Forget the Enthusiasm Gap, It's All About the Money Gap

| Mon Apr. 28, 2014 10:50 AM EDT

As we all know (don't we?), Democrats have a big problem in midterm elections. The core Democratic constituencies—minorities, low-income workers, and the young—vote fairly reliably during presidential elections but tend not to bother during midterms. Republican voters, conversely, tend to be habitual voters who cast ballots in every election.

Sasha Issenberg, who is our generation's Boswell of what science tells us about voter turnout, says there's an answer for Democrats. But although the details may be interesting and fresh, it turns out the fundamental solution is still the oldest one imaginable:

Field operations have been transformed from busywork for volunteers into the most rigorously scientized corner of the trade. All the research suggests that the most effective form of outreach is also the most seemingly old-fashioned: a conversation on a doorstep between a potential voter and a well-trained volunteer....Few candidates, however, inspire volunteer corps large enough to sustain such an ideal mobilization campaign, and many voters live behind doors that are simply not reachable....The solution has been direct mail, a relic of twentieth-century electioneering whose economics nonetheless match twenty-first century imperatives.

....Experiment after experiment has since confirmed the effectiveness of subtle prods that trigger what Rogers has called a citizen’s “basic need for belonging.”....Added together in a single nonpartisan get-out-the-vote letter, the messages can boost an individual’s likelihood of voting by about one-third of a percentage point without increasing costs. Factoring in printing and postage, new votes can be created this way for $71 each.

....In 2010, the America Votes consortium planned to send 800,000 pieces of mail in targeted congressional districts. Rogers, working with his colleague John Ternovski, randomized those letters so that half featured the proven language and half included that message plus an additional sentence in the upper right-hand corner: “You may be called after the election to discuss your experience at the polls.” (A control group received no mail at all.) Rogers and Ternovski were testing the potential of a new concept—self-integrity—by threatening accountability for potential voters who valued civic engagement. Their simple adjustment increased the letter’s impact by more than 50 percent and generated about 1,500 votes across the experiment. The cost of a new vote dropped to $47.

Such results undercut the popular belief that Unreliable voters are driven to the polls by passion....For Unreliable voters, specifically, it often takes a psychologically potent encounter to jolt them out of complacency.

If Democrats fail to see midterms as sufficiently sexy, the problem may lie not with the party’s rank-and-file but with its donors and activists....It’s not intensity scores on polls but rather the bustle of field offices and the sums on fund-raising reports that are the best guide to the Democrats’ midterm prospects....For a party populated with Unreliable voters, the midterm imperative is clear: Raise the dollars and secure the volunteer commitments. Then go and turn out those who are already on your side but won’t show up without a friendly nudge.

So there you go: raise the dollars and secure the volunteer commitments. It's true that you have to be smart about how you spend the money, but at bottom, it's money you need. Go forth and fundraise, my children.