Low turnout is blamed on focus strategy

Campaigns identify, target those likely to vote their way

September 13, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy and Laura McCandlish | Sumathi Reddy and Laura McCandlish,Sun reporters

Dreary weather and lackluster races were the quick excuses for the turnout in Tuesday's Democratic primary being the city's lowest in decades. But political observers say a more powerful explanation might be at work - the increasing ability of campaigns to identify their base voters and turn them out on Election Day.

In municipal contests in Baltimore and across the country, campaign officials no longer troll through neighborhoods trying to drag every registered voter to the polls. With sophisticated technology and intense campaigning, they're able to identify exactly who is committed to support their candidates.

It is a strategy designed to win elections, but it tends to depress voter turnout because those who are new to the process or undecided are not being pushed to the polls, some experts say.

"Campaigns are no longer engaged in the expansion of a voter base," said former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, a senior executive in residence at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore who analyzes such figures.

"The new voter is not getting communicated to. Campaigns spend less money broadening the base and more time focusing on known support, and I think that's what ... yields lower turnouts."

The strategy of targeting known voters has been a major focus at the national level, particularly by Republicans in recent years, said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Karl Rove was really very good in knowing where his base was and trying to turn his base out, and wasn't necessarily trying to expand his base," said Walters. "That's really what American politics has turned out to be."

Voter turnout in Baltimore's Democratic primary was 30.9 percent and is expected to increase by one or two percentage points after absentee and provisional ballots are counted, Willis said.

Of the city's 263,307 registered Democrats, 81,286 turned out at the polls Tuesday, with 97 percent of precincts reporting results.

That compares with 38.3 percent in the 2003 Democratic primary election, 49.3 percent in 1999, and 63.9 percent in 1983, Willis said. The last time that turnout was as low as in Tuesday's primary was in 1979, when it was 32.8 percent.

"There's a range, and this is at the low end of the range," said Willis. "We're not the lowest, but it's not good."

Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, said it's typical in primaries for candidates to focus on their base because of the high level of voter apathy or disinterest.

"I think that voter turnout in primaries is always low, and therefore candidates are compelled to go to their base and encourage them to turn out, because if they don't, no one will," said Pastor. "You have to start with people who are motivated for primaries."

The Baltimore campaigns spent more money energizing their supporters than courting new voters through registration drives, Willis said. Political consultants have advised candidates that their mailings and phone calls are better spent on voters who regularly show up at the polls.

City Elections Director Armstead B.C. Jones said a slim turnout was expected, given the low number of absentee ballots requested and poor voter registration numbers leading up to the primary.

"There were no great registration drives with big numbers," said Jones. "We generally look for candidates, the NAACP or ACORN to bring in boxes a few days before deadline. Nothing. There was no surge in registration at all."

Though get-out-the-vote efforts in the final week before the election focused on identified supporters, campaign managers of this year's primary winners - Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake - say they reached out early on to new voters and undecided voters.

Martha McKenna, Dixon's campaign manager, said that in April the campaign called and identified every registered Democrat who had voted in a previous Democratic primary, as well as new voters, with an electronic Web-based system.

They used that data to classify voters and do mailings that targeted specific groups, such as the undecided voters.

"Our target universe included new registrants always," she said.

Luke Clippinger, Rawlings-Blake's campaign manager, said that though the campaign focused on reaching out to its base - as did the unions that endorsed the council president - it did make a push to reach out to the large percentage of undecided voters, particularly at the end, given how close the race was expected to be.

"Toward the end of the campaign, you do focus more on your base," said Clippinger. "It's absolutely getting out the base, but it's also making sure you don't stop talking to undecided voters until the polls close."

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