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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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Scoping Out The County Executive Primary

A Democratic primary for County Executive will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 10. As of a few weeks ago, there were 374,000 enrolled Democrats in Nassau County. The campaigns should have matched up the official lists with recent postal change-of-address requests and other available information that reduces the pool of potential voters in the primary to a number I’ll round down slightly to 350,000.

Those 350,000 enrolled Democrats include more than 15,000 who voted in the 2005 primary for County Clerk, an event that has largely disappeared from the collective memory of humankind. That turnout was a pretty good indication of the “baseline vote.” If you announce that there’s going to be a countywide primary and open the polling places, five to six percent of enrolled Democrats are going to show up, whether you want them to or not.

At the next level of voter interest, 45,000 Nassau Democrats voted in the 2006 Gubernatorial primary, which featured a local candidate now on the current ballot. That was a 15.1 percent turnout, and about 37,000 of these voters are still on the rolls.

At the highest level of interest, we’ve had some primaries hit or come close to one-in-four turnout, including the 2001 County Executive primary, in which 70,000 participated (24.8 percent turnout). For some that September, in the aftermath of recent tragedies, voting may have seemed like a cathartic or affirming action, increasing turnout. So far, few would describe this upcoming primary with those words.

Given the $5 million already in the spout in this primary, it would make quite a statement if turnout is not at least in the vicinity of 15 percent, or a little more than 50,000 voters. In general, higher turnouts favor the challenger, so somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 voters, the story of this primary will be told.

From an impressive pile of randomized, controlled experiments in voter mobilization conducted over the past 15 years, there is now an unprecedented understanding of the tactics that can motivate an extra two, three and sometimes up to 4.5 percent of targeted voters to cast a ballot. If 60,000 votes are cast, an effective Get Out the Vote program alone can mean the difference between a 52 percent victory and a 48 percent loss. We have hard data about how messages should be worded and the most effective mechanisms for delivery.

How to persuade voters to support a particular candidate is harder to measure scientifically, but Getting Out the Vote we know about. Some of it (“Implementation Expectations,” “Identity Assertions”) seems to come from some military psychological operations manual. It mostly means that personalized messages work better, and that the quality, timing and delivery of messages is critically important.

This final turn of the campaign is about turning supporters into voters. Quality is more important than quantity.

Those rushed, read phone scripts don’t work anymore at any level, though it was worth it to hear a paid caller mispronounce the words “Suozzi” and “Nassau.” The automated robo-calls and impersonal email blasts have no effect on support or turnout. People are already inundated with unsolicited information and we’ve known for years that some of this doesn’t cut through. Give potential voters some credit. They can see through it.

A campaign is the candidates’ time to strut their stuff and shine, free of legislative gridlock or budget deficits or the other restrictions that may straightjacket them after taking office. It isn’t 1993. How citizens communicate, interact, express themselves and mobilize for a common goal have changed so much. These top-down, impersonal campaigns reflect how Nassau County government is now, and not how it could be.

There is still a little time to show us.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: