WASHINGTON — Faced with a strong prospect of losing control of the Senate in November, Democrats have begun a high-stakes effort to try to overcome one of their party's big weaknesses: voters who don't show up for midterm elections.
The party's Senate campaign committee plans to spend $60 million to boost turnout. That's nine times what it spent in the last midterm election, in 2010.
The Democratic National Committee has begun to make the sophisticated data analysis tools developed to target voters in the 2012 presidential campaign available to all the party's candidates.
And from President Obama on down, influential Democrats have hammered away at the need for candidates to start now to work on reducing the number of so-called drop-off voters.
"During presidential elections, young people vote; women are more likely to vote; blacks, Hispanics more likely to vote," Obama said at a recent fundraiser for congressional campaigns. But when the presidency is not at stake, those Democratic-leaning groups tend to stay home, he said.
"We do pretty well in presidential elections," he said. "But in midterms we get clobbered."
Another clobbering may be on the way. Both the map and voters' mood favor Republicans.
By the luck of the draw, most of the competitive Senate elections in 2014 take place in Republican-leaning states, including Alaska, Montana, Louisiana and Arkansas. At least eight Democratic incumbents face difficult races, giving the GOP several options to win the six seats they need to gain the Senate majority.
Because of the states up for grabs this year, "we're playing defense, they're playing offense," said Joel Benenson, Obama's chief pollster.
Moreover, anger at the party in power has proved a powerful motivating force to get people to the polls. With Obama in the White House and his signature healthcare law a rallying point for conservatives, Republicans can count on their core voters showing up. A recent NBC/Wall St. Journal poll found Republicans significantly more likely than Democrats to express high interest in the fall election.
"Disgruntled voters turn out at a somewhat higher rate than what I like to call the gruntled voters," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.
"So you've got that factor, which normally works against the president's party, compounded by the fact that in off-year elections Republican voters seem to be more reliable about turning out than Democratic-base voters, especially the younger ones," Abramowitz said.
The debate over Obamacare shows how intensity of voter interest can affect turnout. Polls have found that a majority of voters oppose the GOP call for outright repeal of the healthcare law. But many surveys also show that the law's opponents care more deeply about the issue than do supporters. That gives Republicans an edge.
Democrats need to change that dynamic or come up with some galvanizing issue of their own if they are to keep the Senate.
"Obamacare is a motivating issue for their base," Benenson said. But, he asserted, "it also plays into their biggest weakness," which is that "voters see the Republicans as obsessed" with the subject. Democrats need to make the case that GOP opposition to the healthcare law is part of a pattern of "purposeful obstruction" that gets in the way of dealing with the country's economic problems, he said.
Democratic candidates and strategists remain divided on how to do that. They also differ on which issues might fire up their voters the way repeal of Obamacare does for conservatives.
Most party strategists tell candidates to focus on economic issues such as increasing the minimum wage. But Democrats disagree on how populist an image to present. Some advocate a turn toward the left that they say will spur younger and minority voters to take interest in the election. Others argue for a more centrist tack, which might attract more moderate voters.
The push for a strong, early effort to identify and turn out supporters sidesteps those debates in favor of a strategy all factions of the party back.
Over time, Democrats hope, the demographic factors that have boosted their prospects in presidential elections, particularly the increase in minority voters, will spill over to congressional contests.
"The floor on our turnout is continuing to rise," said Mitch Stewart, who was the battleground-states director for Obama's 2012 campaign. "So the bipolar electorate that you saw between 2008 and 2010 will become less and less as more cycles happen."
For now, however, Democrats know they won't replicate the turnout levels they achieved in 2012.
Instead, the question is how big the drop-off will be. According to exit polls, voters younger than 30 made up 12% of the electorate in 2010, when Republicans won control of the House, but 19% in 2012, when Obama won reelection. Minority voters were 23% of the 2010 turnout, 28% in the presidential election.
Gaps that big would almost certainly doom Democratic hopes this year. A key lesson from the Obama campaign, Democratic strategists say, is that efforts to avoid such a fate cannot wait until the fall.
"The conventional wisdom is that you don't start contacting voters until after Labor Day," Stewart said. But that, he added, is "an outdated model."
Motivating core parts of the Democratic voter base, particularly younger and less educated voters, is not easy. Few routinely pay attention to politics, especially to contests below the presidential level.
Early on in the race for Virginia's governor, which Democrat Terry McAuliffe won last year, a majority of occasional voters polled said they "didn't know what year the gubernatorial election was, let alone who the candidates were," said McAuliffe's pollster, Geoff Garin.
McAuliffe's campaign highlighted issues of concern to Democrats, including expansion of Medicaid coverage for low-income residents, support for same-sex marriage and his opponent's opposition to abortion rights. It also poured money into repeatedly contacting occasional voters.
McAuliffe's success in boosting the vote in heavily Democratic precincts has made the Virginia campaign a hopeful model for this year's Democratic candidates. But, Garin cautioned, the victory did not come cheap, and even with party campaign committees paying part of the cost, the demands of a big turnout operation may be hard for many candidates to meet.
"It was easier for us in the McAuliffe campaign because we were spending a lot of money," he said. "We didn't have to make a lot of choices."