The Republican Party’s Winning Strategy

The Republican Party’s Winning Strategy

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Campaign consultants will tell you there are two strategies for winning any election. First, get out your voters. Second, discourage the other side’s voters.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, aided by a massive ground and air operation funded by right wing SuperPacs, accomplished both in Tuesday’s recall election. Virtually every potential Republican voter in the state trekked to the polls, while organized labor’s vaunted ground game failed miserably in mobilizing voters.

Proof? The 2.5 million votes cast in yesterday’s primary election were 436,000 fewer than the 2008 presidential contest, which President Obama won in Wisconsin by a nearly 14-point margin. While Walker 1.33 million votes gave him a lopsided victory, his vote total barely exceeded the 1.26 million ballots cast for John McCain.

Who were those 436,000 people who didn’t show up yesterday? As is typical in most non-presidential elections, the people who voted were older and more conservative, according to exit polls.

Eligible voters who didn’t cast ballots were younger, poorer, less politically engaged and more likely to vote Democratic. If the race had taken place in November with a presidential race at the top of the ticket and voter turnout approximated 2008, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett would have had to win just 60 percent of the additional votes to claim victory.

Obama’s top campaign officials undoubtedly are pouring over those numbers this morning. The excitement his campaign generated in 2008 led to a very large turnout among younger voters who pay almost no attention to the budget, pension and tax issues that have dominated the nation’s discourse over the last two years and led to the Wisconsin recall election.

How to regenerate that kind of excitement and the door-to-door ground game that can bring them to the polls is the central problem facing the president’s campaign this fall. Organized labor, which led the Wisconsin ground game for the Democrats, clearly has no appeal or ability to reach out to these less engaged voters, although it should be pointed out that labor’s ground campaign did succeed in winning back the Wisconsin Senate, which should block further Walker attacks on its members’ pensions and benefits.  

The $43 million poured into the Republican effort in Wisconsin, which will be replicated in every swing state this fall, shows why mobilizing voters will be much more difficult for the president this year. In addition to stoking the Republican base (Walker captured the full Republican presidential vote, but not much else), the massive outside campaign expenditures (enabled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in June 2009) saturated the airwaves with negative campaign ads and subjected voters to endless robo-calls and false messaging by door-to-door canvassers.

As numerous commentators and academics have pointed out, negative campaigns generate disgust and revulsion with the political process, especially among young and marginally attached voters. Negative campaigns suppress turnout among all but the most ideologically committed voters, which in this year’s election are disproportionately Republican.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.