WASHINGTON — After the first presidential debate last Wednesday night, Colorado Republican Party officials expected extra volunteers to show up at the doors of their 14 offices in the state to help the party’s candidates this November. They did not expect twice as many volunteers to arrive and many of those to come in completely unsolicited.
“It has been a bit overwhelming,” Justin Miller, the communications director for the Colorado Republican Committee, said. “We had to bring in additional phones to handle the extra capacity.”
Indeed, Miller said last Thursday was the single biggest volunteer recruitment day for the state GOP in the two-year election cycle. He added that two days later, volunteers logged 3,000 hours organizing the state party’s get-out-the vote efforts.
Miller attributed the response to Governor Mitt Romney’s performance against President Obama on a stage at the University of Denver last week. He said the debate marked “the first time the governor was introduced to the nation and without getting into the weeds too much, he had a plan to create 12 million jobs.”
National Democratic officials have indicated that party workers and activists were energized by the news last Friday that the nation’s jobless rate dropped slightly to 7.8 percent. Colorado Democratic Party officials did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls for this story.
For employees of and volunteers for political parties, significant events like the presidential debate Wednesday serve as motivation. Party workers and activists hand out yard signs, walk precincts, and make telephone calls to encourage the party’s voters to head to the polls. Their enthusiasm, determination, and skill can spell the difference between a candidate winning or losing.
Some political observers compare the presidential race this year to that of 2004 when Democratic nominee John Kerry battled President George W. Bush. In both elections, a Massachusetts challenger opposed an incumbent whose approval ratings hover near 50 percent. In the election, the superiority of the Bush campaign’s organizational skill and strategy to appeal to the party’s most committed supporters are regarded widely as the keys to Bush’s successful re-election.
In an era of political polarization, observers say if parties want to win, they should appeal to their most fervent voters first and loosely affiliated or swing voters second. “(S)trong partisans are much more likely to vote than non-partisans, and strong partisans also tend to vote ‘straight ticket,’ meaning that they vote for one party’s candidates to the exclusion of the other,” Kyle L. Saunders, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, said. “(Y)our base turning is probably just as, if not more, important, especially in a time of polarized politics.”
Yet the vote of an undecided or swing voter counts twice as much as that of a partisan. His or her vote adds to the total of one candidate and subtracts from that of the opponent. “In a close election, swing voters can make all of the difference if the bases turnout at the same rate, absolutely,” Saunders said.
Swing voters or loosely affiliated partisans appear to have given Romney a narrow lead over Obama in Colorado. According to Real Clear Politics average of polls, 5 percent of the state’s likely voters have remained undecided about the two candidates for the last two weeks. But of the 95 percent who have declared a preference, Romney gained two percentage points while Obama lost 1.6 points.
After the presidential debates end October 22 this year, the two candidates will have fewer opportunities to appeal directly to undecided voters. The importance of motivated party workers and volunteers will grow.
“When polarization is as high as it is, the unaffiliated voters are sitting there looking up at very clear choices, it’s true, but they are choices that they may not understand, may not resonate with because of their lack of linkage to the party systems, whereas the strong partisans, they have their cues and will show up,” Saunders said.