Voter interest in the November elections continues its staggered crescendo. For candidates and consultants the long opus nears its denouement. But non-politicos – who react to different rhythms – are just now beginning to stir.
As they listen more intently they will hear a familiar score – echoes of campaigns past with a hint of desperation in the Democratic Party’s musicianship.
I spent the last week canvassing strategists and party activists about the policy and tactical themes candidates will highlight this fall. A number of common themes emerged.
First, Democrats’ biggest worry is turnout. All the energy this year is on conservative side of the ledger. Tea Partiers are just the tip of this motivational asymmetry.
A Republican House leader who has traveled throughout the country summed it up this way: “I literally have people come up to me everywhere I go and say, ‘I just can’t wait to vote.’ That’s never happened before in my political career.”
Polling numbers support his experience. Gallup reported in late August that Republicans were twice as likely to be “very enthusiastic” about voting compared to Democrats, opening the largest lead the GOP had held on that indicator all year.
Second, Democrats believe that the antidote to the enthusiasm gap is fear – fear the tanned man behind the Republican agenda (GOP House leader John Boehner), fear Sarah Palin, fear the Tea Party.
If 2008 hyped “hope,” 2010 will hammer horror. A GOP political strategist reinforced this point.
“We’re seeing it all across the country in Democratic incumbent ads,” he said. “And there’s more coming. They are trying to raise fears about issues like Social Security privatization and protecting the ‘rich’ over the middle class. It’s not like we haven’t heard this stuff before.”
These attacks will intensify over the next few weeks as well-funded incumbents try to raise the fear factor through paid advertising.
And here’s a third theme: Persuasion is not the goal. These fear fusillades are all about mobilization – trying to scare traditional Democratic voters into action. But will it work?
The evidence here is mixed. Social scientists have tried to understand the complicated interplay between motivation and action when it comes to political participation. One unique study that explores this connection was reported in a 2004 article in the journal Political Psychology titled “Threat as a Motivator of Political Activism,” by political scientists Joanne M. Miller and Jon A. Krosnick.
The authors found that policy “threat” (this particular study focused on possible changes in abortion policy) induced citizens to make financial contributions to interest groups more than other motivators (like perceptions of policy change opportunities).
But the authors also found that fear motivates some types of political action more than others. In this study, it led to more contributions, but not other modes of involvement – like signing post cards. The study didn’t explore the impact of fear on turnout.
The power of fear is most likely mitigated by other emotions, like disappointment. Organized labor is a case in point this year. While some union members may perceive threat from a Republican takeover of the House or Senate, more seem to feel the pinch of a stagnant economy and disillusionment with Democrats’ accomplishments.
Unemployment that comes precariously close to double digits doesn’t help. Neither does the fact that card check legislation is dormant, unions have not realized many of their goals at the National Labor Relations Board, and many labor members felt legislation like cap-and-trade only aggravated a deteriorating jobs outlook in the Midwest.
Not a lot for a shop steward to write home about.
New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse, in a story titled “Unions Find Members Slow to Rally Behind the Democrats,” underscores this point. He quotes Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, expressing the rank and file’s collective funk. “They’ve been disappointed that the House and Senate haven’t done more, especially to create jobs.”
Another nationally known political analyst speaking on background put it more bluntly, telling a group that when labor organizers knock on the doors of union households these days, trying to find people to hit the streets for the Democrats, instead they confront “a lot of people watching Glenn Beck.”
Using fear as a political mobilizing tool is clearly not a new tactic. Its roots run deep in the forest of electoral methods. Expect to hear a lot of scary messages in the next six weeks.
But there is also an irony in the strategy. The fear-based attacks themselves are motivated another kind of dread – Democratic panic that a lethal dose of disappointment, complacency, and rank and file anger will conspire to kill their congressional majority. That’s a song Democrats don’t want to hear.