In 2002 Republican State Senator Jim Gerlach won election to the US Congress by a slim two percentage points in suburban Philadelphia’s 6th District. Two years later his re-election race was so tight that his Democratic opponent, lawyer and party activist Lois Murphy, thought she’d won when she went to sleep on election night. Gerlach, though, hung on by 6,000 votes. Ever since Murphy announced she was running again, the race has been among the most competitive in the country. It’s a classic matchup: a moderate Republican versus a moderate Democrat in a moderate district.
This year, however, Gerlach has the added problem of needing to distance himself from a scandal-plagued Republican Congress and an unpopular President Bush, whose approval rating in Pennsylvania is 34 percent. Gerlach is counting on the game plan developed by Karl Rove. Gerlach’s chief strategist, Mark Campbell, was an original member of a task force Rove assembled after the 2000 elections to study how Democrats mobilized voters in the seventy-two hours before an election–and how Republicans could surpass them. Soon Rove & Co. were beating Democrats at their own game. “If it’s been invented in modern politics, we’re using it,” says Campbell. Gerlach’s race will test a key GOP strategy: Can Rovian turnout tactics protect the endangered Republicans who are needed to retain control of Congress?
An ability to better identify, energize and mobilize voters–combined with the message that Republicans can keep Americans safer–helped Bush’s party win the past two elections. But the quagmire in Iraq has offset the GOP’s traditional upper hand on national security. And the combination of an energized Democratic base and a sour national mood could neutralize the GOP’s superior get-out-the-vote (GOTV) apparatus. A recent Pew Research poll found that 51 percent of Democrats are more excited to vote this year than usual, compared with a third of Republicans–a stark contrast to a four-point GOP advantage in ’02. The Foley scandal has only further demoralized an already disaffected GOP base, leaving a wide enthusiasm gap favoring Democrats. Only 57 percent of white evangelicals are inclined to vote Republican this year, down twenty-one points from ’04. Even a small decline could cost Republicans Congressional seats.
“The question is not if the GOP field program can be executed–we’ve seen that dozens of times,” says Christopher Nicholas, a GOP political consultant who managed Senator Arlen Specter’s ’04 re-election campaign. “The question is if the people on the receiving end of the targeting are as motivated as they were in ’04.” Turnout, experts say, matters only on the margins. Many races, however, including three in the Philadelphia suburbs, may be very close. Mechanics alone–money and mobilization–might save a few races for Republicans. But if a Democratic wave hits, that won’t be enough to keep the GOP afloat.
Until 2002 Democrats were better at GOTV. But in the run-up to the ’02 midterms, Rove countered the labor unions and Democratic activists by building disciplined local organizations and increasing turnout among specific segments of the Republican base, such as rural and exurban voters. In ’04, Republicans used a combination of polling, census and commercial data, through a technology called “microtargeting,” to identify pockets of potential voters that Democrats didn’t even know existed, such as snowmobilers in Michigan and Russian Jewish émigrés in suburban Cleveland. “Modern campaigning is more like a cruise missile than a B-52 carpet bombing,” says Campbell.
Republicans began planning for ’06 six days after the ’04 election. According to National Journal, in this cycle Republicans planned to register 400,000 new voters, recruiting 2,000 GOTV coordinators, thousands of local precinct captains and more than 100,000 volunteers. The RNC also has $26 million to dump into field programs in key races. This mixture of money, manpower and technology helped the party win a tough open seat in California in May and save the nomination for Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island in September. In the days before November 7 it plans to fly in hundreds of volunteers from Washington to knock on doors and make phone calls in close races across the country.
Even before the 2004 election Democrats realized that Republicans had eclipsed them at GOTV. The Dems founded new groups like America Coming Together in a scramble to catch up, but it wasn’t enough. “The Republicans are light-years ahead of us,” a study commissioned after the ’04 election by Democratic operative Harold Ickes found. “This is not rocket science, and we Democrats will get our clocks cleaned if we don’t catch up.” Thanks to a concerted effort by Ickes and others, outside groups like America Votes–the coalition of progressive groups founded in ’04–are now microtargeting in states like Pennsylvania. In the Philadelphia suburbs alone, America Votes has identified more than forty different categories of potential voters and what makes them tick. For example, they know that cat owners lean progressive and motorcycle riders skew libertarian. “The microtargeting we’re doing is on parity, if not better than the GOP,” says consultant Ken Strasma, who’s employing the technology in twenty-nine states and fifty-seven races, the bulk of them for the House.
The Democratic Party, however, has been hampered by infighting. As the GOP perfected its field programs, DNC chair Howard Dean squabbled with Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer, heads respectively of the House and Senate campaign committees, over how and where the DNC would spend its money [see Berman, “Where’s the Plan, Democrats?” July 17]. As a result, Democrats began their GOTV efforts late. Only recently did Dean strike a deal with Emanuel to invest roughly $60,000 in each of three dozen House races, give a $10 million loan to additional Senate and House candidates, and spend $12 million on a DNC field program. As evidence of progress, the DNC points to the 3 million voters it contacted on October 7. Unions and outside groups will keep candidates financially competitive. Still, Democrats won’t be as centralized and organized as the GOP or have as much money to spend on TV ads.
Unfortunately for Republicans, all the GOTV in the world can’t make the war in Iraq or the scandals go away. Democratic strategists believe that, this year, message can’t be separated from mobilization. Talking about issues like the war will drive Democrats and independents to the polls. Republicans might have stronger local organizations, a larger war chest and better technology, but what voters are thinking about if and when they decide to vote will likely matter more. This could be a season in which the big picture trumps small details.