“Hello, 911, I’d Like to Report a Kid Canvassing My Neighborhood”

I’m catching up on some post-election reading, and today I came across this piece in Campaigns and Elections about the successes of SuperPAC’s that concentrated their resources and focused on state races or on a small number of downballot federal races. The article doesn’t oversell any conclusions. I think it’s a stretch to say that a conservative SuperPAC has much to do with Republicans in Republican districts–such as Kerry Bentivolio in MI-11–prevailing over Democrats who barely mounted campaigns. But it’s obvious that a few hundred thousand dollars in a $2-$3 million race where candidates are barely known, if at all, is usually a better investment than a hundred million ad campaign in a presidential race.

One of the problems for the top of the ticket races is that more TV spending in a media market leads to higher ad rates, and the less the buyer gets per dollar. Other types of spending aren’t as vulnerable to price spikes based on other campaigns. For instance, the USPS doesn’t raise rates in a state because there’s more political mail flowing in to mailboxes. But I see a problem with one part of this prediction:

If anything, Reiff says, Super PACs will refocus their efforts on the ground game in the future—funding canvassing, mailers, phone banks and other GOTV when TV becomes oversaturated.

I think Reiff is correct that SuperPAC’s will look for ways to influence elections other than TV. Mail is an obvious way, because all it requires is money and a few consultants. Phone banking can be effective, and is better targeted than TV anyway. But every election cycle, as more and more of the electorate uses land lines as nothing other than a voice mail that they never use to answer to a live call, phones become less effective. Reiff doesn’t mention online, but that’s another form of voter contact that requires little labor and no volunteers. That leaves canvassing.  While I don’t dismiss it entirely, I doubt the ability of conservative SuperPAC’s to effectively use paid canvassing operations to significantly influence Republican turnout.

Democrats have often used paid canvassing operations for GOTV in areas with high Democratic performance but low turnout. Canvassing isn’t a permanent job, it doesn’t pay all that well, and can’t be done for more than a handful of hours each weekday (thus making it harder to do as a second job, as the canvasser needs to be available in the afternoon and the evening). People who canvass mostly or entirely for financial reasons–in part because it demands more physically than do other forms of voter contact–tend to be twenty-somethings, minorities and people of modest financial means. These canvassers are sent in prime Democratic GOTV areas, which are disproportionately packed with the same kinds of people–twenty-somethings, minorities and people of modest financial means. In Democratic areas, canvassers generally look like the people they’re trying to drag out to vote.

Democrats who need cajoling to vote are generally OK answering door knocks from people who fit in to the neighborhood. Will the people Republicans need to drag out to vote respond to door knocks from people who look like the Democratic voting coalition, and thus often unlike the Republican neighborhoods? Republicans appeal to their voters in part by playing on their discomfort with people who aren’t socially conventional white heterosexual Christians. The black and Latino canvassers, the college students with tats and piercings walking up and down the block, I expect they would regularly be reported to the cops, because, you know, “what are they doing in our neighborhood? They must be up to no good.”

I think Republicans will have a hard time effectively utilizing canvassing. Much of their ideological base is motivated by a rabid hatred of Barack Obama and a whacked out anger about social, cultural and demographic changes in America. Many Republican volunteers can obviously temper their vehemence in the interest of winning. But I suspect filtering the off-putting fulminators from their volunteer canvassing operations makes it harder for Republicans to fill their canvassing slots. The Republican base is also not as well-suited to more physically demanding forms of voter contact. Republican volunteer operations may have less capacity than do Democrats’. These problems are compounded by the fact that Republicans also require more canvassers per voter than do Democrats. Democrats are more likely to be clustered in 70% or more Democratic areas with a high number of people per square mile. Republican GOTV targets are more likely to live in areas that are under 60% Republican–so they’ll have more doors to walk past than will Democratic canvassers–and suburban, exurban or rural. If they’re equal in speed and ability, the average Republican canvasser will contact fewer voters per hour than will the Democratic canvasser.

Conservatives can pay for a lot of voter persuasion and contact. But they can’t pay for volunteers, and there’s good reason to doubt their ability to pay for canvass operations that touch as many Republican voters in an effective way as do Democratic canvasses. Too often people want to believe pablum about “people power” and how if we have more people and more passion liberals can wipe out conservatives’ money advantages. That’s often not the case. But canvassing may be one form of political communication where conservative money will have a hard time matching the power of volunteer-driven Democratic canvasses.

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