While the rest of the country has been distracted by the spectacle of the first presidential debate, another and arguably far more important part of the 2016 election is now well underway. This is the “ground game,” where the campaigns and the groups that support them do the hard work of ensuring that their candidate’s supporters actually turn out to vote. Meanwhile, the darker arts of voter suppression are also in play. In the US, voting itself is a politicized process, and all the more so in 2016, because this election could very well be decided on voter turnout.
GOTV (Get out the Vote)!
A good ground game is both data- and labor-intensive. It involves careful analysis of voter information and the skillful deployment of paid and volunteer labor to go out and talk to prospective voters, get them registered, and then make sure they actually get to the polls. This kind of labor-intensive campaign work is especially necessary for Democratic campaigns, where turning out the growing demographic of younger and minority voters is sometimes difficult, but imperative.
In both 2008 and 2012, Obama’s campaigns decisively out-organized those of his Republican opponents, and high voter turnout was undeniably a major factor in his victories. This year, the contrast between the candidates in terms of their ground games is even starker. While the Clinton campaign has taken a lot of lessons from Obama’s successes and has built a substantial campaign infrastructure of offices and staff, Trump’s ground game seems to be in disarray. Until recently, a 12-year-old boy was in charge of one Trump field office in Colorado. In the large, diverse battleground state of Florida, Clinton has 51 field offices, while Trump only has only 3.
Conventional wisdom holds that a strong ground game will yield between one and three percentage points for a candidate. While the polls currently indicate a tight race between Clinton and Trump, the poll aggregator Nate Silver recently conceded that Clinton may in fact be farther ahead of Trump than the polls indicate, precisely because the polls don’t factor in the effect of Clinton campaign’s superior ground game.
On the other hand, 2016 is not 2008 or 2012, and both Clinton and Trump are having trouble appealing to voters. A central question for this election, then, is whether or not Clinton’s ground-game advantage will be enough to overcome a lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy among the very constituencies that it seeks to turn out, including young and minority voters. A subsidiary question is whether or not organized efforts to suppress voter turnout among these and other groups to favor the Republicans will play a role in 2016.
“It’s Rigged!”: Voter Fraud/Voter Suppression
At the beginning of August, when things were looking very bad for Trump’s campaign, he warned, ”I’m telling you, November 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.”
Many have pointed out that this is dangerous talk indeed, in that it casts doubt on the legitimacy of elected officials and distrust of the democratic process. Unfortunately, Fox News and other conservative outlets like Breitbart have prepared many Americans to believe that the electoral process has been “rigged,” and that liberals are behind it. These outlets have been claiming for years that basic ground-game activities like voter registration drives are actually systematic efforts at organized voter fraud. This narrative has been extremely effective. Nearly half of all respondents to one recent poll believed that voter fraud “occurs at least somewhat often.” The figure is as high as 69 percent among Trump voters. A significant portion of Trump voters are prepared to doubt the legitimacy of the outcome of the 2016 election.
Voter fraud is in fact very rare—especially the kind that concerns most conservatives, such as people voting more than once, or voting with false identities. So it is no overstatement to say that this suspicion of rampant voter fraud is no more than another of the conspiracy theories that circulates all too freely in right-wing media outlets. In 2012, Politifact determined that in Florida, shark attacks were more common than instances of in-person voter fraud (Between 2008 and 2011, there were 49 cases of voter fraud, while 72 people were attacked by sharks). As one expert on voter fraud pointed out, “It makes no sense for individual voters to impersonate someone. It’s like committing a felony at the police station, with virtually no chance of affecting the election outcome.” Nevertheless, the idea of massive voter fraud has real emotional appeal to some on the right. Like the “birther” conspiracy theory that Trump did so much to stoke, it strengthens the convictions of those who wish to view Barack Obama’s presidency as “illegitimate”: the election must have been rigged!
But the voter fraud conspiracy theory has another utility. It has legitimated the efforts of those who want to manipulate voter turnout to their own political advantage. Because high voter turnout favors Democrats, their opponents have sometimes quite openly worked to manipulate the voting process itself to prevent liberal constituencies from exercising their voting rights.
There are a number of ways to do this. Voter dilution—also known as “gerrymandering” of voting districts— has drastically improved Republican performance in congressional and local races. But this doesn’t have a direct impact on presidential politics. Voter suppression, on the other hand, was an issue in 2012, and is likely to be in play again this year. Some tactics of voter suppression include making it harder to register voters, removing people from the rolls of eligible voters, making voting as inconvenient as possible by limiting the times and locations of voting, and outright intimidation and deceit.
33 states have now put some form of voter suppression into law. Notable here are voter ID laws, which require voters or those registering to vote to present specified forms of proof of identity. There is no common identity card or identity number for American citizens, and an estimated 11% of eligible voters do not have the forms of ID (such as a driver’s license) specified by these laws. The disabled, the elderly, the poor, and the transient (including many college students) are over-represented in this group. Additionally, these laws instill an atmosphere of distrust that may be enough to make many others, especially minorities, simply decide not to vote. The effect of voter ID laws on minority voter participation seems to be significant. One study finds that in general elections, “Latino turnout was 10.3 points lower in states with photo ID than in states without strict photo ID regulations, all else equal. For multi-racial Americans, turnout was 12.8 points lower under strict photo ID laws.”
There are mixed signs about how much of a factor voter suppression will be in 2016. After finding out that long waits at the polls alone cost them hundreds of thousands of votes in 2012, Democrats have pushed back against attempts to restrict voting. Also, the courts have begun to intervene. Recently, laws that decrease voter turnout in Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Dakota have all been struck down. In North Carolina, the courts struck down voting legislation after finding that the Republican-dominated legislature actually researched how voting practices differed by race to devise a set of voting laws that, according to the judgment, “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
But this still leaves open the very real possibility of illegal acts of voter suppression, including trickery and intimidation. Trump has urged his supporters to watch out for evidence of voter fraud at the polls, and there is even a place on his website to sign up to become an “election observer.” Critics have said that this kind of poll watching itself constitutes illegal voter intimidation. And given the violent behavior of some of Trump’s supporters at his rallies, and his popularity among white supremacist groups, there is plenty of reason to be concerned that some zealous “observers” will attempt to interfere with their fellow citizens’ civil rights.
Meanwhile, time is running out for those of us participating in the all-important ground game. In Florida, voting by mail begins October 4. Early in-person voting begins October 29.