The recent spate of Romney gaffes and big old screw-ups has elicited braying from the liberal punditry class, a number of whose members have declared the election over, adding “loser” to the resume of the successful businessman and not-so-successful former governor who bears the standard of the Republican Party in this year’s presidential election.
Not so fast. The truth is, national polls don’t amount to a hill of beans in this election. What counts is turnout and, as AlterNet reported in July, political operative and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed is putting together an impressive get-out-the-vote operation, via his organization, Faith and Freedom Coalition, which funded by right-wing billionaires. Now that the New York Times weighed in with a front-page Sunday piece by Jo Becker about Reed’s organizing, perhaps the liberal establishment will take a deep breath and reassess whether its triumphalism is warranted — or even helpful to the liberal cause.
The reason the national polls don’t so much matter in 2012 is that an ever-shrinking percentage of the electorate remains undecided about whom to vote for, with this year’s “persuadable” voters estimated at around 6 percent. And Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, appearing Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, suggested that as few as half of those pollsters identify as persuadable “likely voters” will actually make it to the polls.
That all adds up to a mere handful of states actually deciding the election, given our winner-take-all electoral college. On our polarized political landscape, the red states will vote Republican, the blue states, Democratic. That leaves a total of nine states deemed battlegrounds by Politico (and, yes, love them or hate them, Politico is really good at this kind of thing).
President Barack Obama may be pulling ahead in the national polls, but among those nine battleground states, only one — Wisconsin — shows Obama with a commanding lead. While Obama is gaining ground in the remaining eight, they are still marked as “toss-ups” by the poll geeks at Real Clear Politics.
And guess where Ralph Reed, with a reported $10 million budget (and maybe more), is working? In every one of those states.
Learning from the Obama campaign
The victory narrative from the 2008 campaign is that the Obama team closely studied the playbook assembled by Karl Rove (now a Republican sugar daddy in his own right) for the 2004 Bush campaign, and appropriated a number of its methods.
So who is Ralph Reed studying? The Obama campaign of 2008. As Reed told the activists who attended his Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington last June, in 2008, the Obama campaign “ran circles around us.”
"I founded Faith and Freedom Coalition because I vowed that as long as I was alive, we were never going to get out-hustled on the ground again," he said.
In Florida alone, Reed said, his organization had identified 200,000 unregistered conservative Christians, and FFC planned not only to sign them up, but to make sure they voted, even if they had to drive them to the polls himself. And it's not just religious voters he's after; any right-wing voter will do, and Reed is determined to find them all.
Florida is legendary as both a closely-fought state, and one where the politics is extremely dirty. This year, Gov. Rick Scott entered the annals of electoral chicanery by purging the voter rolls of those his operatives decided might be undocumented immigrants, or dead, or otherwise unqualified to vote. (Reed is a veteran of the Bush 2000 campaign — need I say more?)
As Robert Arnakis of the Leadership Institute explained at a recent workshop conducted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C., told two dozen activists, "You know, we don't want to turn out all voters. The fact of the matter is, we want to turn out voters who think like us and who vote like us."
Vote early, if not often
One of the keys to Obama’s victory in closely-fought states such as North Carolina was the campaign’s use of early voting laws to get voters to lock in their choice before the final weeks of the election. (Here's an Obama video from the 2008 North Carolina primary.) At the Values Voter Summit convened by FRC Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council, earlier this month, Gary Marx, Reed’s right-hand man at the Faith and Freedom Coalition joined Robert Arnakis of Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute to school activists in GOTV strategies.
Arnakis went on at length about early voting, and the use of absentee ballots in states where there are no early voting laws. In his home state of Virginia, Arnakis said, he had to give the state a reason for needing to vote absentee, so he and his wife scheduled a vacation for election day, since his work for the season will have ended by then.
"Guys, you're seeing a trend where people are starting to vote earlier and earlier and earlier," Arnakis said. He talked of how he campaigned in 2006 for Bob Corker, then the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Tennessee, and found himself wasting his time knocking on doors for the only Republican candidate to win a Senate seat that year.
"They estimated at the time that 70 percent of the voters in Tennessee voted early," Arnakis said. "The trend is going that way." Pointing to a PowerPoint, he went on: "Guys, in 2008, in a couple of swing states — in Colorado, almost 79 percent of the people early-voted. Nevada, 67 percent — and my guess is that will go up even more…Early voting — percentages are going up. Why? Because people are figuring out earlier who they support and who they don't."
His own circumstances notwithstanding, Arnakis described how in states where early voting takes place, activists can obtain lists of those who have requested absentee ballots and those who have already submitted their ballot, and contact only those absentee voters who have yet to send in their votes.
Toward the end of his presentation, Arnakis quizzed his audience. "In 2008, who won more votes on election day?" Answer: "John McCain."
"Barack Obama's people — they had voted early on, in significant numbers. So what this tells us is, we have to adapt to that strategy."
One of the hallmarks of the Obama 2008 campaign was its use of technology and social media as means of organizing voters. As AlterNet reported, Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition also plans to make use of the technology it field-tested in Wisconsin during the recall election against Gov. Scott Walker. These include “voter guides” linked via text message and sent to the cell phones of potential voters, as well as elaborate microtargeting strategies that allow his organization to determine, through a variety of data points, including consumer purchases, those on existing voter rolls who are likely to vote Republican.
And Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition enjoys the backing of right-wing megadonors Bernie Marcus, a cofounder of Home Depot; Foster Freiss (of aspirin-as-contraception fame), who bankrolled the pro-Santorum superPAC during the primary season; and John Templeton, Jr., a finance-sector baron. Peter Stone of Huffington Post reported that FFC has also received donations from an unnamed Koch-funded non-profit. (Could it be Americans for Prosperity, whose president, Tim Phillips, is Reed's former business partner?)
AlterNet also reported that, for the provision of these high-tech services, Reed’s non-profit Faith and Freedom Coalition contracted with his for-profit consulting firm, Century Strategies, which was involved in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. But I digress.
No parallel liberal infrastructure
For all of the grousing that right-wingers do about the power of labor unions in elections, there is no parallel liberal infrastructure to the network of evangelical churches that Reed has been organizing since his salad days at the Christian Coalition. Just name a labor group that meets weekly, always on the same day, and enjoys most of its members showing up for the meeting. Churches, with their homey bulletins ripe for the insertion of a purportedly non-partisan Faith and Freedom Coalition voter guide to the candidates' positions on hot-button issues, are nearly ideal as organizational cells.
At a recent the workshop conducted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., it was suggested that voter registration forms be placed in the pews.
For the most part, people the unions target for voter turnout operations are their own members. But unlike the churches of the Christian right, the ideological and cultural make-up of unions is hardly homogenous: only 51 percent of white union members identify as Democrats, compared with the 65 percent of white Christian evangelicals who identified with the Republican party in 2008. (That number has since climbed to 70 percent according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.)
Christian evangelicals comprise 26 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, while union members make up 12 percent of all wage and salary workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a still-smaller percentage of the general population.
Liberal pundits often make the mistake of comparing the GOTV efforts of competing Democratic and Republican campaigns, as conducted by the parties and their candidates, concluding that the Democratic efforts are far superior. At the party and candidate levels that may be true, but the Republican turnout operation exists largely outside of the party structure, through organizations such as Reed's, and the Koch-backed Tea Party group, Americans For Prosperity. Unlike unions, whose budgets are limited by the size and scope of their membership, FFC and AFP could have access to however much money they need to get the job done.
Authoritarianism: Why the national polls don’t tell the whole story
As important as the particulars of Reed’s turnout operation may be, perhaps the most important data point about the constituency he seeks to organize is the temperament of its voters.
Let’s say that 60 percent of likely voters in a given state lean left or liberal, and 40 percent lean right.
“Likely voters,” as the name implies, are not guaranteed to vote. In election 2012, Obama doesn’t enjoy nearly the level of enthusiasm among key constituencies — the very young or the very progressive, for example — that he did in 2008. A bad economy and the heartbreak of drone warfare have taken their toll. And you can shake your finger in the face of a disheartened progressive all you want while you tell them to vote, but for someone with fond memories of her “Question Authority” bumper sticker, that’s not a winning strategy.
But right-wingers, particularly members of the Tea Party and the religious right, the instructions of their leaders matter. According to social psychologist Bob Altemeyer, the Yale-trained author of The Authoritarians, right-wing followers place an undue level of faith in their leaders.
“The followers have a great desire to submit to established authority,” Altemeyer explained in an interview with John Dean. “They're also highly conventional, and they have a lot of aggression in them, which studies show comes primarily from being fearful. One of the classic reactions to fear is to fight, and the followers will attack when their authorities tell them to.”
So while members of the the Tea Party and the religious right may not love the ideologically bendy, Mormon Mitt Romney, they’re ginned up and ready for an attack on Obama, whom they’e been taught to fear, via all manner of tropes, ranging from the birther conspiracy theory to the lie of the so-called “death panels.”
If, in eight of those nine battleground states, Reed and his allies manage to turn out 90 percent of the right-wing base, and Obama turns out only 60 percent of his, Romney wins.
Add to that formula the concerted efforts in states throughout the nation to disenfranchise voters who are inclined to vote Democratic, and you have a recipe for a Romney victory.
I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it very well could. And that’s why premature reports of Romney’s demise are not recommended.
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