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For Democrats, getting out the vote could mean taking back Congress

Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP | Stickers are offered to voters who cast a ballot in early voting for the midterm elections on October 8, 2018, in Des Moines, Iowa.

With Hillary Clinton's defeat to Donald Trump two years ago, Democrats learned that support in opinion polls does not always translate to votes at the ballot box. Now, with the midterms approaching, they will be hoping history won't repeat itself.

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At a small stand on a street corner in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn one Sunday, a group of cheery volunteers hand out flyers to passers-by emblazoned with, "Max Rose for Congress".

"Vote for Max this November 6th," they tell the mothers with prams, families, couples and retirees who take the flyers – the ones who do not wave away their approach and keep walking.

Rose is the Democratic nominee for New York's 11th congressional district, which covers parts of south Brooklyn and the whole of Staten Island, where he is challenging Republican Daniel Donovan.

He faces a tough task. The 11th is the only district in New York City that leans Republican in presidential elections and the only one with a Republican congressional representative, which it has had since 2013.

However, the race is expected to be close enough that it has been targeted by the Democrats as a battleground district. If the party is to realise its hopes of regaining control of Congress, it is exactly this kind of race the Democrats need to win, and doing so will mean getting out their voters en masse on election day.

"Like a lot of races, it's about how many voters you can inspire and get to the polls," says Rachel Brody, the deputy field director for Rose's campaign, as she chats with the volunteers in Bay Ridge.

"We've got 50 volunteers working here today plus another 90 on the eastern side of the district, and last week we had 150 in Staten Island. It's absolutely critical to get out and meet people. It's about making sure they feel part of the campaign."

'Just vote!'

For the Democrats in these upcoming midterm elections, it is all about getting people to the ballot box and minimising abstentions as much as possible.

"Don’t boo. Don’t hashtag. All that stuff is nice to do. Just vote!" was the message from Barack Obama as he addressed a rally in Las Vegas in October. To not cast your ballot, he said, would be "profoundly dangerous".

The Democrats know the heavy cost of abstention. Two years ago, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in the presidential election despite almost every opinion poll in the run-up to the vote putting her ahead.

To some political analysts, Clinton lost not because of a surge in Republican votes, but because too many Democratic voters stayed at home, backed up by figures showing high abstention rates in urban, multicultural districts where a Democratic candidate would be expected to do well.

Rather than Trump winning over voters, the argument goes, Clinton failed to inspire them. So many who might have preferred a Clinton presidency never cast their votes.

Democrats today are talking about a "blue wave" heading to Capitol Hill and they hope it will be enough to take back the House and maybe even flip the Senate, putting the brakes on some of Trump's policy goals and regaining the initiative after their shock defeat.

But for that to happen, they will need not to repeat the mistakes of 2016.

"Really, it's a trope almost to the point of comedy in political circles that it's all going to come down to turnout," says Cameron Easley, Washington editor at the survey research firm Morning Consult.

Enthusiasm gap

With turnout in midterms elections typically low (36.4 percent in 2014), results often come down to which party does the better job of motivating their base to go to the ballot box on election day.

The good news for Democrats is that they seem to be winning that battle at the moment.

A Pew poll taken in September showed that, while voter enthusiasm is relatively high overall, it is significantly higher among Democrats: 67 percent of Democrats said they were more motivated than usual to vote, compared to 59 percent of GOP voters.

Other polls have found a similar "enthusiasm gap". A Morning Consult/POLITICO survey (PDF) conducted in mid-October found that 76 percent of Democrats reported being "very motivated" to vote compared to 68 percent of Republicans.

This is something of a novelty for midterms.

"Typically in midterm elections, Republicans have the enthusiasm edge by quite a bit," says Ruth Igielnik, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.

"It won't necessarily translate into voting, but that enthusiasm edge is not something the Democrats have had in our data for the past several midterm cycles."

The biggest motivators? Kavanaugh, Trump

Comparisons to polling data from earlier in the year allude to some of the reasons for this energy.

"We've seen a double-digit jump for Democrats in terms of voter motivation between now and, say, early to mid-September – when the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process started to go off the rails," says Easley.

Indeed, it seems that the Democrats' best weapon in lowering abstention may not be their own canvassing efforts and campaign ads, but the Republicans.

Anger over Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court despite allegations of sexual assault – along with strident disapproval of Trump's presidency in general – appear to be the key drivers of the Democratic eagerness to vote on November 6.

"That shouldn't really be a surprise," says Easley. "There's a lot of research that shows that voters tend to react to negative information a lot more than to positive information."

Essentially, he says, angry people are more likely to vote.

"And we see that with the Kavanaugh confirmation: the Democrats were mad that it happened and they're still mad about it, whereas the Republicans got what they wanted, so they're pretty happy."

Some Democrats are madder than others and polling figures suggest female Democratic voters, outraged by Kavanaugh's confirmation and some of Trump's rhetoric, are particularly eager to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

War chest

But not only do the Democrats have the edge when it comes to voter enthusiasm, they are also ahead of the GOP in another valuable resource: funding.

Democrats have been outraising Republicans across the country, particularly in tight races, figures show. Furthermore, a lot of this money has come from small donors handing over a few dollars online rather than large corporate or super-wealthy benefactors.

Again, this suggests a tide is rising among the Democratic base, convincing them to part with their hard-earned cash to support the cause. But it also means Democratic candidates have a bigger war chest to spend on campaign videos, canvassing, flyers, stickers and placards: all essential components of the get-out-the-vote ground game.

For those on the ground like Brody, while this has become one of the most nationalised midterm campaigns in living memory – and for some, nothing short of a referendum on Trump – the battles are still being fought at a local level, in among the voters on the streets of the district.

"When they talk about a blue wave sweeping Washington, that's not just something that's going to happen by itself," she says. "But when you get 100 volunteers gathered in your office and you go out canvassing on the streets, knocking on doors, talking to the voters – that's the blue wave."

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