Low turnout is blamed on focus strategy

The Baltimore Sun

Dreary weather and lackluster races were the quick excuses for the turnout in Tuesday's Democratic primary being the city's lowest in decades. But political observers say a more powerful explanation might be at work - the increasing ability of campaigns to identify their base voters and turn them out on Election Day.

In municipal contests in Baltimore and across the country, campaign officials no longer troll through neighborhoods trying to drag every registered voter to the polls. With sophisticated technology and intense campaigning, they're able to identify exactly who is committed to support their candidates.

It is a strategy designed to win elections, but it tends to depress voter turnout because those who are new to the process or undecided are not being pushed to the polls, some experts say.

"Campaigns are no longer engaged in the expansion of a voter base," said former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, a senior executive in residence at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore who analyzes such figures.

"The new voter is not getting communicated to. Campaigns spend less money broadening the base and more time focusing on known support, and I think that's what ... yields lower turnouts."

The strategy of targeting known voters has been a major focus at the national level, particularly by Republicans in recent years, said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Karl Rove was really very good in knowing where his base was and trying to turn his base out, and wasn't necessarily trying to expand his base," said Walters. "That's really what American politics has turned out to be."

Voter turnout in Baltimore's Democratic primary was 30.9 percent and is expected to increase by one or two percentage points after absentee and provisional ballots are counted, Willis said.

Of the city's 263,307 registered Democrats, 81,286 turned out at the polls Tuesday, with 97 percent of precincts reporting results.

That compares with 38.3 percent in the 2003 Democratic primary election, 49.3 percent in 1999, and 63.9 percent in 1983, Willis said. The last time that turnout was as low as in Tuesday's primary was in 1979, when it was 32.8 percent.

"There's a range, and this is at the low end of the range," said Willis. "We're not the lowest, but it's not good."

Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, said it's typical in primaries for candidates to focus on their base because of the high level of voter apathy or disinterest.

"I think that voter turnout in primaries is always low, and therefore candidates are compelled to go to their base and encourage them to turn out, because if they don't, no one will," said Pastor. "You have to start with people who are motivated for primaries."

The Baltimore campaigns spent more money energizing their supporters than courting new voters through registration drives, Willis said. Political consultants have advised candidates that their mailings and phone calls are better spent on voters who regularly show up at the polls.

City Elections Director Armstead B.C. Jones said a slim turnout was expected, given the low number of absentee ballots requested and poor voter registration numbers leading up to the primary.

"There were no great registration drives with big numbers," said Jones. "We generally look for candidates, the NAACP or ACORN to bring in boxes a few days before deadline. Nothing. There was no surge in registration at all."

Though get-out-the-vote efforts in the final week before the election focused on identified supporters, campaign managers of this year's primary winners - Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake - say they reached out early on to new voters and undecided voters.

Martha McKenna, Dixon's campaign manager, said that in April the campaign called and identified every registered Democrat who had voted in a previous Democratic primary, as well as new voters, with an electronic Web-based system.

They used that data to classify voters and do mailings that targeted specific groups, such as the undecided voters.

"Our target universe included new registrants always," she said.

Luke Clippinger, Rawlings-Blake's campaign manager, said that though the campaign focused on reaching out to its base - as did the unions that endorsed the council president - it did make a push to reach out to the large percentage of undecided voters, particularly at the end, given how close the race was expected to be.

"Toward the end of the campaign, you do focus more on your base," said Clippinger. "It's absolutely getting out the base, but it's also making sure you don't stop talking to undecided voters until the polls close."

Despite Tuesday's relatively low figures, observers say that for an election with relatively low-key candidates and campaigns, the turnout - which will likely creep to about 34 percent once absentee ballots are added - is not especially low.

Donald F. Norris, professor and chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said a 33 percent turnout in a municipal election is "pretty good."

"Turnout in municipal elections is notoriously low in the United States," he said.

Walters said the lack of a competitive, high-profile mayoral race probably resulted in fewer voters turning out: "I think it was a foregone conclusion that Sheila Dixon was going to win."

Willis said political fatigue seems to have struck voters on the national, state and local levels.

"You're seeing it around the country," he said. "There's a certain amount of fatigue, people turning all the political rhetoric off."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

MAYOR

DEMOCRAT

284 of 290 precincts - 98% x-Sheila Dixon* 50,639 63% Keiffer Mitchell 18,965 24% Andrey Bundley 6,163 8% Jill Carter 2,222 3% Robert Kaufman 822 1% Mike Schaefer 695 1% Frank Conaway 484 1% Phillip Brown 252 0%

x=winner; *=incumbent.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT

DEMOCRAT

284 of 290 precincts - 98% x-Stephanie Rawlings-Blake* 39,268 49% Michael Sarbanes 30,648 39% Kenneth Harris 9,298 12% Charles Smith 316 0%

x=winner; *=incumbent.

UNCONTESTED RACES

Mayor - Baltimore City

Elbert R. Henderson, GOP Mayor - Baltimore City

N. Luqman "Wayne" Alfurqan, Una City Comptroller - Baltimore City

Joan M. Pratt*, Dem Baltimore City Council - President

Maria Allwine, Green Baltimore City Council - 1

Glenn Werner, GOP Baltimore City Council - 2

Brian H. Davis, GOP Baltimore City Council - 3

Bill Barry, Grn Baltimore City Council - 5

Rochelle "Rikki" Spector*, Dem Baltimore City Council - 5

Mayer Verschleisser, Una Baltimore City Council - 6

Ori Shabazz, Una Baltimore City Council - 8

Sean Cummings, GOP Baltimore City Council - 9

Michael Bradley, GOP Baltimore City Council - 10

Duane Shelton, GOP Baltimore City Council - 13

Ronald Owens-Bey, Grn Baltimore City Council - 14

Mark Newgent, GOP

*=incumbent

CITY COUNCIL

DEMOCRAT

DISTRICT 1

17 of 19 precincts - 89% James Kraft* 2,017 55% Donald Dewar 1,444 40% Terry McCready 112 3% Marc Warren 68 2%

DISTRICT 2

20 of 20 precincts - 100% x-Nicholas D'Adamo* 3,281 69% Lawrence Moses 1,502 31%

DISTRICT 3

21 of 21 precincts - 100% x-Robert Curran* 4,684 76% Michael Hamilton 1,125 18% Norman Hall 335 5%

DISTRICT 4

18 of 18 precincts - 100% x-Bill Henry 2,641 39% Scherod Barnes 1,219 18% Ryan Coleman 932 14% Reba Hawkins 813 12% Monica Gaines 584 9% Bill Goodin 315 5% Christopher Hill 137 2% Neil Bernstein 95 1% Earl Holt 64 1%

DISTRICT 5

0 of 0 precincts - 0% x-Rikki Spector* 0 0%

DISTRICT 6

22 of 23 precincts - 96% Sharon Middleton* 3,386 53% Liz Smith 2,275 36% Ramona Baker 374 6% Deborah Ramsey 305 5%

DISTRICT 7

23 of 23 precincts - 100% x-Belinda Conaway* 3,524 62% Tony Asa 1,266 22% Marshall Goodwin 559 10% John Holmes 294 5%

DISTRICT 8

16 of 17 precincts - 94% Helen Holton* 3,858 62% David Smallwood 1,349 22% Benjamin Barnwell 585 9% Andre Mahasa 361 6% Darryl Jefferson 78 1%

DISTRICT 9

19 of 19 precincts - 100% x-Agnes Welch* 3,042 68% Michael Johnson 1,091 24% James Jones 336 8%

DISTRICT 10

21 of 22 precincts - 95% Edward Reisinger* 1,641 43% Terry Hickey 1,161 30% Donnie Fair 539 14% Hunter Pruette 507 13%

DISTRICT 11

26 of 27 precincts - 96% William H. Cole 1,908 34% Fred Mason 1,231 22% Karen Brown 683 12% Nick Mosby 600 11% Adam Meister 467 8% Dana Owens 408 7% Rita Collins 127 2% Brandon Thornton 98 2% Warren Zussman 41 1%

DISTRICT 12

20 of 20 precincts - 100% x-Jack Young* 2,741 74% Frank Richardson 505 14% Ertha Harris 472 13%

DISTRICT 13

19 of 19 precincts - 100% Warren Branch 1,278 27% Vernon Crider* 1,227 26% Emmett Guyton 1,160 25% Robert Stokes 833 18% Cynthia Gross 211 4%

DISTRICT 14

23 of 23 precincts - 100% x-Mary Pat Clarke* 5,962 97% Thomas Conradt 209 3%

x=winner; *=incumbent.

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