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.
Three delegates may not sound like a lot, but when there are only 4,000 delegates seated at the convention, it’s a big deal. Nowhere was this more evident than in the caucus of Hatch’s main opponent, Dan Liljenquist. Liljenquist sought to be a delegate to his own convention, but Hatch supporters outnumbered Liljenquist supporters in his caucus by a single vote. It was a clean sweep of the delegates for Hatch in that precinct and an embarrassing media moment for Liljenquist.
Microtargeting, voter identification and caucus advisors
Microtargeting is an overused word among political consultants. Its use has even surpassed commonly used consulting terms like leverage, synergy and dovetail. But there are a few consultants who really do microtarget— who know when to do it and how to apply it in a campaign. The Hatch campaign had a data model made of their known supporters who had never attended caucuses before but planned to attend for the frst time. They called those people “rookies.” It applied that predictive model to the statewide vote list to score and identify more rookies.
This group of people made up the Hatch campaign’s caucus attendance growth pool, and they were the micro targeted focus of an intense marketing program. With any good campaign, there’s a healthy amount of voter identification. Caucus campaigns are no exception.
The Hatch campaign prioritized voter identification efforts among the microtargeted populations to strengthen
its base of support. The effort was so extensive that in some caucuses where the campaign was short of its support goals among Republican primary voter populations, it had to move into identification efforts of active Republicans who only vote in general elections.
Still, finding a supporter wasn’t the end of the process. Supporters were then handed off to a staff of caucus advisers. This group had the most difficult job of the entire campaign. It was important for them to become trusted advisers when they gave election advice, just as it’s important for a financial adviser to be trusted when he or she offers investment advice. The voter needs to know their caucus adviser’s name and recognize the phone number on the caller ID.
In the case of the Hatch campaign, advisers helped resolve concerns, explained the caucus process, kept voters motivated to attend and mitigated the effects of lies and rumors spread by the opposing campaigns. They also identified people that could run to be a delegate and helped those folks craft a message to get elected. When caucus day arrived, the caucus advisers were calling, sending personal email reminders and texting those people they had been talking to and building a relationship with for months.
In a new world where information flow in politics is largely fueled by social media, campaigns know almost immediately whether or not a strategy worked. On caucus night, the facebook. com/stopbobbennett page was rolling with success stories of clean delegate sweeps during and after individual caucuses. The Hatch campaign was no different. But in the case of Hatch, the people who had boasted of their election as an anti-Bennett delegate two years earlier were now complaining about how their caucus meeting was overrun by “blue hairs” in support of Hatch. The result: Orrin Hatch came in first at convention, just shy of the 60 percent delegate vote and then cruised to a landslide victory in the primary and general elections, where he benefited from large financial and name identification advantages.
These two campaigns are significant case studies in that, by all accounts, both senators were destined for the same fate. The fact that caucus attendance doubled both cycles and that both the Stop Bob Bennett and the Hatch reelection campaigns not only succeeded, but greatly exceeded expected performance at the nominating convention, shows that after isolating other factors, the success at convention was directly attributable to the caucus turnout efforts. The myth that you cannot change voter turnout to caucuses was not just busted, it was shattered.
Jason Powers is the managing partner of Guidant Strategies, a Park City, Utah-based political consulting firm. He was a general consultant to Club for Growth on its Stop Bob Bennett victory and for Sen. Orrin Hatch on his reelection victory in 2012.