While the other candidates stay almost exclusively focused on the various Election Days this primary season, Mitt Romney consistently eyes another big prize: the votes cast beforehand.
In the primary states that offer absentee ballots and/or early voting, Romney’s campaign has worked hard to bank early votes. And in a race as volatile as this one, its planning has had a real impact. In Florida, for instance, CNN reported that at least 180,000 people had returned their absentee ballots before Newt Gingrich pulled off his unexpected victory in South Carolina, protecting Romney from the fallout. According to Florida’s preliminary numbers (the final count isn’t available yet), about 41 percent of votes cast in the state were early or absentee votes. Gingrich may have had the momentum going into Florida but, in order to win, he would have had to gain a large percentage of those voters left; he didn’t.
“[Romney] put them in the bank when he was riding high in the polls,” says Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican strategist. “He was doing very well before the South Carolina surprise.” At the time, Romney was the New Hampshire victor and believed to have won, albeit by a slight margin, in Iowa as well. “During the window where people were casting their absentee ballots, the Romney people had the perception of inevitability,” he says.
“They had an incredibly aggressive early media campaign running against Gingrich,” Wilson adds, discussing the tactics of Romney’s campaign and Restore Our Future super-PAC in Florida. “They had all the programmatic things you do in a competitive race running well before Election Day. So they did direct mail. They did phone calls. They did TV.”
In addition to those efforts, Florida Republicans who had requested absentee ballots were invited to join Romney tele-town halls, reported the Tampa Bay Times.
For the most part, Romney faced little real competition for those early votes. “I think there was some late-breaking effort by Gingrich,” recalls Wilson, “but nothing compared with the scope of what Mitt Romney’s people did.”
Hunting absentee-ballot voters is a formidable task. “The entire process when done correctly is extraordinarily labor- and data-intensive,” says Todd Harris, a Republican strategist, “using boots on the ground and very sophisticated targeting and data management.”
States that keep permanent records of voters who request absentee ballots are a boon to campaigns, as candidates’ organizations are permitted to request copies of the rolls. But in other states, campaigns must identify likely supporters (targeting all primary voters could lead to indirectly boosting a rival candidate) and push them to apply for an absentee ballot. In either case, after the ballot has been sent out, campaigns track which voters have returned their ballots and which haven’t, using a variety of methods — mail, phone calls, text messages — to try to nudge those who haven’t voted into their camp. Organization is crucial for keeping the process on track.