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November 22, 2004

Who Lost Ohio? And What Does It Mean For Washington?

Matt Bai had another solid piece on the 2004 election cycle in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday. Who Lost Ohio? is an interesting look behind the scenes of Americans Coming Together's get-out-the-vote efforts in Ohio, and why they ultimately fell short of delivering the state for Kerry despite exceeding all of their organizing goals.

Earlier in the year, I had spent weeks on the other side of the lines in Ohio, writing an article for the magazine about the Republican plan to vastly increase turnout using an all-volunteer network, modeled on a multilevel marketing scheme like Amway, that would focus on the new and growing exurban counties around Ohio's major cities. Democrats, traditionally the masters of field organizing, had dismissed the Republican effort as an exercise in self-delusion, insisting that volunteers could never build a turnout model to compete with professional organizers. In ACT and its partners, Democrats told me, they were building the most efficient turnout machine in political history. I returned to Ohio in the final days of the campaign to see the power of this grass-roots behemoth in action. I did -- and I came to understand its limitations as well.

Cut to the chase: Bai finds that while Democrats executed a tight, successful traditional field operation that effectively mobilized traditional Democratic constituencies, the Republicans were able to organize in entirely new places:

[T]he Bush campaign had created an entirely new math in Ohio. It wouldn't have been possible eight years ago, or even four. But with so many white, conservative and religious voters now living in the brand-new town houses and McMansions in Ohio's growing ring counties, Republicans were able to mobilize a stunning turnout in areas where their support was more concentrated than it was in the past. Bush's operatives did precisely what they told me seven months ago they would do in these communities: they tapped into a volunteer network using local party organizations, union rolls, gun clubs and churches. They backed it up with a blizzard of targeted appeals....

And, the clincher:


Therein, perhaps, lies the real lesson from Ohio, and from the election as a whole. From the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and especially after the disputed election of 2000, Democrats operated on the premise that they were superior in numbers, if only because their supporters lived in such concentrated urban communities. If they could mobilize every Democratic vote in America's industrial centers -- and in its populist heartland as well -- then they would win on math alone. Not anymore. Republicans now have their own concentrated vote, and it will probably continue to swell. Turnout operations like ACT can be remarkably successful at corralling the votes that exist, but turnout alone is no longer enough to win a national election for Democrats. The next Democrat who wins will be the one who changes enough minds.

Posted by Jon Stahl on November 22, 2004 at 08:42 PM in Candidate Races | Permalink

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