Joel and Adrienne Garreau live in a farmhouse surrounded by woods down a long, unlit and unpaved driveway in Fauquier County, Va. They don’t get many unannounced house calls, and strangers who arrive in the evening hours just might encounter the occasional black bear, as Joel noted in a Facebook posting. Recently, two young visitors braved that road while canvassing for the upcoming congressional elections.
As they left, the two campaign volunteers – they were Democrats – even asked if the residents needed a ride to the polls on Tuesday. Joel said he had his own car, but told the pair that they were the first campaign operatives in the 33 years they’ve lived there to come down that driveway. The canvassers beamed in response.
Although it’s a cliché in politics to say that turnout is key, the overall rate of voter participation doesn’t necessarily determine the winner in midterm elections. Yet, the tipping point to winning a close race is often the ground game: maximizing the efforts to get your supporters to the polls. In 2016, 10 congressional races were won by less than five percentage-point margins, and a few were within 2,000 votes.
With control of Congress at stake, both Democrats and Republicans have invested an inordinate amount of time and money in get-out-the-vote efforts this autumn. Tonight, they will find out whether it was worth it.
“We’re investing tens of millions [of dollars] in dozens of House districts across the country on every media front, including TV, digital, and direct mail and working with partner groups with extensive and proven field programs,” said Jeb Fain, the communications director for Nancy Pelosi’s political action committee. The goal, he added, is “to ensure Democrats get out the vote, and flip seats from coast to coast.”
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee is not content to rely on the candidates’ “air war” – paid ads – or on President Trump’s ability to drum up enthusiasm at his well-attended rallies in swing districts and swing states. The RNC has invested a whopping $275 million into data analytics, field offices and digital techniques in 28 states. “Our investment is unprecedented, because we know we must do everything in our power to defy history,” said RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
While some Republicans view the massive get-out-the-vote program as the party’s secret weapon, others question why some of this money didn’t go directly to candidates in swing districts where they are being out-spent by Democrats. The knives will be out if the RNC’s expensive and high-risk strategy doesn’t work out on Election Day.
For years, Democrats have dominated the get-out-the-vote effort by relying on unions, students and community organizations to rally the troops as the election approaches. Following the 2012 presidential election, when Barack Obama’s victory was aided by a stronger ground game driven by data, the Republican Party was determined to play catch-up. By 2014, the RNC had used data to identify and build a permanent volunteer force in 10 battleground states leading up to the successful 2016 presidential election. Beyond creating a network of door-to-door canvassers to make voter contacts, the RNC invested heavily in a data campaign, carried out mostly via social media, to micro-target voters for donations and encourage voter turnout. On Nov. 6, this new approach will be put to the test as Republicans seek to avoid losing their 23-seat majority in the House.
“The RNC took the Obama playbook and built a permanent running ground game with data in battleground states,” said Conor Maguire, senior client strategist at WPA Intelligence and a former staffer in the RNC data department from 2011 to 2017. “Face-to-face contact with a Republican volunteer is the best method to turn out supportive voters, especially in a midterm,” he added. “Door knocking is effective at voter turnout but television is still king for messaging. While TV isn’t tightly targeted, when you ask people if they remember seeing or hearing a message from television, you can get up to an 80 percent positive response rate.”
Over the last few years, millions of Republican voters have been surveyed by phone or online to determine their hot-button concerns on local, state and national issues. A database has been developed for micro-targeting, for use by party officials and candidates to carry out communication the old-fashioned way — with mail, phone calls and door knocking – but also with texting and social media outreach. “This election cycle, the GOP has finally broken into text messaging. You have to look at a text to decide what to do with it,” said Maguire.
In North Dakota, for example, where voters are not registered by party, WPAi collected data by issue and modeled voter preferences to determine likely GOP voters. Key information points, such a being pro-life, an NRA member or a churchgoer, are used to develop categories of voters so the campaign can communicate in a micro-targeted way through social media. “We developed a pro-life universe of voters and used an ad in which Senate candidate Kevin Cramer’s two daughters talk about their pro-life position pushed to their Facebook pages,” said Maguire, who is involved with the Cramer Senate race as well as races in Arizona, Nevada and Montana.
Hard-core Trump supporters are likely to get robo-calls, text messages and emails from the president urging them to vote. “Any district with a high Trump approval rating will get Trump messaging. It’s helpful,” added Maguire. Trump has appeared at almost 60 rallies since being elected, and each attendee had to provide their email, cellphone number and address to get a ticket. All of these people were added to the get-out-the-vote database.
There are other benefits as well: Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign announced a record fundraising quarter of $106 million, with 98 percent of it coming from donors giving less than $200.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, decided after the 2016 election that a data-driven door-knocking approach was going to be more effective than what other super PACs had traditionally been doing. The CLF has raised an impressive $150 million, but has spent the vast majority of the money, $107 million, on television ads in about 40 districts. Only 5 percent of the CLF budget, less than $10 million, has been spent on opening 40 field offices in swing districts.
Courtney Alexander, the super PAC’s communications director, defended the strategy. “The CLF has rejected the old super PAC model of raising money and saving it all to be spent on television ads in October,” she said. “In key races, voter contact at the door will make a difference in turning out voters and we’ve invested millions of dollars to implement a data-driven field program in combination with television and digital.”
But there are bears in those woods, and not the furry kind. Republicans are committed to avoiding the data disaster that occurred on Election Day in 2012 when Mitt Romney’s high-tech GOTV program crashed, leaving volunteers stranded at polling sites without direction. This time, they have rolled the dice in a big way for a data-driven get-out-the-vote effort; if it’s unsuccessful, there will be a lot of finger pointing about how the money was spent. If it works, more than one Republican will be taking a bow.