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Morning Jay: OFA, Dems' Cincinnati Blues, The One That Got Away, and More!

6:30 AM, Oct 14, 2010 • By JAY COST
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1. OFA To GOTV?  This story from Matt Bai caught my attention:

There’s a reason that President Obama decided to broadcast his meeting with college students on the Internet on Tuesday night, taking sympathetic questions by way of Facebook and Skype and Twitter. (About the only hip thing the president didn’t try was to break out the Guitar Hero and start playing “Revolution.”) The midterm campaign has now entered its final phase, and Mr. Obama is focusing his attention on the younger voters and volunteers he inspired in 2008.

For Mr. Obama, re-engaging Organizing for America, or O.F.A., his vaunted network of phone-bankers and door-knockers from the presidential campaign, is a crucial mission in these closing weeks — and not just because it is probably the Democrats’ best chance of staving off electoral catastrophe. It is also because a volunteer organization is a little bit like a vintage roadster: you may not need to use it for stretches of time, but it’s important to rev the engine now and then.

The mainstream media is obsessed with campaign organization and mobilization.  I’m not sure why, but the problem with this line of analysis is that it is usually about the inputs and rarely about the outputs -- about the millions of contacts made, not whether those contacts turned a non-voter into a voter. 

One hundred years ago, this kind of stuff mattered much more.  Back then, patronage was the mother’s milk of American politics.  Both parties would spend huge amounts of money to move just a few thousand voters in either direction in key swing states like Indiana, Ohio, and New York.  At one point, the Tammany Hall machine in New York City boasted a patronage army of workers in the tens of thousands.  William Howard Taft beat out Teddy Roosevelt for the 1912 GOP nomination largely because patronage bought off Southern Republican delegates.

But over time, the good government ethos won out, and nowadays you can’t expect to get a patronage plum for voting.  This means there is really only one reason to vote: you care about what happens.  That’s why I think mobilization is limited in its efficacy.  The parties spend millions and millions of dollars to mobilize voters, but none of it on patronage.  People thus have to find a reason to care.  If they don't, no amount of mobilizing is going to matter.  If they do care, the chances are pretty good that they will vote, anyway.  That's why an overwhelming majority of those gazillions of voter contacts are redundant, "wasted" on people who were going to vote all along.  There's no doubt that campaign organizations reduce the costs that voters face in getting to the ballot box (like helping them register, checking in with them, reminding them to vote, etc.), but that is on the margins.  Without patronage, the parties have little ability to motivate.

This is why I think the Organizing for America organization gets a lot of credit it doesn’t necessarily deserve.  The left was highly motivated because of its dislike of George W. Bush.  Factor that in with Obama being the first African American candidate from a major party, and interest in the campaign was unusually high on the Democratic side.  Now, I certainly think the Obama organization did an excellent job of using new technology to reduce the costs associated with voting, which in turn probably helped bring in those only marginally interested into his coalition.  By and large, its success was in maximizing the advantages that it had, not creating them out of whole cloth.  

Now, don't get me wrong.  Campaigns do have a large effect on turnout -- but it is mostly indirect.  Consider Ohio in 2004.  The Buckeye State was ground zero for the battle for the White House.  Accordingly, both sides spent millions of dollars on mobilization and advertising.  This drove up interest in the campaign, and in the wake of the Florida recount, it also made people feel as though their votes mattered.  Factor in big issues that affected people's lives, and you have a recipe for high turnout.  Was the mobilization effort on both sides part of this?  Yes.  Did it turn non-voters into voters? By itself, probably not.  

2. The Latest Sign of the Dempocalypse.  Speaking of Ohio:

The NRCC is beginning the process it has been waiting for all cycle: Moving money out of ad reservations in races where it believes it already has a significant lead so it can pour that money into more competitive contests.

Following news that the DCCC has canceled its ad reservations on behalf of Rep. Steve Driehaus (D) in OH 1, the NRCC has also taken its money out of that district, according to committee sources. It has also cut its ads in the last week of the campaign in TX 17, where businessman Bill Flores appears to have a solid lead on Rep. Chet Edwards (D).

Ohio’s First Congressional District is dominated by Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which has been a Republican bastion basically since the Civil War -- the peerless Michael Barone has called it "a German, pro-Union, and Republican island in a sea of southern Democratic sentiment."  But in the last two presidential cycles, as Ohio has become the focal point of the national presidential campaign, Hamilton has turned into a swing county.  It gave Bush 53 percent of the vote in 2004, then it gave Barack Obama 53 percent.  One reason for the swing is the African American vote, which compromises about 27 percent of the district and was a major factor helping Driehaus defeat Republican Steve Chabot in 2008.

The fact that this race is off the table, as far as both parties are concerned, is a sign that the swing voters in the district have swung back to the GOP.  It’s also an indication that the African American vote is not going to be what it was in 2008.  OH-1 is one of the few districts in the North where that will make a difference – but it is something to watch for in the South, as I mentioned yesterday

3. The One That Got Away?  I don’t know why Oregon never materialized as a possible Senate pickup for the GOP:

Democratic incumbent Ron Wyden continues to earn over 50% support against his Republican challenger Jim Huffman in Oregon’s U.S. Senate race.

A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in the state finds Wyden picking up 52% of the vote, while Huffman, a law school professor, gets 36% support.  Four percent (4%) favor another candidate, and eight percent (8%) are undecided. …

Last month, Wyden led Huffman 53% to 35%. Wyden, who is seeking a third six-year term, has consistently held the lead over Huffman in surveys since late May, with support ranging from 47% to 56%.  In that same period, Huffman’s support has run from 35% to 38%.

These numbers for Wyden are not great.  And Oregon is much more inclined to vote Republican than California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington – all of which have received attention from the GOP.  This seems like an opportunity missed.

4. House Polls.  This week, the Hill and Democratic pollster Mark Penn surveyed another round of seats (* marks open seats; ^ marks GOP-held):

The only real bit of good news for the Democrats here is in IL-10, where Dan Seals is making his third bid for this metro Chicago district.  He lost twice to Mark Kirk, who is now running for the Senate.  Even this 49-37 number is a little weak, however, considering the Democratic tilt of the district and the fact that Seals has been running for the seat for six years.  Still, the Democrats will probably win this one – but Republicans can console themselves with the fact that Republican Charles Dijou is holding his own in heavily Democratic Hawaii-01, which he won earlier in the year in a special election because the Democratic vote was split.

Generally speaking, these numbers are awful for Democrats.  On average, the Democrat is underperforming Obama’s 2008 haul by 12 points.  With three weeks to go, that is not a good place to be.  What is so interesting about this cycle is that these numbers are typically awful.  Anybody who has been following the steam of House polls – both independent and partisan – has fully come to expect numbers like this for House Democrats. At this point, I tend to be more surprised to see a poll where the Democratic incumbent is polling above 50 percent.

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