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Republican GOTV Machine: Fact or Myth?

by Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science, Emory University

With only five weeks left until the 2006 midterm election, political analysts remain divided about the Democrats’ chances of regaining control of the House and Senate. While some indicators such as the generic ballot continue to show a strong Democratic advantage and the overwhelming majority of competitive races involve GOP seats, President Bush’s approval ratings have climbed a bit in recent weeks, giving Republican strategists and candidates renewed hope. In addition, many analysts believe that Republicans have an ace in the hole going into the final days of the campaign—their party’s well-oiled get-out-the-vote (GOTV) machine. Despite polls showing Democratic voters more energized than Republican voters, these analysts believe that the Republicans’ vaunted “72-hour program” will give the GOP a critical edge on Election Day.

But is the Republican GOTV machine really as good as it’s made out to be? Claims about the effectiveness of the GOP’s 72-hour program are based largely on the results of the 2004 presidential election, and especially on what happened in the large battleground states. And no state is cited more frequently to illustrate the effectiveness of the Republican 72-hour program than Ohio.

Does the evidence from Ohio actually support these claims about the effectiveness of the Republican 72-hour program? It is true that the number of Republican votes in Ohio increased dramatically between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, going from 2.35 million in 2000 to 2.86 million in 2005. That’s an increase of more than 500,000 votes, or 21.7 percent. Sounds impressive. But wait a minute—the number of Democratic votes in Ohio rose from 2.19 million in 2000 to 2.74 million in 2004. That’s an increase of more than 550,000 votes, or 25.4%. So which party’s GOTV program was more effective?

Okay, but everyone knows that the real key to a GOTV campaign is getting out your base. So how effective were Republicans and Democrats at getting out their base voters in Ohio? Well, one way to gauge this is to focus on each party’s strongest counties. In Ohio there were 14 counties that George Bush carried by a margin of at least 10,000 votes in 2000 and 6 counties that Al Gore carried by a margin of at least 10,000 votes. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of Republican votes in the 14 strongly Republican counties increased by 163,000, or 23.4%. That’s pretty impressive. But the number of Democratic votes in these 14 GOP counties increased by 113,000, or 26.4%! So while the Republican plurality in these counties increased by about 50,000 votes, the percentage increase in Democratic turnout was actually greater than the percentage increase in Republican turnout.
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And what happened in the six strongly Democratic counties? The number of Democratic votes increased by 193,000, or 24.9%, while the number of Republican votes increased by 97,000, or 21.7%. So not only did the size of the Democratic plurality increase by almost 100,000 votes in these six counties, but the percentage increase in Democratic turnout was greater than the percentage increase in Republican turnout.

One of the most difficult things to accomplish in a GOTV campaign is to mobilize your own party’s supporters without also mobilizing the opposing party’s supporters. Not only did Democrats do a better job of turning out their own voters in Ohio, but they also did a better job of not turning out opposition voters. Based on the actual turnout data, it appears that the GOP’s vaunted 72-hour program was actually less effective than the Democratic Party’s GOTV effort in Ohio. On November 7th, that Republican ace-in-the-hole may turn out to be a joker.