If you haven't started your GOTV push, you're already late...
When it comes to getting out the vote, 72 hours just doesn’t cut it anymore. Five years ago, the GOP’s meticulous 72-hour program was cited again and again, particularly in Ohio, as a driver behind the party’s success in what strategists say was largely a base election. Now, as campaign strategists prepare for a volatile midterm cycle, they say there’s really no such thing as a 72-hour program anymore.
For one thing, early and absentee voting in most states have changed turnout models, so the %uFB01nal 72-hour push might be too little, too late. According to Rich Beeson, a partner in the Republican voter contact %uFB01rm FLS Connect and a former political director at the Republican National Committee, “It’s 720 hours now.” In order to have an impact, organizing professionals in both parties stress that %uFB01eld programs for the 2010 elections must begin earlier than ever before—and plenty of them have already begun more than a year from Election Day.
National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Jesmer says “classic GOTV” has gone from a weeklong to a yearlong process. His committee started working with the Republican National Committee and state parties in September to begin their 2010 %uFB01eld plans, which consist of gathering information from voters well into next March and messaging based on that information beginning in mid- to late-summer before moving into turnout.
Across the political divide, the California-based Love Honor Cherish, “a grassroots organization dedicated to securing equal marriage rights in California and nurturing a new generation of civil rights leaders,” is vowing not to let poor GOTV operations keep it from overturning the state’s ban on gay marriage. The group asserts in its 2010 “campaign blueprint” that to repeal Proposition 8, passed in 2008, the length and strength of the %uFB01eld program must improve dramatically. “One of the greatest failings of the ‘No on 8’ campaign was that it relied mainly on paid staff and consultants and a media campaign, and did not motivate the ‘silent majority’ of grassroots volunteers who could have done on-the-ground organizing and fundraising for the campaign, and who would have lent a human face to the issue for the voters,” the plan reads.
Allies of the organization recently calculated that 10 times more volunteer canvassing hours are needed ahead of the 2010 election than were logged last year in order to change minds and be successful, but Love Honor Cherish insists on the blueprint that’s possible with a %uFB01eld plan that’s already underway 15 months, rather than just a few months, before voters hit the polls.
Compared to the near-hysteria of the 2008 presidential cycle, generating excitement will be tougher in the next 13 months. “2010 is going to be a challenge because the electorate is [historically] not as engaged for midterm elections,” so %uFB01eld programs are taking shape even earlier than they did in the last drawn-out cycle, says Marlon Marshall, national %uFB01eld director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and formerly a top %uFB01eld staffer for both Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary effort and President Obama’s general election campaign. Marshall says the DCCC has already begun working on how to build %uFB01eld programs tailored to each district, and he’s far less concerned with %uFB01nal GOTV efforts at this point as his organization focuses on building up “long and sustained” %uFB01eld programs.
Operatives and consultants in both parties agree that means indentifying community activists now whose neighbors trust them and who can be trusted by the party to relay a message—both in the off-season and when the attacks start later. They emphasize that it’s not the organizers who should be building relationships directly with voters, but that organizers should be helping to determine and develop the most effective messengers their neighbors can trust on certain issues.
Jeremy Bird, deputy director of Organizing for America—the remainders of the president’s campaign which is now housed at the DNC, says there’s an ever-growing focus on the data integration of the Democratic Party’s donor and volunteer base, voter %uFB01le and unregistered voters as %uFB01eld operations progress. While online mobilization tools expand and diversify, turning out every interested voter identi%uFB01ed through some form of social networking remains a challenge, but that’s one reason the party has worked to set up health care-related gatherings throughout the country this summer and continues to concentrate on house parties. Although OFA has taken some heat for a perceived lack of ef%uFB01cacy in defending the president’s agenda—which critics say pale in comparison to what the same organizers were able to put together during last year’s election—Bird considers the output “a huge success.” After the 2004 election, President Bush’s team did not have the same sort of organized effort to push for Social Security reform in early 2005, and the GOP’s support base started to unravel from there.
In other words, keeping campaign activists engaged on the issues in the off year is still in its experimental stage, but the point is the continuity of a structured, decentralized %uFB01eld operation with “people from your neighborhood,” Bird notes. The DCCC’s Marshall e-mailed a memo to supporters in August about healthcare reform that included the message, “More and more, we’re hearing alarming reports from grassroots supporters that ordinary Americans at birthday parties, summer picnics, and backyard barbeques are believing the lies they are being told by the right wing on health insurance reform.” Supporters were encouraged to download a double-sided “healthcare fact check” card the size of a bookmark listing %uFB01ve “Republican myths” on the issue that supporters could discuss with their friends at all of those summertime neighborhood gatherings Marshall listed.
Despite Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds’ trailing Republican Bob McDonell in early polls, Democrats say their organizational framework is still in- tact for the coming elections. Mike Henry, whose candidate in the Democratic primary, Terry McAuliffe, lost to Deeds, explains that the Democrats have been successful in building a “huge” capacity for a turnout universe in the Commonwealth over the past decade. And because state elections follow the presidential year, the parties are able to keep them engaged at all times. Henry, who is now the campaign manager for attorney general candidate Mike Shannon, adds that because of the competitive gubernatorial primary among Democrats in the %uFB01rst half of the year, outreach to voters “never stopped” after the presidential election.
For their part, Republicans are also drilling down on neighbor-to-neighbor contact, which the NRSC’s Jesmer says is something the party has veered away from in the last few cycles. Instead, he says there was too much of a focus on what worked in 2002 and 2004, which centered largely on the quantity of contacts made with each voter. Jesmer points out that millions will be spent in each of the Senate races in Missouri, Nevada and Ohio next year on turnout alone. All three are highly competitive races in large states. In the last several cycles, both parties have %uFB02own canvassing volunteers into those swing states from Washington, New York or other centralized locations with large volunteer bases, but Jesmer thinks that’s a tactic the party may want to reconsider as the 2010 cycle moves forward.
Casey O’Shea, Marshall’s predecessor at the DCCC, and Brian Smoot, who worked with O’Shea as the committee’s national political director, launched the %uFB01rm 4C Partners earlier this year with Nicole Runge and Seth Pendleton, who also held top positions at the DCCC last cycle. With their new %uFB01rm, O’Shea and Smoot will assist campaigns in building %uFB01eld and grassroots programs, and they, too, stress the importance of “sustained voter contact” with “repetitive and redundant” messaging throughout the election cycle. “It’s important to open up the dialogue before the vast bulk of paid communications begin,” Smoot says. By the time that phase of a campaign kicks into gear, Smoot and O’Shea say campaigns should have moved most of their voters out of their persuasion universe and into their GOTV universe by earning the trust of voters at the grassroots level to preempt or blunt the impact of negative information.
Mobilizing The Troops
For as much time and energy spent cultivating the newest online technologies to organize and connect with voters, Smoot says when it comes to mobilizing them, nothing is as effective as face-to-face contact that comes from knocking on their doors. Consequently, he prefers to pay canvassers in order to make them more accountable for the message they have to deliver, in part because door-knocking can seem an intimidating task to volunteers. Nevertheless, it’s important to maximize the number of volunteers who can serve as messengers, and the rise of low-dollar donors in last year’s election has created a new volunteer base, says John Yaggi, a %uFB01eld organizer for Clinton’s presidential campaign and a co-founder of the nascent Forward Solutions Group based in Madison, Wisconsin. The %uFB01rm focuses on Midwestern issues-based campaigns and candidates for city and county of%uFB01ces—races that count on small donations. While in previous cycles campaigns have tried to squeeze every dollar from any place they can, time is the new commodity. Yaggi says it’s vital to follow up with every donor who contributes even $5 or $25 to ask them for a little time, or it’s a wasted opportunity with someone who has already invested in the campaign and could be an effective messenger in his or her community.
FLS’s Beeson says phone-banking remains a highly effective tool and a good use of volunteer time, especially now that volunteers can place calls from home. During the 2004 cycle, volunteers had to go into phone banks and later upload information collected from voters they contacted. As of last year’s campaign, organizers could see data changing in real time when the volunteers used their cell phones. Because volunteers no longer have to physically go into a call center to do that kind of work, it’s another way to keep them activated in the off-season.
Almost all campaigns are using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in their outreach, but few have %uFB01 gured out how to translate online involvement into votes. Henry still believes social networking tools can be components of a successful %uFB01eld operations. They are ways of spreading information and letting voters know how they can stay involved. Social networking is also “another way for a word of mouth campaign and a third-party validator,” Henry says. “People have a variety of friends in a variety of different places, and if a friend of yours is voting for a candidate, that’s another data point for you and is good information to have.”
Online services multiply outreach across terrestrial borders. “Facebook knows no geographic bounds, so if I live in Fairfax but have an old neighbor I’ve known for 20 years now living in Bristol, I can’t exactly knock on her door,” he says. “But I might be more effective as a friend on Facebook encouraging her to vote than a neighbor of hers she’s only known for one year as opposed to 20.”
Carl Forti, a founding partner of the Black Rock Group public affairs %uFB01rm and the national political director of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, isn’t ready to rely too heavily on established social media networks. “Republicans can Twitter and text and Facebook all they want to, but the fact remains that their voters aren’t using those mediums in large enough numbers to justify the amount of time campaigns are spending on it,” he says. “They’re playing the coolness factor.” A new technology Forti is exploring, however, is video messaging via cell phones. Although there are some limits because so few cell phones are able to accept video at this point, as that changes, campaigns can push short video clips directly to interested parties without relying on an e-mailed link to YouTube.
Pushing The Limits
The push to start %uFB01eld operations earlier than ever stems from the problems both sides have run into the harried %uFB01nal days before an election. A veteran Republican %uFB01eld operative says that every year, Democrats complain of voter intimidation—even where there are no cases reported—simply to motivate their base. But the problem exists within Democratic circles as well. Obama and Clinton campaign staffers still complain that the Nevada Democratic caucus was “a mess,” because the campaigns employed intimidation tactics to depress the other’s turnout, including telling caucus-goers outside certain locations that it was a Clinton- or Obama-only caucus site.
Both sides say what to watch for as the cycle continues is, as always, how coordination between campaigns and independent groups evolves. During last year’s presidential primary, one under-funded campaign tried to skirt coordination laws by setting up other organizations with soft money to do its “dirty work” because it couldn’t raise enough hard money to move a %uFB01eld plan within its campaign structure, says the same Republican operative. That operative adds that for Democrats, coordinating all the different turnout mechanisms of organized labor within the bounds of the law is a dif%uFB01cult task.
Where coordination is concerned, Smoot and O’Shea insist that that’s just another reason to get started earlier. Each state’s coordinated campaign (known as “victory campaigns” on the Republican side) can have money funneled to it from the national party, but when the state sends out canvassers to knock on doors, the messages those canvassers deliver have to include multiple campaigns—be it a senator, governor, House member or local candidate. For that reason, if a campaign is only able to get one line through to a voter in a coordinated door knock, it had better be well-tested, clear, effective, and already in use.
Going forward, Forti’s Black Rock Group recently requested an advisory opinion from the Federal Election
Commission, asking if the %uFB01rm “may serve as a commercial vendor to one or more single member limited liability companies that make independent expenditures concerning federal elections or candidates without triggering political committee status, and such independent expenditures would not constitute contributions.” A time extension has since been placed on the request, but it’s yet another pitch to dismantle the restrictions placed on political parties that want to %uFB02ood the zone as much and as soon as they can.
Erin McPike is a political reporter for CongressDaily at the National Journal.
72 Hours Is So 5 Years Ago
If you haven't started your GOTV push, you're already late....
If you haven't started your GOTV push, you're already late...