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What are Democrats willing to give up in order to get out the vote?

While Republicans wrestle with their Tea Party issues, Democrats here in Michigan are not without malcontents within their own coalition. And, with more than a year out from the 2014 election, that discontent could have some bearing on how the Ds do next year as they look to shift the balance of power in Lansing. We mention all this as the AFL-CIO labor umbrella group wraps up its national convention in Los Angeles.

The last two and a half years in Lansing have not been terribly kind to labor, capped last December when Michigan shocked the nation by becoming a right-to-work state. We’ll see how that law affects union membership in the coming year. It’s widely expected that union rolls - and revenues - will suffer as it becomes easy for workers to opt out of union membership.

Labor, still the core constituency of the Democratic Party, is looking to lawmaking and political action to accomplish what it got in the past through collective bargaining. But to do that, Democrats have to win elections starting next year. In this regard, history does not offer much comfort to Democrats. Michigan governors typically win second terms and the party in the White House typically gets clobbered in the mid-term election of a President’s second term.

There’s an axiom about Michigan and other purple states, especially when it comes to voters in mid-term elections: Democrats are more numerous, but Republicans are more committed. Add to that the congressional and legislative district lines drawn more often than not to benefit Republican candidates and, well, it’s just more bad news for the Ds.

But those district lines, like all this analysis, are all based on turnout models, what we’ve seen happen before. Change the turn out model, and you change the result. But, alas, it’s not as simple as that. If it were that simple, it would happen all the time. Political operations, good ones, anyway, have voter data that drills down to every ward and precinct; some are even more detailed than that. They tell a candidate how many people from various places they need to turn out in order to meet what’s sometimes called a “win” number. They know where people will vote and how they are likely to vote.

Democrats don’t win in 2014 based on classic turn out models. They need a paradigm shift.

They need to resuscitate the Obama turnout machine without President Obama at the top of the ballot; boost turnout among African American and Hispanic voters, and get marginal Democrats - sometimes called “transactional” Democrats - more engaged.

One of the frustrations of the Democratic establishment is people who are part of an individual movement, environmental conservation, advocates for reproductive rights, LGBT, for example, who become involved when their issues are at stake, but don’t consider themselves “fully-made” members of the Democratic Party.

Many of them self-identify as independents, but they are behavioral Democrats when they show up to vote. They’re also more likely to write a check for a specific cause than to a political party or a party caucus. That affects organizing, advertising, phone banks, Election Day get-out-the-vote operations. Money, after all, is the mother’s milk of politics.

Labor would like to have those groups with their votes and their dollars fully within the Democratic fold. But what is labor willing to give up in order to get that? For instance, would labor agree to change the Democratic Party’s convention rules to give other groups a bigger voice? You would never see an insurgency dominate a state Democratic convention the way Tea Partiers can - and do - takeover a Republican convention. Democratic Party rules allow big institutional players like the UAW to buy memberships and dump hundreds of delegates on a convention. That’s what keeps the UAW in charge.

Every party likes to say it’s inclusive, a big tent, a home for all types but that means giving in, giving up a little to, hopefully, win a lot. But no one, once they get power, gives it up that easily….

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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