PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
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Block the Vote

Wall Street Journal

As a Final Gambit,Parties Are Trying To Damp Turnout

by John Harwood
Oct 27, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Democratic politicians normally have little use for Pat Robertson. But when the conservative televangelist got into a rare public spat with the White House last week, John Kerry's campaign quickly spoke up for him.

Mr. Robertson had quoted from a private conversation with George W. Bush in which he said the president predicted there would be no casualties from an Iraq war. As the White House disputed that, Kerry strategists jumped in asking for clarification. "Was Pat Robertson telling the truth?" asked spokesman Mike McCurry, "or is Pat Robertson lying?"

With Mr. Bush more dependent than ever on his political base, fellow Democrats hoped that amplifying conflict between the White House and a religious right leader might produce a salutary result: diminished zeal among conservative Christians to turn out on Nov. 2.

"That was brilliant," says Bob Mulholland, a top Democratic operative in California. "You try to discourage the opponent's base with bad news."

Gambits like this mark the flip side of the massive mobilization efforts of both presidential campaigns to turn out their bases on election day. Both camps are doing what they can, in ways both overt and subtle, to convince the other side's supporters that they shouldn't bother voting in the first place.

Given Americans' high interest in this seemingly dead-heat contest, overall turnout could be sharply higher than the 106 million who voted four years ago. But exactly who shows up and who stays home could make the difference in the 10 or so battleground states that both sides are so fiercely contesting.

Voter suppression is "a dirty little secret," says Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford political scientist who believes that negative campaign information damps turnout. "Both campaigns' rhetoric is being tailored to peel off the weak layers of would-be opponents. It's much easier to get those voters not to turn out than to switch over to your guy."

Democrats say they see suppression efforts in Republicans' well-advertised plans to vigorously check the registrations of those who show up to vote. In their eyes, such efforts are designed to convince voters that trying to cast a ballot will be too much of a hassle. "They're trying to scare decided voters away from going to the polls," former President Bill Clinton declared this week.

Democrats also are bracing for a barrage of missives attempting to lessen enthusiasm for Mr. Kerry among blue-collar social conservatives who otherwise might lean toward him on economic policy. In West Virginia, a recent Republican National Committee flier warned that under Mr. Kerry, the Bible would be "BANNED" while gay marriage would be "ALLOWED."

There's sometimes little distinction between a traditional negative ad and one designed to discourage voting. But politicians suspect suppression when a rival spreads negative information among a core constituency that usually votes for one side or stays home -- such as conservative Christian Republicans or black Democrats.

Republicans see suppression efforts in Democrats' attempts to sow doubts about Mr. Bush's character and his fealty to social conservatives. They believe Democrats will use the Internet to spread fresh rumors about Mr. Bush's youthful behavior among conservative Christians. Bush strategists saw a similar effort when both John Edwards and John Kerry went out of their way in the recent debate series to mention the fact that Mary Cheney, the vice president's daughter, is gay.

Republican-friendly groups have sought to damp enthusiasm for Democrats among African-Americans by placing ads on black radio stations critical of Mr. Kerry and his party. One ad financed by America's PAC, a group led by conservative activist Richard Nadler, blasts Democrats for backing "liberal abortions laws that are decimating our people."

Mr. Nadler says his group's $1 million ad spending isn't meant to specifically depress the African-American turnout. "Our ads . . . are reducing the Democratic vote and increasing the Republican vote," he says. "Which part of that equation am I supposed to dislike?"

This game can be seen clearly in the crucial battleground state of Florida. To sow doubts about the president, a liberal anti-Bush group called the Media Fund has spent advertising dollars in the Bush-leaning Florida Panhandle attacking the president for being too close to the Saudi royal family. In the Democratic stronghold of Palm Beach County, the Bush campaign is airing its new "Wolves" ad, which talks about how Mr. Kerry supported cuts in U.S. intelligence over an image of wolves walking menacingly toward the camera.

A similar pattern is playing out in Wisconsin. The Media Fund is airing its Saudi attack on radio stations in the Republican-leaning Green Bay market, while the Bush campaign is airing the Wolves ad in liberal Madison.

"The attack ads are aimed at shoring up your base, and weakening the impulse to vote among weak partisans on the other side and the undecided," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan group. The Kerry campaign is counting on those late-deciding voters to break toward the challenger. The Bush campaign's plan for victory assumes that perhaps half of them won't vote at all. "The lower the turnout the better chance Bush has," says Mr. Gans.

Democrats have been unusually aggressive in accusing Republicans of openly attempting to dissuade Kerry supporters from showing up on Nov. 2. In Wisconsin, Republicans have announced plans to initiate antifraud "background checks" on newly registered voters. In Ohio, Republicans plan to place recruits inside polling places to challenge the credentials of voters they consider suspicious. That could unduly discourage minority first-time voters, Democrats say. African-Americans are considered especially vulnerable because of their history of official disenfranchisement.

Democrats even see nefarious intent behind the many warnings from government officials about the possibility of terrorist attacks in the lead-up to the election.

"Their legal, political and message strategies are seamlessly connected to paint a picture of chaos and discourage Democrats and swing voters," says Democratic National Committee adviser Jenny Backus.

Republicans vehemently deny they're engaged in any attempt to scare off voters. What Democrats call "intimidation," they say, is simply an effort to guard against 21st-century efforts to stuff the ballot box for Mr. Kerry. National Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie says the party is acting to deter casting of ballots by phony registrants who have surfaced in some pro-Kerry registration drives. "There's no intimidation," says Ken Mehlman, Mr. Bush's campaign manager.

As evidence such claims are fabricated, Republicans cite a recently disclosed Democratic National Committee manual instructing party officials to make "pre-emptive" strikes against alleged intimidation even before they find evidence it took place. One risk for Democrats is that such warnings may themselves damp turnout. "Perception becomes reality," observes Theresa LePore, Palm Beach County elections supervisor. "If you keep telling people they're being disenfranchised, they'll start believing it."

Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot recently complained to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney about acts of violence and vandalism by union members against Republican campaign offices in Florida and Ohio, which Mr. Racicot said were designed to scare voters. Denise Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Mr. Sweeney, says the letter mischaracterized peaceful protests against overtime regulations that had nothing to do with voting.

Campaigns don't like talking about efforts to depress turnout because they seem at odds with democratic principles. When Ronald Reagan's onetime campaign manager Ed Rollins boasted publicly about having worked to suppress black turnout in a 1993 Republican governor's race, it spurred a political furor and Mr. Rollins later said he fabricated the claim. A few months ago, a Republican state legislator in Michigan was forced to resign his role in the Bush campaign after saying, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time."

Top strategists in the 2004 campaign play down the effectiveness of such tactics. "I'm not sure it has that much impact," says Mr. Mehlman, Mr. Bush's campaign manager. Adds Jim Jordan, an official with the Media Fund: "Those of us in politics are fascinated by the black arts," but "almost never do you get more bang for the buck" trying to turn off the other side.

Voter-suppression efforts are often conducted off the radar of national politics in leaflets, fliers and telephone campaigns. There, "you can be much harsher than you can ever be in a TV ad," notes Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who advised the 1996 presidential bid of Bob Dole. "If they're a Bush voter anyway, nothing lost. If it gets [others] to stay home, that's just as good."

Mr. Bush doesn't need any convincing that negative information can suppress turnout. His strategists think Mr. Bush lost the popular vote against Al Gore -- and nearly the entire election -- because of a late 2000 disclosure of a past drunk-driving arrest that dulled enthusiasm among conservative Christians.

Historically, some efforts to hold down turnout have been surprisingly explicit. The former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party recently pleaded guilty to hiring a telemarketing company to jam Democrats' get-out-the-vote telephone lines on Election Day 2002.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections said the office has received "a number of calls" from registered Democrats complaining of efforts to dissuade them from voting. In an interview, Miami travel agent Jason Miller says a caller identifying himself as a Democratic official told him not to bother voting on the grounds that his registration form wasn't properly filled out. Mr. Miller says the elections office assured him his registration was valid.

Candidates can help keep turnout down by reducing the ardor of voters in the opposing camp. That's part of the logic behind Mr. Kerry's goose-hunting trip last week, which produced front-page pictures of the Democratic candidate carrying a rifle. Such photo opportunities could blunt opposition from gun owners, who flooded the polls to oppose Mr. Gore four years ago and ousted the Democratic Congressional majority in the 1990s.

According to National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, 42% of NRA members believe a Kerry presidency would result in less gun control. If NRA members truly believe that, less of them might be convinced to show up for Mr. Bush.

By the same token, Mr. Bush has been assiduous in his professions of faith to African-American audiences, which may help him with a socially conservative constituency that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. A recent poll from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank, showed the Republican incumbent drawing 18% of the black vote. Even if Mr. Bush ends up polling closer to the 8% share of the black vote he scored in 2000, he may have curbed the desire of African-Americans to turn out for Mr. Kerry.