Politics & Policy

The Turnout Tournament

(Mark Hirsch/Getty Images)
This year’s midterms are all about motivating more voters who think Obama has failed

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, the trends are moving towards Republicans, but the race is not done.

In our recently completed national survey of 1,020 likely voters, the Republicans hold a slight lead among all voters on the generic ballot for Congress, 42 percent to 41 percent. However, among very likely voters, the Republicans have a wider lead over the Democrats, 46 percent to 41 percent. Somewhat likely voters, who account for 24 percent of the sample, prefer the Democrats 39 percent to 31 percent. The midterm enthusiasm gap is back.

The dominant turnout trend shows that the voters who disapprove of the job that President Obama has done are driving this election. Among all voters, the president’s job approval was the worst that it has been all year. This approval rating was only 41 percent (with 15 percent strongly approving) and his disapproval rating rose to its highest level all year, at 56 percent (with 36 percent strongly disapproving).

Therefore, with just two weeks to go, the Republicans’ get-out-the-vote plan is simple: Identify and drive out every registered voter who disapproves the job that Barack Obama is doing. This should be easy; there are tens of millions of them.

The Democrats and the White House know that the 90 million voters who cast ballots in 2010 beat the Democrats badly. So their 2014 counterplan has been simple: Register more voters favorable to Obama, and identify from the 130 million 2012 voters those who didn’t vote in 2010 but who still like President Obama, and turn them out.

It’s a page out of the Karl Rove playbook. We did this in Virginia in 2001 under RNC chairman Governor Jim Gilmore to expand the Republicans’ House of Delegates majority. We identified Bush 2000 voters who didn’t vote in 1999, and then we surveyed them and targeted turnout messages to these Casual Republican Voters. It became the basis for the RNC’s 2004 72-hour program.

Ironically, this turnout strategy also became the basis for the Obama 2012 campaign. Still, 90 million eligible voters stayed home. Among them there had to be tens of millions who disapproved of the job President Obama was doing that could have won the election for Romney. But they chose not to vote.

Last year in Virginia, we used a similar turnout plan. While the Republican candidate for governor was trailing, our job was to hold as many House of Delegates seats as we could. We had been polling for the Republican House Delegates Caucus and were responsible for many of their toughest races — especially in Northern Virginia. Our plan was simple: Identify voters who disapprove of Obama and Obamacare and turn them out. It worked, and the Republicans won 67 out of 100 seats.

So now the battle for the Senate, the House and many governorships is coming down to whether more voters who disapprove of the job President Obama is doing will turn out than voters who approve.

What puts the election’s outcome in doubt is that 20 percent of all voters disapprove of the president, but are not voting for Republicans. Among this group, 47 percent are voting for Democrats and 53 percent remain undecided.

What makes these voters different is pretty clear. Only 10 percent among them are Republicans, 43 percent are Democrats, and 47 percent are independents. So they are not Republicans, but they dislike the president.

Why are these voters who disapprove of Obama not falling in for the Republicans for Congress? Simply put, enough of them blame Republican incumbents, too. Everyone knows that the voters are not happy. For many of them, it’s an anti-incumbent election. When we asked all voters, “A lot of Americans are fed up with typical Washington politics. Who do you think is most responsible for our broken political system?”, 27 percent blame Obama and the Democrats, 26 percent blame the Republicans and the Tea Party, and 41 percent blame both. Among the voters who disapprove of Obama but do not vote for Republicans, 13 percent solely blame the GOP, 11 percent solely blame Obama and Democrats, and 67 percent blame both.

This shared blame is blocking the Republican wave. The way to remove that block is to generate more turnout from eligible voters who currently disapprove of the job the president is doing.

Complicating the Republicans’ task is the Democrats’ advantage on social media, which can motivate early voting and Election Day voting. In our survey, 78 percent of all voters say that they use Facebook. On the generic ballot, they prefer Democrats for Congress 43 percent to 41 percent. Among other social media:

‐ 33 percent use Google+, and they vote Democratic 44 percent to 41 percent.

‐ 30 percent use Twitter, and they’re tied at 44 percent.

‐ 24 percent use Pinterest, and they vote Republican 44 percent to 43 percent.

‐ 23 percent use LinkedIn, and they vote Republican 47 percent to 40 percent.

‐ 18 percent use Instagram, and they prefer Democrats 49 percent to 41 percent.

So while the Republicans are bombing the rubble with ads on broadcast and cable TV, they should be using digital social media to tilt the turnout in favor of the anti-Obama voters.

The side that wins the turnout war wins the election. For the Republicans, their task is clear. If those who disapprove of the job the president is doing dominate the turnout in early voting and on Election Day, there will be an expanded House Republican majority and a new majority in the Senate. It’s that simple.

— John McLaughlin and Jim McLaughlin are Republican strategists and partners in the national polling firm McLaughlin & Associates.

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