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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:

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