Will 2014 Expose the Limits of Political Campaigning?

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We’ve talked repeatedly in these pages about the Democratic advantages when it comes to the actual mechanics of running political campaigns this cycle: they’re running more ads, building a strong voter contact program and raising more money (for better or worse) than their Republican counterparts. Plus, recent survey data suggests that they’re reaching and persuading more voters than their oppenents in several key states…but will it matter at all? With a bad map and an unpopular president dragging the Democrats down, will 2014 show the limits of political campaigning?

Political professionals obsess over the details of campaigns, of course: campaigning is what we do for a living, one way or another. Academics, however, tend to look at the fundamental factors underlying political races, usually putting more weight on basic economic facts and core trends in public opinion than on the transient efforts of campaigns themselves. Who’s right?

I think we CAN point to elections in which good organizing and outreach made critical difference — Virginia’s 2013 statewide elections come to mind, for instance, and you can make a good argument that Mitt Romney would have beaten Barack Obama in 2012 had the latter not run an epic data-targeted turnout operation. But most field organizers I’ve spoken with over the years talk about even the best grassroots outreach being good for maybe two or three percentage points, enough to win a tight race but not enough to close the gap if the fundamentals put you behind by a whole lot more.

TV and digital advertising can also change opinions, and Democrats are winning the ad wars in terms of volume (and possibly in terms of targeting, considering all the recent advances on that front) in most of the key Senate battleground states. But again, will it be enough? And if it’s not, what are the consequences? Stu Rothenberg suggested last week that Republicans MUST win the Senate this year, to avoid crippling demoralization:

As one Republican strategist admitted to me recently, if his party fails to take back the Senate next month it will only lead observers to conclude Democratic campaign operatives are far superior to the GOP’s, and Republicans don’t have a chance of winning the White House in 2016.

Maybe so, but what about Democrats? If they don’t win after pounding email lists and hounding big donors and volunteers for months, will some supporters of the progressive movement lose heart entirely? And if even the best campaigning can’t win vital races and hold the Senate in 2014, what does that say about future off-year elections using the same district maps? We’ll know at least a little more in three weeks…if we can survive that long.


Written by
Colin Delany
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