Chafee Race a Model for Voter Turnout
Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza have an interesting piece in today’s WaPo (A23) that argues Lincoln Chafee’s primary victory may well be a model for Republican victory in November.
The turnout campaign that Republican operatives used to help pull Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee to victory in the Rhode Island primary was a potent demonstration of how money and manpower can transform a race even in an unfavorable political environment — and a preview of the strategy that national party officials say they plan to replicate in the most competitive House and Senate races over the next 55 days.
In the past two national elections, in 2002 and 2004, Republicans outperformed Democrats in bringing their backers to the polls, but many Democrats and independent analysts have suggested that the competition may be different this year, in part because of slumping morale among GOP activists. But Chafee’s performance — combined with reports of late-starting organization and internal bickering on the Democratic side — suggest that the Republican advantage on turnout may remain intact even as many other trends are favoring the opposition.
The Republican National Committee, convinced that Chafee is the party’s only chance of keeping a seat in a Democratic-leaning state, spent $400,000 to ship 86 out-of-state volunteers and several paid staff members to Rhode Island. They targeted not just Republicans but also independent voters during the final days of the campaign, following a blueprint developed months ago by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Chafee campaign. The effort helped Chafee survive a spirited challenge from Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey by boosting primary turnout to an all-time high. In June, GOP leaders used a similar turnout program to help lobbyist Brian Bilbray win a special California election for the House seat vacated by indicted GOP Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
There were several factors behind Chafee’s 54 percent to 46 percent win, including his popularity among independents and his decision to attack Laffey in television ads during the final weeks of the campaign. But it was the repeat success of the GOP voter-mobilization program that had Democrats anxiously examining returns. “Their turnout operation is exquisite,” a senior Democratic strategist said. “We are not going to match them.”
Events this week put the GOP edge in sharp relief. While the RNC was fine-tuning its “microtargeting” program in Rhode Island, Democrats were announcing they had finally resolved a months-long dispute between Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) over a budget for mobilizing voters. The DNC will spend $12 million to help Democrats up and down the ballot this fall. Some party leaders privately acknowledge that House Democrats in particular are only beginning to put in place an operation to turn out voters and that Republicans are many months ahead in planning.
The RNC road-tested a new technology in the race that officials said is making their targeting program faster and more precise. It is based on a program that allows volunteers to call potential voters, note their political views and preferences on sheet of paper and immediately scan the results into a huge database known as the Voter Vault. Experts in the political practice known as microtargeting can then instantly analyze the results to determine which issues are moving voters and adjust their pitch.
Given that most of the key races are within 3-5 points, turnout will surely be the difference. The conventional wisdom has long held that high turnout benefits Democrats, since their base includes more apathetics for a variety of demographic reasons. If the GOP has perfected targeted turnout drives, though, that dynamic changes.
Of course, this advantage will likely evaporate after a single election cycle, as it’s a lot easier to reverse engineer and copy a program that to invent it. Still, holding onto the Congress despite the party standard bearer’s horrendous approval ratings, an incredibly unpopular war, and concern over the economy would be a neat trick, indeed.