Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2014

Currently: 45° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

GOP’s feeble voter turnout exposes party flaws

Sharron Angle

Sharron Angle

Sue Lowden

Sue Lowden

Danny Tarkanian

Danny Tarkanian

Sun Coverage

The Republican Senate primary is turning out to be a rather sleepy affair.

There’s been plenty of media attention and advertising, but not much on-the-ground activity and fairly low turnout, according to last week’s early voting results. Fewer than 8 percent of Clark County Republicans had voted as of Friday, and 6.7 percent of their Washoe County counterparts had voted.

By contrast, 800 more Democrats had voted in Clark County. True, there are about 89,000 more Democrats in Clark, although Democrats only have a handful of competitive down-ballot primary races, and no big names to support or oppose.

So it’s a bit ominous for Republican candidates that despite plenty of energy from the Tea Party movement, and the usual enthusiasm advantage for the party out of power, Republicans aren’t yet showing up en masse. Perhaps they will June 8.

The slack early voting also illustrates Republicans’ organizational deficiencies.

“You know exactly who has voted. So you ought to be able to get on the people who haven’t,” said Dave Damore, a UNLV political scientist not registered with either party.

Brian Seitchik, campaign manager for lawyer and Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian, said their campaign has volunteers in every county and more than 100 active volunteers. (We’re half kidding when we say we always figure a 20 percent embellishment.)

Given recent history, that’s not many volunteers for a statewide race.

In contrast, a full three months before the 2008 Nevada caucus, the campaign of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton had 300 volunteers in a Henderson gymnasium for a morning of training. That was just the precinct captains. Each of those volunteers was tasked with recruiting a team of volunteers. Do the math.

Nor is this solely a Democratic strength. President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign showed organizational prowess, with GOP volunteers organized across dozens of subgroups, such as veterans, Christians, small-business owners, hunters, anglers and so forth.

The campaign of President Barack Obama was the best organized in state history. Shortly before early voting began, his campaign gathered 1,200 precinct captains — precinct captains — for training. Sure enough, Obama all but won Nevada before Election Day came around — their early voting program ensured victory.

Indeed, the best campaigns get on the streets — or do “field,” as we call it — because it works.

And in a low turnout election like this primary, it’s even more effective. You can be friends with all your voters.

As Donald Green, a Yale University political scientist and author of a book on voter turnout, has noted, face-to-face contact is the most reliable turnout tool.

Much of the problem is probably related to chaos in the state Republican Party the past few years, as well as a lackluster Republican bench of elected officials, including a governor about to be defeated in a primary and a U.S. senator facing an ethics and criminal investigation. There’s not much organizational talent.

Still, they’re trying.

The campaign of Sue Lowden, a wealthy former state senator and chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, says it has been developing an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation for the past six months, identifying supporters by issue, following up on a regular basis and nursing that support through Election Day. Overall, the campaign says it’s working from a base of 500 volunteers and has made 215,000 voter contacts, including phone calls, door knocks and literature drops.

Lowden’s flagging poll numbers and the momentum of Sharron Angle have made that kind of constant care crucial.

On Friday morning, a handful of volunteers set out from Lowden’s headquarters to canvass an upscale neighborhood near Torrey Pines Drive and Warm Springs Road. Staffer Adam Stryker and volunteer Ken Mitchell hit a dozen Republican doors in 35 minutes, finding three people at home. One told them she had just moved in and that they had an out-of-date list. Another, John Winsler, said he’s a Lowden supporter but doesn’t believe in early voting. The third, Beverly Elpidio, promised to vote early for Lowden on Saturday.

Spokeswoman Crystal Feldman said the campaign makes its big pushes on Saturdays, when people are more likely to be home, relying on about 80 volunteers in Las Vegas and Reno to walk neighborhoods and turn out voters.

Again, 80 volunteers is not many.

Still, they’re enthusiastic. The campaign relishes volunteers such as Mitchell, who’s 68 and a retired physicist. A lifelong Democrat, he changed his registration to Republican two weeks ago to vote for Lowden in the GOP primary. He’s never worked on a political campaign but got involved because “It’s time to put my money where my mouth is,” citing frustration with the closed-door health care reform negotiations and general disgust with Washington.

Seitchik said the Tarkanian campaign has identified all their voters and just needs to turn them out.

Ground organization “is a real strength of our campaign,” he said.

They’ve made “thousands” of voter contacts, although he wouldn’t be more specific.

Seitchik said the campaign has seen a surge in volunteers the past four or six weeks, which coincides with Lowden’s fumbling.

The wild card here is Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman who won the endorsement of the Tea Party Express, who has always made grass-roots campaigning a touchstone. Thing is, though, she’s lost in two consecutive races and never succeeded in getting her initiatives on the ballot, so her organizational prowess is untested.

Her campaign didn’t return our calls; maybe they were out on the doors.

Sun reporter David McGrath Schwartz in Carson City contributed to this story.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy