Democrats' glaring strategic mistake
Published December 31, 2020
By Thomas Mills
Yesterday, I took a first look at turnout from the 2020 election. What keeps haunting me is the discrepancy between Democratic and Republican turnout. In the past two election cycles, Republicans have outpaced Democrats by more than six percent. Had that gap been closed this year, Biden would have won North Carolina and so would a host of other Democrats, including Chief Justice Cheri Beasley.
Democrats, though, have paid far too little attention to turnout operations and far too much attention to persuasion politics. In today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, the number of persuadable voters is extremely small, but the bulk of campaign budgets still targets them. I suspect that by the final week of the election, there are very few persuadable voters but there are still several hundred thousand non-voting Democrats. The party, both at the state and federal level, needs to shift its priorities.
Republicans have outpaced Democrats in every election since 2008. Back then, 72% of registered Democrats voted while 71% of Republicans participated. Barack Obama won the state and Kay Hagan was elected to the Senate. In 2012, Republicans had a three point turnout advantage in North Carolina and Mitt Romney squeaked by Obama by less than 100,000 votes. In 2016, that gap rose to seven percent and Trump won by more than three percent.
If budgets reflect priorities, as Democrats like to say about legislatures and Congress, then their campaigns prioritize communication over field and reflect a glaring strategic mistake. In 2020, Democrats spent more than $500 million on television ads in North Carolina alone. I doubt they spent one percent of that sum on field operations. There are not enough persuadable voters to close the gap between GOP and Democratic turnout in the state. In other words, Democrats pissed away campaign resources that should have been used to get people to the polls.
To be fair, Republicans have an easier job motivating their base. They are constantly running against something instead of for something. Their base believes government is going to take something from them—their guns, their money, their freedom. They are constantly voting out of fear or anger instead of hope and fear and anger are greater motivators.
Democrats, in contrast, believe in the power of government to make lives a little bit easier, especially for the least fortunate among us. Selling hope, programs, and policy is a bit a harder, but that doesn’t mean Democrats should not be focused on turnout. Stacey Abrams identified the problem in Georgia when she said, “It’s just a math problem, really,” and then set about registering a massive number of Georgia voters. Now, Georgia is more of a swing state than North Carolina and apparently trending blue faster.
As 2020 comes to a close, Democrats in North Carolina should make registering voters their New Year’s Resolution. Turning them out should be their focus in 2022.