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The 7 voter turnout questions that could decide the 2016 election

What to watch for as both parties put their get-out-the-vote operations into high gear.

Clinton Campaign Volunteers Man The Phones To Get Out The Vote On Super Tuesday Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

What campaign organizers do over the next 36 hours might not determine the course of the 2016 presidential election. It will determine something even bigger than that.

For one thing, the fate of the Senate hangs in the balance, and get-out-the-vote operations could make the difference between a unified Democratic government and two years of implacable partisan gridlock. It could mean the difference between a nine-member Supreme Court and an eight-member (and liable to dwindle) one, or between a House of Representatives interested in passing the president’s legislation or in investigating her administration.

What happens in the next several days could reshape the electoral map for several cycles to come. It could lead to a new era of fierce Democratic organizing and competition in states like Arizona, Georgia, and Texas — or an embarrassing retreat from them. It could set a new pattern in American politics.

We’re at the point of the election season where pundits typically start intoning, “It all comes down to turnout” as they ritually stroke their chins. But ironically, the epic weirdness of the 2016 presidential campaign has overshadowed the fact that this year, it really does.

In fact, the weirdness of this election means that get-out-the-vote operations might matter in ways they haven’t done before and that we can’t necessarily measure before Election Day. Before then, we can just watch closely and wonder.

1) How nonexistent is Donald Trump’s get-out-the-vote operation?

Obama adviser David Axelrod once compared a campaign’s get-out-the-vote operation to the field goal unit on a football team: It can’t score that many points for you, but if you’re tied late in the game it can push you over the top.

In 2016, the presidential race might not quite be close enough at the national level to need that field goal unit. But in some states it certainly might be. And several Senate races — enough to determine which party controls the chamber — are certainly in field goal range.

A rare picture of Donald Trump working the phones in North Carolina.
Brian Blanco/Getty

In more literal terms, political scientists estimate that voter mobilization efforts can raise turnout by as much as 8 or 9 percent among the people a campaign contacts — which can raise the total voter turnout rate by about a percentage point. One campaign can increase that campaign’s share of the vote by about a fraction of a percentage point.

Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck calculated that in 2012, an Obama campaign field office could improve the campaign’s performance in a county by about 0.6 percent. (Political scientists agree that Romney campaign field offices were less effective.) This isn’t much, all told.

But all of this research has been based on elections where both sides at least tried to get out the vote. So is polling: “All voter likelihood models that public pollsters use are built around predicting elections, on the assumption that both sides are going to have these large get-out-the-vote operations,” says David Shor of the Democratic-affiliated consulting form Civis Analytics.

At times in 2016, it’s often appeared that the Republican Party’s nominee isn’t trying at all — which could create a much bigger mobilization gap on Election Day.

From the beginning, Donald Trump’s campaign has eschewed conventional campaign tactics, choosing instead to rely on huge rallies and free media. To the extent that Trump has a ground game, at least as it’s generally understood, it’s because the campaign is relying on the Republican Party to pick up the slack.

“Usually the excitement around a presidential campaign, the money and the resources of a presidential campaign, the lists and the data from a presidential campaign, are taking the lead,” says Kelly LeRoux of the University of Illinois Chicago. “It’s that presidential candidate that gets people into the offices, that gets them the money and the data that they need to make the field offices work.”

In 2016, the dynamic seems to be reversed. “It seems like instead of a presidential campaign helping down-ticket races,” says political scientist Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, “the down-ticket races have sort of adopted the presidential campaign as far as one of their races to advocate for.”

Ironically, and unfortunately for the GOP, the party had actually put major effort into modernizing its field and data operations after the 2012 election, and had made pretty substantial progress — only to have its growth stunted.

“We’ve never seen this kind of asymmetry in terms of campaign strategy,” says Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University.

LeRoux puts it more simply: “It’s so weird.”

The question, then, is just how extreme the situation is.

Trump’s campaign certainly hasn’t helped Republicans on ground game.

But by the metrics that are available right now (which, admittedly, aren’t always the best at measuring effectiveness), it actually looks like the Trump-hobbled GOP of 2016 might not actually be that far behind the inferior-but-still-trying GOP of 2012 — a party that certainly didn’t “win” the ground game but that definitely had some ability to mobilize its voters.

Democrats are still far ahead. As of the beginning of October, according to research by Joshua Darr, Kirill Bryanov and Christianna Silva (originally posted on FiveThirtyEight), Clinton and her party had about 2.1 field offices for every office Trump had.

According to Federal Election Commission filings, the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and state Democratic parties had more than 5,100 paid staff in 15 battleground states; the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, and state Republican parties had about 1,400 (spread across 16 states).

But the gap between the parties is actually smaller than it looked even a month ago. In early September, National Review’s Jim Geraghty said that Clinton had “34 offices in Florida to Trump’s one”; Darr’s research shows that as of the end of that month, Clinton had 68 offices to Trump’s 29. Democratic organizations may have 3.6 paid staff members for every Republican staffer as of the September FEC filing, but the month before, the ratio was 4.8 to 1.

Clinton may have a 2.1-to-1 field office advantage over Trump, but Obama had a 2.8-to-1 field office advantage over Romney. According to NBC News, the 6-to-1 advantage in paid campaign staff Clinton held over Trump as of the end of August was “not dissimilar” to the gap between Obama and Romney in 2012.

It’s not like it looks good for Trump and Republicans. When it comes to voter mobilization, starting late puts you at a distinct disadvantage. “You can’t just spin up an operation out of nothing,” says Shor. Especially when you’re going up against Hillary Clinton, who, according to Betsy Hoover (the director of digital organizing for Obama in 2012), has been building a ground operation for “well over a year at this point.”

Hillary Clinton Campaign Opens Field Office In San Francisco Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even with the last-minute push, the discrepancies between the two parties are at their biggest in battleground states Trump needs to win. As of the September FEC report, Democrats outstaffed Republicans by 4.5 to 1 in Florida (a state Trump’s campaign admits it needs to win), and nearly 5 to 1 in Ohio. In Pennsylvania, which maybe shouldn’t even be considered a swing state at this point, Clinton outstaffs Trump 8 to 1; in Arizona, which wasn’t considered a swing state until recently, she outstaffs him 19 to 1.

More importantly, just having the infrastructure to run a field campaign — the offices and people — doesn’t mean you’re doing a very good job of it. The recent breakthroughs that made get-out-the-vote great again — the innovations of the Bush campaign in 2004 and the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 — had less to do with how much energy was being spent than how it was being spent, as we’ll see.

But the idea of the “natural experiment” in which Clinton and Democrats hustle their way to victory, while Trump and Republicans sit on their hands, isn’t quite true. There is no field operation that could make up the deficit Trump is currently facing in the polls, but in the races that will determine control of the Senate — and, certainly, the House — Republicans definitely have a field goal unit on the roster.

2) Is Trump really finding hidden voters?

Donald Trump certainly has the power to make people angry about the election, giving force to what he and his campaign claim will win them the election: mobilizing “hidden,” disaffected voters who aren’t showing up in polls as likely voters.

The Republican base tends to be made up of people who are already extremely likely to vote — older and wealthier voters — while the Democratic base relies on lower-propensity groups like African Americans, Latinos, and young voters.

But Trump appeals to a particular group of voters — whites without a college degree — who “don’t fit the bill of the traditional stalwart Republican,” says Green. They “look, on their face, like low-propensity voters.”

You can already see the effects of this discrepancy in polling. Usually when pollsters shift, a few months before the election, from polling all registered voters to polling only “likely voters” — the people who say they’re certain to vote in the election, or people who have a consistent voting record over the past several cycles — Republicans usually start to look like they’re doing better. But this election, likely voter “screens” don’t actually help Trump all that much.

The Trump campaign argues that these voters will, in fact, turn out — that their sheer enthusiasm for the candidate, and their desire to stick it to the Washington establishment, will drive them to the polls. And there’s actually historical precedent for that.

H. Ross Perot had a gambit of appealing to “people who felt they had no voice,” Green says, that was surprisingly effective. “There were lots of people who did not vote in ’88 who voted in ’92,” he says. “’92 was a very high-turnout year. And Perot was still on the scene in ’96, but he was gone in 2000 — and those people disappeared.”

Or perhaps they just lay dormant, only to rise up, 16 years later, to vote for Donald Trump.

Donald Trump with supporters at a rally in Asheville, NC.
Can these people be motivated to vote?
Brian Blanco/Getty

The most visible parts of the Trump campaign (namely the candidate himself) are a pretty blunt instrument, so to speak. But beneath the blustery veneer, as Sasha Issenberg and Joshua Green reported for Bloomberg, is a robust and strategic effort to turn Trump’s millions of donors and social media followers into loyal voters (or, perhaps, an eventual market for Trump TV). The operation “not only paid for itself,” Issenberg and Green write, “but also was the largest source of campaign revenue.”

But there’s a huge difference between using a list for fundraising and using it to actually turn out voters. The Obama campaigns (and now the Clinton campaign) have voter mobilization scripts that are guided by Democratic and academic research. They’ve learned, for example, that you can increase the chance that someone turns out to vote by asking her to make a plan for how she’s going to do it: when she’ll go, where she’ll go, how she’s going to get there.

There’s no evidence that the Trump campaign is actually using its formidable operation to do that. And the efforts the campaign has made to link Trump’s huge, theatrical rallies to conventional get-out-the-vote operations — like placing buses outside a rally in Las Vegas to take people to vote early — have resulted in the kind of logistical snafus you might expect from a first-time campaign.

“You’re getting people who say they’ll vote for the Republican,” says Joshua Darr, “but have not been contacted, have not been asked if they’re going to make a plan to vote, have not been told where their local precinct is. So it makes sense that you’d be capturing more support than you’d see on Election Day.”

3) Is Trump’s downward spiral demobilizing Republican voters?

“Presidential campaigns do a ton — and should be doing a ton — to turn out their voters and to build that relationship with the voters they care most about,” says Hoover.

Just as importantly, they need to drum up enthusiasm among would-be volunteers, or people willing to become paid canvassers (which Republican campaigns often use). “Field offices don’t vote,” as David Shor puts it. “You need people to show up at these things and knock on doors and make calls.”

In fact, some operatives say, while Democratic campaigns decide where to put field offices based on where they need people to vote, Republican campaigns do so based on where they need volunteers. Since Republican campaigns tend to rely less on door-to-door canvassing and more on the (somewhat less effective) methods of phone calls and mailers, that makes logistical sense.

It’s not just that Trump’s meltdown has created a vacuum at the top of the ticket, robbing Republicans of their best reason to turn out. It’s the ever-shifting relationship between Trump and other Republican validators, which — as politicians who’ve tried to unendorse Trump have learned — creates a political no-win situation. Trump supporters are determined to punish Republicans who don’t support the candidate; voters turned off by Trump, it’s generally assumed, aren’t going to show up just to vote for a Senate race.

“This is probably the first cycle where you don’t have Republican elites speaking with a unified voice,” says Shor, “and that’s probably going to disrupt” turnout operations.

Party disunity, some operatives indicate, has also constrained the scope of the Trump campaign’s ability to reach out to voters to begin with. Local Republicans who are averse to Trump — Cuban-American Republicans in South Florida, for example — aren’t exactly helping the campaign get in touch with their constituents.

The real doomsday scenario for Republicans is this: Trump might have even depressed turnout among his own fans. “If you say the process is rigged,” says Green, “you’re sort of implicitly saying the process doesn’t really matter” — an especially bad message if you’re trying to reach out to low-propensity voters to begin with.

Trump performs surprisingly well among the voters who say their likelihood of voting is between 0 and 10 percent. That’s terrible news for the Trump campaign.

4) Split-ticket voting has been on the decline. Is it back this year?

“Historically,” says Betsy Hoover, “we’ve targeted voters based on demographics or geographics.” In other words, they targeted people in groups particularly likely to vote for the party, but who may or may not have been supporters of the party themselves.

“Now our data has gotten much more sophisticated,” she says — thanks to robust modeling to predict whether someone might support the party and better use of voting history to know which people actually do. “And so, rather than say ‘we want to target everyone on this block,’ we can say ‘we want to target these houses on this block; we want to target these specific voters on this block.’”

In other words, they don’t need to target anyone who might not vote the straight Democratic — or Republican — ticket.

Not that there tend to be that many people splitting their tickets these days anyway: It’s all but disappeared from American elections. This is the biggest reason presidential campaigns’ get-out-the-vote work is so beneficial to Senate, House, and local races. “GOTV is a little bit different from the bulk of campaign activity” like running ads to persuade voters, Shor says, “in that people who are going to vote for Trump at the top of the ticket are also going to vote for people down ballot.”

But in 2016, people voting for Republicans down ballot may not necessarily be voting for Trump at the top of the ticket. And that puts get-out-the-vote strategists in a tricky position.

Many Republicans in Senate races are running ahead of their party’s presidential nominee, as is the “generic” ballot in House races. That puts the Republican National Committee and state Republican parties — the groups actually doing Republican get-out-the-vote work — in a strategic quandary. Do they focus their targeting efforts on straight-ticket Republican voters, in a year in which there might not be enough of them to win? Or do they target people who might push their Senate candidates over the top — even if some will vote for Hillary Clinton?

“The most consequential thing the RNC could do,” says Darr, “would be to drop Trump from their scripts” — to stop telling their volunteers to ask about support for Trump when they knock on doors or make phone calls.

But this is also a place where Democrats and the Clinton campaign — while they appear to be in total harmony operationally — could also have different incentives.

Clinton, for example, could actually have a shot at winning Arizona — but John McCain is likely to cruise to reelection in the Senate. Using that 19-1 staffing advantage to push Clinton over the edge in the state could very well involve mobilizing split-ticket voters who’ll pad McCain’s margin further.

In Nevada, the stakes are even higher: Neither the presidential race nor the Senate race is sewn up for either party, but Senate candidate Joe Heck is running slightly ahead of Trump. If maximizing Clinton’s chance of winning the state requires targeting both straight-ticket voters and Clinton/Heck voters — and if maximizing Democrats’ chance of winning the Senate requires leaving some Clinton supporters’ doors un-knocked — what will Democrats do?

5) Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama. Will that matter?

The “Obama coalition” — which Hoover identifies as “young voters, African-American and Hispanic voters” — “doesn’t necessarily vote in every election,” she concedes. But they turned out for Obama in 2008, and — confounding the expectations of some Republicans, who thought 2008 was a fluke — in 2012, when Obama was neither as new nor as popular.

The question is whether the 2012 repeat was an indication that the campaign’s operational strength was more of a pull than the celebrity of the man at the top of the ticket. In 2016, we could be about to find out.

Hillary Clinton — while she’s more popular among the Democratic base than many give her credit for — is no Barack Obama. She doesn’t have as many field offices as he did in 2012, and she certainly doesn’t have the appeal he had in 2008.

So far, it looks like Clinton is generating more enthusiasm among some parts of the “Obama coalition” than he did — Latino early voting numbers are up from 2012 in many key states. But African-American early voting is down — which could in part be a reflection of restrictions on early voting in states like North Carolina, but could be confirmation that black voters are simply less interested in turning out for Clinton.

This is what the Trump campaign, like Romney before it, appears to be banking on: that Clinton simply can’t replicate Obama’s numbers with voting blocs that are historically low-propensity. In the final stretch of the election, they’re running locally targeted attack ads designed to get young women and black voters to like Clinton less.

It’s a pretty flimsy strategy. The impressions left by ads don’t last very long. Sides and Vavreck found that ads in the last 24 hours of the campaign had a much bigger effect on votes than ads in the five days before that. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of get-out-the-vote work — as much as 80 percent, according to Shor — happens in the two to three days leading up to Election Day.

As that number drops, this field office (in Arlington, Virginia) will get a lot more crowded.
Leigh Vogel/WireImage

The window of opportunity for an ad-based strategy is extremely narrow, and ads are a lot more expensive than door-knocking. Simple probability suggests that the side trying to encourage people to vote is going to have the last word.

It’s true that self-reported “enthusiasm” for Clinton is down among Democrats. Furthermore, on the question that experts say is a better indication of actual voting patterns than enthusiasm — “how likely are you to vote” — nonwhite voters tend to score themselves as slightly less likely to vote than white voters are. They’re likely to be at, say, 6, 7, or 8 on a 10-point scale.

But 6 to 8 isn’t “not voting at all.” People who are leaning toward voting but need a little push are literally the people that Clinton’s campaign has been training to reach for more than a year.

6) Can a get-out-the-vote operation be effective in a state that Democrats haven’t traditionally contested?

But what about states like Arizona and Georgia, which over the past month have gone from “maybe in 2024” to “maybe next Tuesday” for Democrats? What about Texas, which has frustrated Democrats for years as its demographic shifts haven’t led to political change — but which suddenly, and improbably, seems within striking distance?

The Clinton campaign has responded pretty quickly and ably to its “expanded map” — it bulked up its field offices in Arizona after the Democratic convention, for example (and there is that staggering 19-to-1 staffing advantage in the state). And Shor says that in a sense, Clinton started early everywhere: "The Hillary campaign started organizing people basically nationwide the moment she announced two years ago. So basically every state, even holding field offices constant, is going to have a much larger number of Clinton volunteers than Trump volunteers."

But the whole premise of the argument that Clinton’s crushing Trump on field operations is that you can’t just spin up an office in the final months of a campaign. That’s especially true in areas you’ve never contested before.

Will it, though?
Ralph Freso/Getty

After all, without a robust Democratic voter mobilization operation, people who would reliably vote Democratic don’t have anyone asking them to vote — which means they’re less likely to ever have voted, and are harder to find.

Stacey Abrams, minority leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives and a leader in voter mobilization efforts there, explained why it’s so hard to start from scratch when talking about Georgia’s black voters: “It becomes this vicious self-fulfilling prophecy: They don’t vote because no one asks, and because no one asks, they don’t vote." And you can’t simply find them by parachuting in operatives from other states, or even other areas of the same state — a problem that Democrats’ operations in Texas have sometimes had, she says.

The good news for the Clinton campaign, perhaps, is that efforts like Abrams’s in Georgia have already laid some of the groundwork it would need. Local organizing can be much more durable in galvanizing voters for the long run, says Kelly LeRoux: “People are coming to their community centers, it’s a gathering place for them, and people are getting mobilized not just once; it’s a place where people frequent quite often, and so they’re getting this kind of contact over and over.”

7) Clinton has been polling even better than Obama in 2012 — so does that give Democrats a false sense of security?

It’s been at least 20 years since a presidential race has looked this settled 10 days before Election Day. That, in itself, is enough to freak out Democrats.

The election looks like it’s Clinton’s to lose right now, and some worry people won’t be as eager to volunteer to help with getting out the vote in the days before Election Day because they assume the election outcome is locked in. Low-propensity voters won’t bother to go to the polls, both because they also figure the election’s already won and because they’re not being contacted as insistently by volunteers. Everyone will assume that everyone else has voted for Clinton, and no one (or at least not enough people) will vote for Clinton, and Trump will win.

“There is a risk, I think, when a candidate gets too far ahead, that everyone just stays home because they think, ‘We already know who’s going to win anyway,’” LeRoux says. She reports that even early in the month, she and the group she studies were at a voter registration drive at a high school, “and there was this discussion, ‘What’s the point at this point? Why does it even matter?’”

This is the line of thinking that, perversely, has led some Democrats to be reassured by the reemergence of the Clinton email scandal in the final days of the race — Clinton allies like Rep. Xavier Becerra think Democratic voters will now be reminded that the race isn’t in the bag and they do need to turn out to vote.

Hillary Clinton can’t personally call every voter and tell her her vote matters.
Christina Jamison/NBC/NBCU photo bank via Getty Images

But any political scientists dismiss the idea that the psychological feeling that one’s vote is especially important — what they call “pivotality” — is really all that much of a motivator to begin with. (Shor disagrees: “There’s a pretty robust relationship between how competitive people think your race is and how often they vote.”)

Here’s the bottom line: It’s extremely hard to disentangle individual “pivotality” from the fact that battleground states have more robust get-out-the-vote efforts. Get-out-the-vote exists to tell people that their vote is especially important; it also ensures that even people who aren’t inflamed with the desire to vote are prodded to the polls (while their peers in safe states might not be).

This isn’t just about the mechanics of voter contacts, though. Feeling the importance of voting is partly about competitiveness, but it’s also, again, about the relationship with the party and its candidates (particularly the one at the top of the ticket) and voters.

“A field and media campaign,” Shor says, “exists not just to knock on people’s doors but to emotionally engage.” It can create a sense of importance when the polls don’t look all that close — and, therefore, assume they won’t get that way.


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