May 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

Parties redouble efforts to gain edge in voter turnout

In an election year when Republicans are viewed as having the advantage, Michigan Democrats hope to prevail with a Barack Obama-style campaign that gets more Democratic voters than usual to the polls.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson argues the party can identify Democrats in a Democratic-leaning state who have stayed home during gubernatorial election years and energize them using new technologies.

“The higher the vote, the more likely the state is to go Democratic,” Johnson said.

But Republicans say they can capitalize on President Barack Obama’s low job approval rating and win with GOP Gov. Rick Snyder at the head of the ticket as well as their own new technology they contend rivals Obama’s.

Fueling the GOP optimism, in part, is Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg’s recent nationwide survey that finds key Obama voters don’t plan on showing up at the polls in the same numbers this year as they did in 2012, when Obama was re-elected.

“There’s a lot more enthusiasm on our side this time around, and Republicans just generally do better in midterm elections,” said Ryan Mahoney, deputy press secretary of the Republican National Committee.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for (Democrats) to convince people who weren’t engaged last time to engage this time around when their base is not as excited about their candidates or voting in general.”

Michigan has many high-stakes races. Control of the U.S. Senate could be decided by the close race between Democratic U.S. Rep. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township and Republican former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land from the Grand Rapids area. In all, Michigan has five open seats out of 16 in the House and Senate — the most since 1992.

The AFL-CIO has a nationwide campaign targeting Snyder and five other GOP governors for defeat.

Democrats also hope to loosen the GOP’s hold on the Legislature by gaining control of the state House .

Low turnout favors GOP

Midterms don’t usually favor Democrats in Michigan. When casual voters who lean Democratic don’t show up in non-presidential years, many Republicans typically win.

Snyder easily won the governor’s office in 2010, when 43 percent of Michigan’s voting-age population, or 3.27 million, cast ballots. It was the lowest turnout since 1990.

But Obama and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, sailed to re-election in 2012 when there was 63 percent turnout, or 4.78 million voters.

Of the 1.5 million fewer voters in 2010 compared with 2012, about 995,000 were Democrats, according to Michigan Democrats. The Republican no-shows totaled about 250,000, according to the Michigan GOP.

Democrats would prefer a repeat of the 2006 midterm election, when growing disapproval of President George W. Bush and other factors prompted 51 percent of voters to turn out — the most in an off-year since 1970. Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was re-elected, and Democrats regained control of the U.S. House from the GOP.

The Democratic National Committee is supplying updated and data-rich voter files known as VoteBuilder and web applications designed to generate more turnout, including a polling place locator, social media “commit to vote” pledge and a tool known as Airwolf to quickly connect volunteers to field organizers, according the Michigan Democratic Party. The DNC effort is dubbed “Project Ivy” and is designed to arm down-ballot candidates with the latest technology.

“There’s a growing consensus at every level of the Democratic Party that the only way to run campaigns is with a data-driven mindset,” said Matt Compton, DNC digital director. “I think more than anything that’s what separates us from the other side.”

In June, the Michigan Democratic Party will build on the data and roll out a new online tool to help volunteers identify and engage those 995,000 voters who sat out in 2010.

“We’re going to throw the kitchen sink at those voters,” Johnson said. “Understanding who these voters are and having new ways to connect with them will be enormously helpful to us in 2014 to solve our No. 1 problem in Michigan, which is turnout.”

Dems' demographics down

But recent polling suggests turnout for Democrats may be more like 2010 — a banner year for Republicans nationally and in Michigan.

Greenberg’s polling firm found in a national survey published in April that a key bloc in the Democratic coalition — young people, minorities and unmarried women — are 64 percent likely to vote this year, compared with 79 percent of all other voters.

“This is a potentially serious problem for Democrats — turnout demographics look a lot like 2010 at the moment,” said Erica Seifert, senior associate at the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner research firm, who noted turning out these voters offers a real opportunity for Democrats.

Republicans have conceded Obama outpaced them on technology in the past two presidential elections, and have worked to catch up. Local Republicans invested a “significant” amount of money and created what Chairman Bobby Schostak calls the “gold standard” for field operations.

Rolled out in February, the Michigan GOP launched a dashboard toolsimilar to one Obama used in 2012 by letting volunteers do phone bank calls from their homes and upload responses without having to drive to a field office. The GOP dashboard preloads neighbors’ phone numbers and addresses, and volunteers can import their own contacts from Facebook.

“It’s connecting with a greater number of voters and creating more volunteers and more voter engagement earlier than ever before,” Schostak said.

GOP creates 11 field offices

The Republican National Committee also put more emphasis on year-round field operations to have regular contact with voters, Mahoney said. As a result, Michigan GOP created 11 field offices, including one that opened in December in Detroit.

“Michigan’s operation is fantastic and one of the strongest and largest in the country,” Mahoney said.

Republicans argue their application of the data has finally caught up. While Johnson may try to make up for low turnout in midterms, history is not on his side, Schostak said.

“We’ve found a way to get in touch with our voters in significant ways with the best technology today available anywhere in America,” he said. “And this tool is going to put us right where we need to be without setting some pie-in-the-sky numbers to do so.”

Johnson retorted Republicans need to improve at developing better policies.

“You can have all the dashboards you want,” he said, “but if you don’t have the candidate and the message that resonates with voters, it doesn’t matter.”

Both parties’ technologies and candidates will be put to the real test in the Nov. 4 general election.

mschultz@detroitnews.com