WASHINGTON — Running against President Reagan in 1984, Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale had little reason for hope. But his political director, Michael Ford, saw one longshot option.
"Reagan is unbeatable in the current electorate," Ford told Mondale. "Our only chance is to change the electorate."
Ford's plan? An all-out effort to register 6 million new voters likely to be friendly to the Democratic cause.
But Mondale's other advisors sneered at the idea as "backward" thinking, Ford recalled recently. They took the money that Ford's scheme would have cost and put it into television commercials. Then, as now, that was the safe move--but it did nothing at all to arrest Mondale's descent into a landslide defeat.
No one knows what effect Ford's scheme would have had on the election. But the rejection of the idea, given Mondale's desperate circumstances, illustrates that for all the rhetoric to the contrary, there exists a deep-rooted resistance within both parties to expanding the national electorate.
And that attitude goes a long way toward explaining why voter turnout has ominously shrunk over the last 30 years, reaching the point where nonvoters are expected to make up close to two-thirds of the electorate in this fall's midterm elections.
"People in the business of politics don't sit down and explicitly say, 'How can we drive down turnout?' " said Ford, a veteran of more than half a dozen Democratic presidential campaigns. "But they won't do anything to move it the other way."
The big reason is risk: the unwillingness to confront the uncertainties that would be created by a changed political environment.
"Politicians who have risen to power in a low-turnout political environment have little to gain and much to fear from an expanded electorate," said Ben Ginsberg, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist. He said that when officeholders talk about "getting out the vote," they generally mean their own voters, not the legions of nonparticipants.
In the 1996 presidential election, turnout dropped below 50% of eligible citizens, reaching the lowest level since Calvin Coolidge's election in 1924. And as this fall's midterm approaches, professionals in both parties are hard-pressed to find any evidence to suggest a reversal of the downward trend.
What makes this slump all the more disturbing is that it has persisted despite the enactment five years ago of the motor-voter law, designed to ease the burden of voter registration by linking it to the issuance of driver's licenses.
Some politicians regard the turnout decline with equanimity, even viewing it as evidence of public contentment. "The happier people are, the less likely they are to vote," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, chairman of the Republican Senate campaign committee.
But others dispute that diagnosis, attributing the poor turnout to citizen alienation that began with the twin traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, combined with the sustained crumbling of the two major political parties.
And analysts worry that the low turnout is part of a vicious cycle--the voter apathy and cynicism yield more power to special interests, which in turn makes voters even more cynical and more apathetic.
"Increasingly, parties and leaders are targeting likely voters and don't give a damn about the whole electorate," said Curtis Gans, head of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a think tank that studies voting patterns. "As a result, you get a constant narrowing of the electorate."
With or without the cooperation of politicians, some independent groups are acting to expand the electorate, among them the Southwest Voter Registration Project, which registers Latinos in 15 states, including California.
As has been especially evident in pockets of Southern California, recent moves to restrict the rights of immigrants and cut back on affirmative action programs have boosted the response from Latinos who have lived in the United States legally but never took the step to become citizens, according to the project's executive director, Lydia Camarillo. "Now [these immigrants] say, 'The only way we can protect ourselves is by becoming American citizens and registering to vote,' " she said.
Still, on Capitol Hill, there seems to be little ardor on either side of the aisle for any protracted effort to spur greater turnout.
Republicans are notably outspoken in their disinterest in the turnout problem. "I don't think we ought to play to that crowd," said Rep. John Linder of Georgia, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, referring to nonvoters.
Instead, Linder said, "we will make an effort to energize our base, and we will make an effort to dispirit [the Democratic] base."