S.C. Democrats say a more robust and better informed grassroots campaign than the one the party fielded four years ago could eke out an unexpected win Tuesday.
Reaching President Barack Obama’s supporters who “for some odd reason sat at home in 2010” – when Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen lost his bid for governor – is key to a victory, said S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who narrowly defeated Sheheen four years ago, is heavily favored in their rematch, as evidenced by the fact that every poll issued this year has found Haley leading Sheheen.
But Democrats are insisting they can pull off an upset.
In part, Sheheen says, that is possible because the state party and his campaign – and others – are working more collaboratively than they did four years ago.
“The campaigns and the (county) parties have worked hand-in-glove to make sure there’s a coordinated effort, instead of what is traditionally – everybody going their own way and doing their own things,” he said.
For Democrats, something needs to change.
Democrats have not won a statewide office in South Carolina since Jim Rex was elected state schools chief in 2006. They have not elected a governor since 1998.
And the odds are not in their favor this year. Polls show Democrats running statewide trailing their Republican rivals. Republican candidates, typically, also have raised and spent far more money than their Democratic opponents.
The Democrats’ get-out-the-vote strategy only will lead to a win Tuesday if they do a great job and Republicans are not successful in getting supporters to the polls, one political scientist says.
But Democratic leaders are optimistic about their efforts, which began with taking a page from Obama’s two presidential runs and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s win last year, swinging that state Democratic blue from Republican red.
“We needed to start early, much earlier than we have in the past,” Harrison said.
Establishing a volunteer network across the state early on, hiring field organizers who are working with county parties, and relying heavily on updated voter data to direct volunteers are all part of the strategy, he said.
About the numbers
The party’s focus on grassroots campaigning has taken a different shape since 2010, when Sheheen lost to Haley by 4.5 percentage points, or about 60,000 votes.
But just how much bigger – or better – Democrats’ efforts are this year over four years ago is not entirely clear.
Democratic Party officials will not share specific numbers – speaking instead in terms of thousands of phone calls and thousands of doors that volunteers have knocked on.
On Wednesday, Sheheen said Democrats have more than 10,000 volunteers knocking on doors – an unconfirmed number – and have many more campaign offices across the state than in 2010.
Former S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian, who chaired the party from 2011-13 and twice before, provided an update on Democratic efforts Friday.
“We knocked on 40,000 doors this week,” Harpootlian said, referring to an email he received from the party.
The party’s campaign structure in 2010 “was not what I would call sufficient,” Harpootlian said, adding he started an effort to modernize the party’s campaigning, hiring staff to update voter files and organize grassroots efforts.
Reaching ‘drop-off voters’
Harrison, Democratic chairman since 2013, said the party is trying to reach “drop-off voters” – the roughly 235,000 people who voted for Obama in 2012 who did not cast ballots for Sheheen in 2010.
That number dwarfs the 60,000-vote margin Haley beat Sheheen by in 2010.
University of South Carolina political scientist Bob Oldendick said Democrats are more organized this year, concentrating a lot of their efforts in African-American communities. (Three black Democrats also are on the statewide ballot.)
“But the question is: Can they get them to turn out?” Oldendick added. “Without a presidential candidate and without an African American at the top of the ticket, there’s not the type of enthusiasm there was back in 2008.”
Presidential elections lure more voters to the polls. Fewer voters come out in midterm elections when, in South Carolina, voters elect the governor and other statewide constitutional officers.
In Obama’s historic 2008 election, 76 percent of S.C. registered voters cast ballots compared to just 52 percent in the 2010 midterms, when voters elected Haley governor. In 2012, when Obama was again on the ballot, S.C. voter turnout was 67 percent.
“It’s really very difficult to do,” Oldendick said. “When they look at those numbers, they’re only looking at one side of the equation.”
‘Taking ourselves ... seriously’
Harrison and party spokeswoman Kristin Sosanie will not say, specifically, how many Democratic volunteers are making calls and knocking on the doors of probable Democratic voters.
Sosanie said the state party has campaign posts in more than half of the state’s 46 counties. Those operations include some places – like Anderson County – “where you wouldn’t think we would have one,” Sheheen said.
York County Democratic Party chairwoman Amy Hayes said she has seen a huge difference in the state party’s campaign approach compared to four years ago.
The party is more “efficient,” she said, setting goals, for example, for how many doors will be knocked on.
Hayes does not put much stock in polls, which show Sheheen and other Democrats running for statewide office trailing their GOP opponents.
“Everything (in the polls) hinges on who (pollsters) think will turn out,” she said, adding, “We’ve put so much work into communicating with people who don’t turn out in the midterms.”
Hayes, who said she is almost nine-months pregnant and plans to knock on doors anyway, said the statewide campaign this year is more organized and “efficient.”
Volunteers set goals for how many doors they want to knock on and are “being much more thoughtful about what doors we do knock,” she said.
The party was not always that organized or focused, she said.
“We’re trying to take ourselves as seriously as we wish everyone took us.”