the 2004 presidential contest will be decided in a handful of states by voters who are not strong partisans.

A large group of Americans who will vote next year respond to the candidates viscerally. In 2000, they may have been turned off by Gore’s sighing in a debate or by Bush’s smirk.

They may have been attracted to Bush’s down to earth quality or Gore’s convention kiss. They may have just wanted change, or been afraid to rock the boat by changing parties.

A strategy, by either party, that stresses partisanship and ideology over personal qualities — except in targeted appeals to very specific audiences — isn’t the way to go. In fact, I think it’s a phony debate.

Given the available resources, increased targeting proficiency and the few states that really matter in 2004, it’s hard to believe that the two parties can’t target both relevant base and swing voters with individualized messages.