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What Democrats Can Learn From Thad Cochran: Turnout, Turnout, Turnout!

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Cross-posted from The Nation

Yes, yes, of course, the veteran Republican senator's comeback win in Tuesday's Mississippi Republican primary runoff made it a lot less likely that the Magnolia State will join Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina on the list of Southern states where Democrats could win Senate seats this fall. And, yes, that will make it harder for Democrats to hold their majority in the chamber.

But Cochran's win taught a pair of lessons that Democrats must learn -- not as talking points but as a core concepts -- if they hope to secure positive results in November.

Lesson One: Turnout is definitional.

Lesson Two: Turnout can be substantially increased, even in the most difficult of circumstances, with focused energy, resources and messaging.

In the initial Mississippi Republican Senate primary, Cochran's Tea Party-backed challenger, Chris McDaniel, narrowly led the conservative -- yet relatively genteel -- incumbent. McDaniel fell just short of winning 50 percent, however, and under Mississippi law a runoff was required between the top two finishers.

By most measures, that should have been the end of it for Cochran.

Runoffs usually attract lower voter turnout than initial primaries, and Tea Party candidates thrive in low-turnout contests--when the most extreme voters are the most likely to show up.

Cochran was advised to give up.

Instead, he decided to pour time and money into hiking the turnout --especially among voters who were likely to reject a Tea Party candidate.

The strategy worked.

Instead of declining, turnout for the runoff increased. A lot.

The runoff attracted almost 20 percent more voters than the initial primary, for what The Jackson Clarion-Ledger identified an increase of more than 65,000 ballots.

Much of that spike came in counties with substantial African-American populations. Mississippi's African-American population provides much of the base vote for the Democratic Party in the state. But under Mississippi law, Democrats can "cross over" and vote in Republican primaries and runoffs -- just as Republicans can, and often have, voted in Democratic primaries and runoffs.

The crossover vote appears to have helped Cochran a good deal. As veteran political scientist Larry Sabato points out, "The Mississippi counties with a black population higher than the state's county median saw turnout increase by 27 percent over the runoff, and Cochran won these counties by about 25,000 votes. Meanwhile, the counties with a black population lower than the median had a turnout increase of 13 percent, and McDaniel won these counties by about 19,000 votes. Cochran's overall victory margin of nearly 6,400 votes is about the difference between those two numbers."

In the first primary, Cochran battled McDaniel for right-wing votes, emphasizing his pro-gun record and social consevatism. In the runoff, however, Cochran switched to a more mainstream message that emphasized his support for federal programs that aid Mississippi and especially for education.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

Nichols writes about politics (more...)
 

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