WASHINGTON, January 6, 2014 — Between the near-daily stories chronicling failures of the Affordable Care Act and President Barack Obama’s sagging approval ratings, Republicans are understandably optimistic about their chances of winning back the American people in the 2014 mid-term elections.
But if GOP does retake the Senate and make gains in the House of Representatives, the path to victory will have less to do with the political environment and more to do with a recent shift in strategy.
In a public memo released earlier this month, RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer announced a shift away from the “outdated and ineffective” strategy of expending resources on late media buys and get out the vote messages. Instead, the Republican Party will focus on regular, year-round voter engagement.
What inroads could an improved ground game possibly make in the short term?
The numbers suggest quite a bit.
It may be easy to overlook subtle strategy shifts like the one outlined in Spicer’s memo, that don’t translate well to talking-head banter on cable news. In reality, campaigns with smart, data-driven grassroots operations enjoy a competitive advantage - and that edge becomes even more important in lower-turnout mid-term elections. That means winning depends on effectively identifying and engaging supporters with the ultimate goal of getting them to the polls - in other words, the focus of the new Republican strategy.
For all the GOP’s struggles in recent election cycles (except 2010), opportunities for gains in both houses of Congress are there for the taking. Seven Senate seats currently held by Democrats sit in states Mitt Romney won in 2012. In 45 Congressional districts, Democrat victors won with less than 60% of the vote.
By determining the percentage decline in turnout from the Presidential election of 2008 to the midterm election of 2012 in each targeted state or district, and applying that same reduction to the 2012 vote totals, we can create a reasonable assumption of how many votes it will take to win in 2014.
Creating turnout models with nearly a year to go before Election Day is, at best, an inexact exercise. But this rudimentary model shows an important truth: Even in the difficult, brand-tarnished election year of 2012, Republicans mustered more votes than the 2014 winners are likely to receive.
That presents a clear plan of action: identify voters who supported Republicans in 2012 and make sure they vote in 2014.
If GOP Senate candidates in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia can find approximately 75% of Romney’s 2012 voters and get them to come back and vote Republican again, each seat will switch parties for the 114th Congress. For those scoring at home, that adds up to a 52-48 GOP edge in the upper chamber. If 80% of Romney’s voters come back in Iowa (a state he lost), that Senate seat would flip, too. (Senators Kay Hagan, Mark Pryor, and Mary Landrieu are particularly vulnerable; their challengers would need 61% or less of Romney’s voters to win
In the House of Representatives, 45 Democrats won their seats with less than 60% of the vote in 2014. Their average margin of victory was a solid 54%-46%. Even so, by applying the turnout model above to each district, nearly every single seat is at least in play. If the Republicans who lost the last election came back and brought just 75% of their 2012 voters to the polls, 29 of those seats would change parties.
By devoting their resources to regular, data-driven voter outreach, Republicans have taken the first step in making these victories a reality.
More organized campaigns – the ones that can figure out where their voters are and get them to the polls – tend to win.
The strategy isn’t rocket science – but campaigns ignore the ground game at their own risk. The recent election cycle offers a cautionary tale: Ken Cuccinelli just lost the Virginia governorship by a heartbreakingly close margin of around 55,000 votes. His vote total was approximately 780,000 behind the number Romney amassed in losing the state. Cuccinelli would have won if his campaign could have convinced just 3.1% more of Romney’s voters to come back.
The opportunity exists. Seizing it will take plenty of effort. Announcing a strategy shift and dreaming up the winning plan is relatively easy; execution takes painstaking work. Campaigns will have to identify voters, track their motivations, gather information at every interaction, and keep communicating with them right up to Election Day 2014.
Republicans who embrace this grassroots, door-to-door and person-to-person campaign style based on informed, data-driven communication will have the best chance of turning the favorable messages of December 2013 into the victories of November 2014.
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