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.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    If the GOP has perfected targeted turnout drives, though, that dynamic changes.

    The interesting thing about the RI primary is that the Democratic winner, Sheldon Whitehouse got more votes than both Chafee and Laffey COMBINED! And that was in a three-way race!

  2. James Joyner says:

    That’s interesting. Of course, RI is a Democratic state and there were a lot more competitive Democratic down-ballot primaries for House and mayoral races.

    Chafee is an incumbent, so he has demonstrated that he can win statewide. He’s always got an uphill fight, though, with that (R) after his name.

  3. AW says:

    “standard bearers horrendous approval ratings” – Bush is in the low 40s and has been climbing lately. Hardly horrendous.

    “an incredibly unpopular war” – polls still show support at 50-50 or so. Maybe when it gets to 75% against you can use this phrase.

    “concern over the economy” – yes but consumer confidence remains solid and will only improve with the drop in oil and gas prices.

  4. PinkElephant says:

    The Hotline had this to say about voter turnout:

    “Rhode Island will become a case study in the effectiveness of the Republicans’ 72 Hour Program. Behind the curtain, Chafee’s campaign spent $500,000 to squeeze out every conceivable voter from neighborhoods across the state. They searched for independents who voted Democrat in municipal elections but who had once upon a time voted for a Republican for president or governor or senator. There were a few of those. They looked for non-affiliated voters in Republican neighborhoods. Using microtargeting techniques, they even tried to figure out which committed Democrats might be tempted to vote for Chafee.

    By the end of the summer, Chafee’s campaign had identified 42,000 potential supporters. Then the second part of the program kicked in. Message, here, is a verb. The campaign “messaged” these voters, often individually. Chafee himself called more than 100 of them who were identified as being capable of swinging the votes of colleagues and friends. The standard complement of robocalls, mailings and personal visits were employed. In the twelve days of September, Chafee, the RNC and NRSC made more than 198,000 phone calls to the voters on their list. Many voters received one every two days.

    On election day, the Chafee campaign stationed poll watchers at 100 key precincts across the state. By 10:00 am, the RNC and the NRSC were confident that Chafee would win.

    It didn’t faze them when Laffey’s campaign bragged about meeting their targets. Chafee had simply found more voters. Laffey’s turnout was sufficient for a universe of Republicans and identified conservatives. But Chafee had found just about every Republican he could hope for and managed to attract at least 10,000 non-Republicans to his tally. One Republican in the state estimates that as many as 60 percent of the primary electorate were not affiliated with the Republican Party. (More than 20,000 Rhose Islanders requested formal disaffiliation forms after voting.) Chafee even managed to blunt Laffey’s margin of victory in Cranston to just a few hundred votes.

  5. James,

    The republicans have been consistently introducing “blocking and tackling” type improvements and it has been taking the democrats more than one election cycle to catch up. To the best of my knowledge, the democrats haven’t started a GOTV effort like the republicans and I would be surprised if they could put one in pace by 2008, even given the advantage of doing ‘monkey see, monkey do’ copying. And I suspect the GOP will have yet another refinement.

    This is part of the Dean, Emmanuel debate. Dean is arguing for a “50 state” strategy while Emanuel wanted to use the money for a GOP like GOTV. In ’04, my understanding was that Rove had metrics on every freaking precinct that the GOP was conducting a GOTV campaign, doing weekly calls to praise, chastise and yank people who weren’t hitting the metrics. The effort showed with the huge turnout surge. The democrats also had a turnout surge, but not nearly as much (11.8M vs 8M). The meticulous attention of detail that Rove was doing by a high level “name” player is just not something I can imagine from a Dean or similar guy on the democrats side. Maybe its there, maybe you don’t need such a high profile player doing it, but I think it was part of the secret of success.