September 1, 2003, Monday


Political Parties Shift Emphasis To Core Voters

By ADAM NAGOURNEY (NYT) 1251 words
CHICHESTER, N.H., Aug. 30 -- In a fundamental reassessment of presidential political strategy, White House and Democratic Party officials say that turning out core Republican and Democratic voters will be more critical to next year's election than winning independent voters, long a prime target in national campaigns.

On this Labor Day weekend, 15 months before the general election, party strategists are already building what are almost certain to be the most expensive and ambitious turn-out-the-vote operations in history, in a reflection of this calculation. In the 2002 Congressional elections, the Republican Party did not begin assembling its turnout operation until four months before Election Day.

The activity reflects a new view of a political landscape changed because of what each party sees as an increasingly polarized and evenly divided electorate. Americans who move between parties -- known as swing voters -- are being overshadowed by a growing and very motivated base of Republican and Democratic loyalists.

''There's a realization, having looked at the past few elections, that the party that motivates their base -- that makes their base emotional and turn out -- has a much higher likelihood of success on Election Day,'' Matthew Dowd, a senior adviser to Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, said in an interview.

Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who advised Bill Clinton when he won by appealing to swing voters 11 years ago, said: ''Things have changed over the decade since 1992. The partisans are much more polarized. And turnout has actually gone up because the partisans have turned out in much greater numbers and in greater unity.''

''I don't see a decline in independents,'' Mr. Greenberg added. ''But what has happened is the partisans have dominated because their turnout is higher and they vote with greater and greater unity.''

This shift signals that the 2004 election will have a much greater reliance on identifying supporters and getting them to the polls. That would tip the balance away from the emphasis on developing nuanced messages aimed at swing voters, who make up 10 percent to 20 percent of the electorate, pollsters said.

The change has the potential, several strategists said, of encouraging the presidential candidates to make the kind of unvarnished partisan appeals that they once tried to avoid out of concern of pushing away independent-minded voters. ''If both sides are concerned about motivating their base, the agenda difference between the two is much more dramatic,'' Mr. Dowd said. ''I actually think it could make for a much more interesting election.''

Mark Gersh, the Washington director for the National Committee for an Effective Congress, which conducts demographic research for Democrats, said, ''I think it does tend to produce more ideological candidates.''

The new attention to turnout also reflects the emerging influence of the Internet, which, through e-mail directed at registered Democrats and Republicans, could supplant the door knock and the evening telephone call as the easiest and most effective way of reaching sure-fire supporters.

This changing environment is one force that has made the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, who has assembled an extraordinarily motivated base of supporters, so unpredictable, and it is why some Democrats are not as quick as Republicans to discount Dr. Dean's chances of defeating Mr. Bush, should he become his party's nominee.

Voter turnout campaigns are typically more influential in primaries, because fewer people vote, making the outcome easier to affect. At the very least, several Democrats said, Dr. Dean's ability to use new techniques to identify and turn out a base of supporters makes him a formidable figure in early primary states.

But Dr. Dean, in remarks at a pig roast here in central New Hampshire this afternoon, noted that a shift of just a few percentage points in states like New Hampshire would have delivered the White House to Al Gore in 2000. And he urged supporters who showed up at his events to register their e-mail addresses with his campaign, so they can be contacted as Election Day approaches. Dr. Dean's aides are creating a database that merges e-mail addresses with voter registration rolls and the history of voting behavior.

This is the latest chapter of a shift that became particularly vivid after the 2000 presidential election, which White House officials believe Mr. Bush nearly lost because the Democrats mounted the kind of highly effective voter turnout effort that had long been identified with the party. Thus, in the 2002 midterm elections, Republicans put in place a plan known as the 72-Hour Task Force to identify Republican voters and get them to the polls. The Republicans beat the Democrats at their own game, winning control of the Senate while widening their margin in the House.

David B. Magleby, the dean of social sciences at Brigham Young University, who conducted a study of spending in the 2002 Congressional election, reported evidence of a sharp change in emphasis away from television advertisements and toward get-out-the-vote efforts. He is planning a study of the 2004 race and said he expected each party to significantly increase the resources devoted to getting out the vote.

Republicans are almost certain to enjoy an advantage in their operations because of a huge fund-raising advantage. Officials from each party declined to say how much they were planning to spend on setting up turnout operations, but the parties have already begun registering voters, setting up computer programs and training party officials in ways to identify and turn out supporters.

''We're starting a lot earlier,'' said Blaise Hazelwood, the political director of the Republican National Committee.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman, summoned 20 executive directors of state parties to Washington in June to get training in setting up get-out-the-vote operations. ''In order to win the election, you have got to get your base out,'' Mr. McAuliffe said. ''But you've got to get your swing voters out, too.''

This is not a case of one strategy entirely supplanting another. The successful campaign strategy combines turning out staunch supporters and competing for swing voters. But the balance is changing, and each side is struggling to keep pace.

''In the last few years, if politics has taught us anything, it's that you have to do both,'' said Ken Mehlman, the president's campaign manager.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each strategy.

Getting out the vote tends to be expensive and cumbersome, draining money that might otherwise go to television advertising.

But turning out sure-fire supporters is very attractive to campaigns because it is simpler and less risky than trying to win the battle for swing voters. That requires making a nuanced appeal that, if not done agilely, can alienate base voters and encourage the emergence of a third-party candidacy or a primary challenge -- as happened with Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992, when President Bush's father ran for re-election.

''At least with a base strategy, you know that the people who come out are going to vote for you,'' Laurie Moskowitz, a Democratic strategist, said.

Mr. Greenberg said: ''I'm for both, but I'll tell you, all the temptation in both parties is to continue to compete for greater and greater support in their base. Because it's working. That's where you are able to produce voters. It's a lot easier to do than to go out and convince swing voters to think differently about the party.''