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Democrats Count On The Fine Art Of Field Operations

Newly elected GOP Congressman David Jolly of Florida, right, poses for a ceremonial swearing-in with Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, on March 13. Jolly edged out Democrat Alex Sink in a special election that Republicans cast as a referendum on President Obama and his unpopular health care law.
J. Scott Applewhite
Newly elected GOP Congressman David Jolly of Florida, right, poses for a ceremonial swearing-in with Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, on March 13. Jolly edged out Democrat Alex Sink in a special election that Republicans cast as a referendum on President Obama and his unpopular health care law.

Democrats have had great success in recent presidential elections registering, targeting and turning out their core voters. Now they're hoping to use that sophisticated field operation to to stave off defeat in this year's midterm elections.

They'll need all the help they can get because the Democratic hold on the Senate is looking increasingly shaky. The president is unpopular. So is Obamacare, and the number of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats is growing by the day. Several independent handicappers have recently moved several more Democratic seats into the "toss up" category.

Republicans only need a net of six pickups to take control of the Senate. And Democrats know that would make the last two years of President Obama's term pretty miserable. Obama himself has been sounding the alarm at every fundraiser and party meeting.

Last month at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, he said, "When Democrats have everybody on the field, we cannot lose. That's just a fact."

That's certainly been true in presidential years, where Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of the last six elections. But in midterms, it's a different story altogether.

"A lot of Democrats don't vote during midterms," Obama said. "We just don't. Young people, African-Americans, Latinos — we just, often times, don't vote during midterms."

And earlier this month, in a special election for a congressional seat in Florida, that's exactly what happened — or didn't happen. Geoff Garin, the pollster for Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate who lost, says the problem was a drop in turnout.

"The cold, hard facts are that 49,000 fewer people voted in that special election than in the Nov. 2010 election for Congress," he said, "and about 160,000 fewer people voted than in the presidential election in 2012. That dropoff is occurring disproportionally among Democratic voters and creates a pretty substantial head wind for Democratic candidates."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is planning a massive investment to address that problem. It plans to spend $60 million to hire 4,000 staffers in the most competitive Senate race states. The goal is ambitious: to make the midterm electorate — which tends to skew older, whiter and more Republican — look more like a presidential year electorate: younger, browner, and with more single women. In short: more Democratic.

The executive director at the DSCC, Guy Cecil, is in charge of deploying this large army of paid field organizers who will focus on registration, canvassing and phone banking.

"We are going to do everything we can to make sure that folks are motivated and energized to get to the polls in our targeted states," he said. "It's going to be a test to see whether or not we can do that."

According to Sasha Issenberg, the author of The Victory Lab, a good ground operation can add a point or two to the vote — tipping the balance in an otherwise tight race.

"Everything we know from basically 15 years of field experiments shows that high-quality, face-to-face contacts for a volunteer living in the same community as the voter is the best way to turn somebody out," Issenberg said. "So there is a road map to doing this. But it is expensive and it takes a lot of staff, and a lot offices and infrastructures to recruit and train those volunteers."

Democrats insist it can be done. They point to last year's Virginia governor's race, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe won by turning out more Democratic voters than in the 2009 Virginia governor's race. But political analyst Larry Sabato doubts whether Democrats can repeat that feat in other states.

"They have not cracked that code," Sabato said. "A lot of Democrats don't think midterm elections are sexy and they don't vote. What they might be able to do is what McAuliffe did — to marginally increase the relative turnout of minorities and young people who vote Democratic. So if, for example, North Carolina turns out to be a 1 or 2 percent race, that could make the difference."

North Carolina, like Virginia, is a state that President Obama carried. So a good field operation might help there. It also might help in Michigan, a blue state with a competitive Senate race this year. And Democrats are hopeful that their candidate in Georgia, a state with a large and growing minority population, might benefit from a beefed-up turnout effort.  

But what about red states — where so many Democratic Senate incumbents are on the defensive this year?

"A state like Arkansas," Issenberg said, "where Democrats haven't run a very competitive presidential campaign in decades, where you don't have a strong Democratic state party, you don't have a culture of volunteering, the question is: who is going to knock on those doors for [Sen.] Mark Pryor? That's something that isn't easily solved just by throwing money or staff from Washington out there."

The problem for Democrats is that this year's Senate map is full of red states like Arkansas. And that's why Republicans — who are very good at getting their voters out in midterm elections — doubt the Democrats can succeed. Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus happily ticked off the long list of places where Democratic Senate candidates are vulnerable.

"They're running in states where the president in 2012 didn't receive 41 percent of the vote," Priebus said, "whether its Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia. Now we're extending the map to Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and Michigan. And now potentially New Hampshire. It goes on and on and on."

A game to cover that much ground would cost a lot more than $60 million and would quickly exhaust the party's resources. The Democrats don't have the equivalent of the Koch brothers, who are spending tens of millions of dollars this year to help GOP candidates.

Republicans are betting the map of vulnerable Democrats is too big for even the best field operation to cover. But Democrats are hoping they can change the electorate — just enough — and in just enough places — to minimize their losses in November.

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Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.