A tale of two caucuses

A tale of two caucuses
How increases in voter turnout defeated one senator, reelected another and shattered a myth

Caucuses—not every state has them, but everyone is affected by them.

These aren’t mere straw polls; they’re mini-elections, sometimes with big consequences. Whether it’s the all-important Iowa presidential caucuses or Utah’s unique caucus system that controls ballot access to a primary runoff election, nominations are often won and lost on caucus night.

A common myth about caucuses is that you cannot significantly change voter attendance at these events. The same voters go again and again, conventional wisdom says. And more importantly, the assumption is that the same voters stay away. It’s hard enough to get people to turn out on Election Day, so it’s nearly impossible to get them to step out of their comfort zone and go to a caucus for the first time.

We shattered that myth in back-to-back Senate campaigns in Utah, and in the process delivered an important lesson for anyone plotting caucus strategy. In March 2010, Sen. Bob Bennett (R) virtually lost his third reelection bid on caucus night when statewide voter attendance doubled, buoyed by the efforts of Club for Growth and voters who self-identified with the Tea Party movement. That night, approximately 55,000 caucus attendees elected delegates to the Republican state nominating convention. When Bennett finished third at convention voting two months later, he was off the primary ballot, and his campaign was over.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) took notice and immediately kicked of his plan for caucuses two years in the future. On caucus night 2012, the Hatch campaign had doubled caucus attendance again, up to approximately 110,000. Only this time, the growth in attendance came from those who identified themselves as “traditional Republicans.”

My firm worked on both of these efforts—working against Bennett in 2010 on behalf of Club for Growth and in 2012 for Hatch. But voter turnout at caucuses doesn’t just double. Here’s how we got voters to not just vote but to vote in a place and manner they had never voted before.

Know your voter turnout growth pool

First, you must be able to identify the entire universe of voters your campaign could potentially turn out to caucuses. You need to determine why non-caucus goers haven’t come out to caucuses before and what might motivate them to attend now. In the case of the Club for Growth’s Stop Bob Bennett campaign, we were armed with a focus group study that showed potential first-time caucus attendees were less interested in preventing Bennett from making a runoff election but more interested in stopping him from skipping a primary and getting the nomination without a vote of the larger party members. That’s currently possible in Utah if a candidate gets 60 percent of the delegate vote at convention.

The Hatch campaign commissioned a different survey aimed specifically at understanding what messages would motivate supporters who had never attended caucuses before to actually attend for the first time. The key motivator based on that survey: encouraging a vote at caucus because Mitt Romney needs Orrin Hatch to fix America.

They aren’t caucuses, they’re mini-elections

Voters need to hear the word “vote.” It’s a word they associate with their patriotic duty. They don’t understand the importance of attending caucuses to elect delegates, so don’t focus on the literal process, focus on the familiar action. The Hatch campaign told people to “vote” at caucus, not to “attend” the caucus.

Both the Stop Bob Bennett campaign and the Hatch reelection campaign realized that precinct caucuses aren’t some mass statewide election where one voter equals one vote. Each precinct caucus needs to be treated like a mini-election. For instance, there are 2,000-plus precinct caucuses in Utah where voters elected 3,500 and 4,000 state delegates in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

If you approach each of those 2,000 caucuses as mini-elections, then you must do all the same analysis work you would do for any major election. You have to crunch the data and create vote goals based on historical turnout for each caucus. Upon doing so, you realize that just like all states are not of equal importance in the Electoral College, neither are all caucuses of equal importance in a caucus system.

So you have to analyze each caucus and determine which caucuses are easiest to win with increased voter turnout and then focus and prioritize your work effort. For example, a caucus with one allocated delegate may require an increase of 10 new voters to secure a majority. However, another caucus with three delegates allocated to it may only require an increase of just two voters to swing the majority of that small election.

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