A Political Base Is Only a Base

June 27, 2024

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns appear to be focused almost entirely on their party bases. The theory seems to be that they’ll win if they push every paint-me-red Republican or true-blue Democrat to the polls. Mobilization—rather than persuasion—is the watchword this year.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Whatley told GOP volunteers at an event Friday that the RNC will “do only two things” this election: “We are going to get out the vote, and we are going to protect the ballot—that’s it.” Although Donald Trump has called mail-in voting “a whole big scam” and “totally corrupt,” Mr. Whatley said the GOP now encourages Republicans to vote by mail. The RNC also plans to recruit at least 100,000 poll watchers to ensure election results are on the up-and-up. 

Democrats got a head start on their ground game. By early April, the Biden campaign had 300 paid staffers in 100 offices across nine states. A few weeks later, it had 133 campaign offices. The Trump campaign has announced only a handful of state directors and scaled back the RNC’s staff and office plans.

Team Trump seems convinced that if it mobilizes the MAGA base, it will realign American politics. Working-class voters will sweep Mr. Trump to victory in the battleground states and also in Minnesota, New Hampshire, Virginia and other states Mr. Biden carried comfortably four years ago.

Meantime, the president’s team realized it needed an early start in mobilizing Democrats, especially black, Hispanic and young voters. Mr. Biden’s numbers remain anemic. Team Biden is sending out an army of volunteers to call, visit, involve and energize these less-than-enthusiastic Democrats.

Both parties are wise to emphasize mobilization of their respective bases. Enthusiasm is no guarantee a voter will turn out, and some indifferent voters get energized when personally contacted by campaigners. The votes of Democrats who dislike Mr. Trump more than they like Mr. Biden count as much as anyone else’s. 

But focusing on the base isn’t enough. It’s only part of a broader ground game. Not every voter is partisan. A growing percentage of U.S. adults identify as independents, and national polls show that about 1 in 4 voters doesn’t like either of these candidates. Many Americans aren’t even registered to vote—3 in 10 adult citizens in 2022. There aren’t enough hard-core Republicans or Democrats for either party to win by focusing exclusively on the party faithful.

Besides trying to turn out low-propensity partisans who vote infrequently, the campaigns should seek to persuade swing voters. Each should also work to poach traditional supporters from the other party. Finally, whichever party gets more unregistered supporters onto the rolls gains an important advantage.

President George W. Bush in 2004 faced a united Democratic Party energized by an unpopular war. His campaign made it a top priority to maximize turnout among low-propensity Republicans. It simultaneously aimed to persuade swing voters, who that year included “security moms”—women concerned about terrorism. The campaign also worked to flip chunks of traditionally Democratic constituencies and add more Republicans to the rolls.

These efforts helped increase the president’s vote by 23%: He received about 50.5 million votes in 2000 and more than 62 million four years later. Mr. Bush and John Kerry in 2004 split the independent vote (48% and 49% respectively). The Bush campaign’s efforts also narrowed the gender gap: In 2000, Mr. Bush took 44% of the vote among women to Al Gore’s 54%. Four years later, he took 48% of the vote among women to Mr. Kerry’s 51%. Mr. Bush in 2004 also won 44% of the Hispanic vote nationwide and as much as 16% of the black vote in battleground states.

Read More at the WSJ

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