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Tuesday, October 11, 2011


It seems to me that a day or two ago I promised to say something about the importance of turnout in elections, and although nobody has actually asked me to do so, I thought I would. I have been brooding about this for years. There is nothing new in what I am going to say, and political operatives understand it perfectly well, but for some reason mainstream political commentators cannot seem to keep it in their heads. Very simply, persuading so-called independents to switch from one candidate to another in an election makes less sense than devoting one's energies to getting to the polls the people who are already supporting your candidate.

Roughly 37% of voting age men and women in this country vote in an off-year Congressional election. Between 50% and 60% vote in a presidential year. The turnout in 2008 was 56% -- slightly higher than it had been in any election in forty years, but lower than the norm for the presidential elections before that.

I am going to make some hypothetical calculations, based on the simple premise that the people in a state or Congressional district who do not vote break down between parties in the same way as those who do vote. [I understand that there are some problems with this -- in a district that is heavily Democratic, potential Republican turnout may be depressed by the widespread conviction that the Republican has no chance, and conversely, but just go with me for a bit.]

Suppose there are 100,000 eligible voters in a district [there is no district that is that small, or alternatively that large, but it makes the numbers simpler, and the arithmetic point is unchanged.] Assume that in a presidential year the turnout is 55%, and suppose the district breaks 53-47 for the Republican. That means the Republican gets 29,150 votes, and the Democrat gets 25,850 votes -- a winning margin of 3300 votes for the Republican.

Now, there are 19,150 non-voting Democratic-leaning voters, by our hypothesis. If the Democrats can get just 3300, or 17.5%, of those non-voters to the polls, they win the election. They do not need to persuade them to vote Democratic, since by our hypothesis they already will, just get them to come out and vote. The alternative is to get roughly 1,650 of those coming out to the polls to switch their votes from Republican to Democratic. It seems to me intuitively obvious that the former would be easier than the latter.

Next point: Most Congressional districts [and states] have pockets of voters heavily committed to one party or the other. Even in a strongly Democratic district, there will be towns or precincts that are heavily Republican, and vice versa. Now the campaign finance laws, even in their present tattered condition, do not allow some superrich person to pour money directly into the campaign chest of a candidate. To be sure, the Koch brothers are reported to be planning to drop two hundred million into the 2012 campaign in ways that successfully skirt the law, but they cannot actually contribute that money to the campaign of the Republican nominee or hire people to proselytize directly for the Republicans.

Real get-out-the-vote campaigns can be very expensive, because to work well they require large numbers of workers on the ground, going door to door over and over again. But there is really no alternative, because get-out-the-vote campaigns cannot effectively use television and other media, which are just as likely to encourage one's opponents as one's supporters to come to the polls.

So, here is what I dream of. Suppose some superrich progressive [they do exist] puts a huge amount of money into a carefully targeted non-partisan get-out-the-vote campaign. The idea would be to target the smallest possible voting districts -- precincts, wards, or [in New Orleans] parishes -- that have the following characteristics: very heavily Democratic, relatively low voter turnout, and located in Republican states or Congressional districts that are close enough to be tipped by the net addition of several percentage points in the Democratic column.

Why would this be effective? Because America is de facto residentially segregated along racial, ethnic, religious, and economic lines, and voting behavior is strongly correlated with the same measures. This means that in a locality -- a small town, or a precinct or ward in a larger town or city -- the people who do not vote will probably break down politically pretty much as do the people who do vote.

Now, a non-partisan campaign, in order to stay within the law, would have to work to get out all the votes, and that means inevitably that it would get to the polls some people who will actually vote Republican. But in a heavily Democratic precinct or ward, there is going to be a significant net gain.

What would it cost? Nothing for media -- that would be counter-productive. A certain amount for literature and such. And, let us say, 20,000 paid workers, hired for six months of work. At an annual salary of $40,000, that is four hundred million -- twice what the Koch brothers are planning to spend. If a Warren Buffet or a small group of young dotcom billionaires wanted to turn American politics around, they could do it.

I am well aware that some readers of this blog will scoff at the notion that electing Democrats rather than Republicans will make any difference to what happens in America. But short of that old leftie wet dream -- violent overthrow of the government -- what are our options? I totally support the occupation of Wall Street, as I have made clear, but that is a symbolic act -- of potentially great political significance, to be sure, but symbolic nevertheless. The real power in America lies in the great accumulations of capital, and the process of accumulation is now so far advanced that there is no realistic way of wresting control of capital directly from the hands that now control it. Our only hope is to elect progressive representatives who enact laws designed to ameliorate the depredations of capitalism.

What about People's Collectives opting out of the "system"? Great fun, to be sure, but they will be co-opted almost before they get organized. What do you think Starbuck's is?

Well, it is just a thought. Now back to the real world.

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