Last week, Rhodes Cook argued on the Crystal Ball that although voters and pundits alike have criticized heightened partisanship and polarization, one of the positive benefits has been increased turnout, especially in presidential elections. Cook questioned whether turnout will be as high this year, citing as evidence low voter turnout in the primaries. Cook also argued that “Obama put together a winning coalition in 2008 built in large part on an unusually high turnout from youth and Hispanics, normally low turnout groups.” According to Cook it will be difficult for the president to reassemble that coalition as much of the enthusiasm for him as worn off. Citing the first elections of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, as well as Harry D. Truman’s fabled come-from-behind victory and Ronald Reagan’s first election, Cook concludes that voter turnout doesn’t need to be high in order to make the election an historic one. However, lower voter turnout will mean that one of the few positive benefits of intense partisanship and polarization will be removed.
What is missing from Cook’s excellent analysis of historic voter turnout is Obama’s approach to party leadership and the organizational innovation of his grassroots machine “Organizing for America” (OFA). As Sidney M. Milkis, Jesse Rhodes and Emily Charnock argued in a March 2012 Perspectives on Politics article (gated), Obama’s grassroot’s campaign was in part a response to partisan polarization. However, Obama’s organizational efforts blended partisan elements with a liberal measure of post-partisanship. According to Milkis, Rhodes and Charnock, “Instead of appealing to the party’s base, Obama and his advisors sought to ‘change the demographics of the campaign’ by activating non-voters and by attracting as many independents and disaffected Republicans as possible.”
However, after winning the presidency and the merger of Organizing for America with the Democratic Party organizational apparatus, both President Obama and OFA moved in a more partisan direction. This was particularly evident in the 2010 election when the party’s majority in Congress was at stake. The president repeatedly proclaimed that voters had a choice between “moving backward” with Republican policies and “moving forward” with Democratic ones. Meanwhile, OFA’s “Vote 2010” used explicitly partisan appeals in attempts to turnout the base.
What remains to be seen in the 2012 election is how grassroots organizing will fit into the overarching campaigns. In the case of OFA, as Milkis, Rhodes and Charnock argue, “it remains unclear whether OFA will continue to provide resources and organizational muscle for Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates, or will remain primarily an extension of the president’s programmatic and political ambition.” Thus, two critical components of Obama’s ability to regain support and turn out independent voters as he did in 2008 is a commitment to grassroots organizing separate from the party structure and a campaign that favors a conciliatory approach to an angry and polarized electorate.
So far, we haven’t seen this happen. Instead, we’ve witnessed the emergence of a Super PAC political arms race. As one GOP operative recently proclaimed, “Our Super PACs are our Star Wars.” Republican strategists, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have adopted a cold war strategy to dramatically outspend Obama in this election, partially in response to the success of Obama and OFA in 2008. Similarly, the fact that Obama embraced his own Super PAC, Priorities USA, after condemning them in the 2010 campaign, is a good example that he might be more “partisan and ruthless than he seems to be.”
Whether all the money raised will make a difference in turning out voters is an entirely different question. While the Super PACs and campaigns are spending a lot of money on (mostly negative) ads in battleground states, without a real grassroots strategy, Cook is right: we are unlikely to see the high voter turnout rates of recent presidential elections. And, indeed, it is a lamentable loss in such a polarized and partisan environment.