Did Democrats Peak Too Early?

Did the Democrats’ exile end too soon?

That may be a question that nags at more than a few party activists once all the partying is done.

Democrats have clearly come a long way in rebuilding their party infrastructure since falling from power in the late 1990s.

They’ve upgraded their party databases. They’ve established a relatively small but vibrant group of think tanks and candidate-training programs.

They’ve shown they can craft messages that resonate in every region in the country and used them well enough on Election Day to retake the White House and boost their majorities in the House and Senate.

But the Georgia runoff election last Tuesday exposed some remaining weakness. And it’s unclear if, in these heady times and at this point of transition, the party will focus on it or look past it.

The soft spot exposed in the South is the party’s ability to turn out voters in elections both big and small.

To be fair, the Democrats, including their Senate candidate Jim Martin, faced difficult odds in Georgia. It’s a conservative state that for nearly two decades hasn’t been good to Democrats in federal races.

Adding to the difficulty, they were gunning for an incumbent, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, whose reelection troubles stemmed mostly from Republicans upset with his vote for the $700 billion bailout.

Still, in recent history, federal incumbents in Georgia have faced only a 50-50 chance of getting reelected if they failed to get the majority necessary to avoid a runoff.

Polls had suggested a reasonably close race going into the Dec. 2 runoff, and Martin and Chambliss were just 3 points apart on Election Day.

During the four-week runoff campaign, the two parties spent about the same amount of money on television. Each had compelling messages to offer voters: Martin would give President-elect Barack Obama more strength in the Senate; Chambliss could serve as a check on the new administration.

The big differences came in the tactics of the ground game.

Chambliss had an array of party superstars headline rallies, which helped build energy, draw volunteers and generate publicity. Among those who campaigned beside him were John McCain, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani.

Martin shared stages with Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but most big names, including Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, stayed on the edges of the campaign.

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee activated a voter turnout operation that it’s been honing for more than a decade.

The GOP rallies were used to sign up volunteers and dispatch them to neighborhoods. More than 400,000 targeted voters were contacted by telephone or in face-to-face meetings — some of them two dozen times.

Clint Reed, who ran the Republican ground game, targeted early voters. Reed ran Florida and North Carolina for McCain. On Election Day, his teams there beat Obama’s among absentee voters but lost among those who voted early.

Georgia offered a rematch, since many volunteers in Obama’s Southern state operations stayed to help with the runoff.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also sent in money and support, including Jay Howser, who ran Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s successful reelection campaign in Louisiana, and Matt Canter, who was the communications director for Jeff Merkley’s successful Senate run in Oregon.

For the Democrats, who can put together impressive turnout operations in presidential races, it was one of the sharpest teams in an off election.

Even their competitors braced for a more competitive fight. “We’ve seen their improvement,” said Reed. “Their targeting has improved and the ability to bring all their organizations together. On the ground, you can see the efforts much more coordinated.”

But the RNC’s decision years ago to bring its party’s turnout infrastructure inside its own headquarters paid off again.

Runoffs are notorious for their low turnout, but Chambliss and his team managed to get 65 percent of his supporters back to the polls.

Without the Obama buzz at the top of the ticket, Martin and his team barely drew 51 percent of their supporters back to the voting booths.

The result was a rout, with Chambliss beating Martin by 15 points.

Those are the kind of lopsided results that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has been trying to stop with his 50-state agenda.

But that effort is still in its infancy — and its focus has been on beefing up communications, fundraising and the technological muscle inside state offices, rather than turnout.

Dean is now leaving the party’s top post, making way for an Obama appointment. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who’s tried to add some turnout strength to the DSCC, is stepping down as its chairman.

That raises the question about whether the party’s focus could shift under a new set of leaders.

DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton and other party activists concede the Republicans still have a turnout edge, and many, including those in Obama’s camp, are fighting against complacency.

“We’ve made great progress,” she said, “but there is still a lot of work to do.”

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