Politics & Policy

GOTV: It’s Time to Get Personal

Anonymous “contacts” don’t work, but calls from people you know do.

If you’re a Republican in Ohio or Virginia, I have a simple question for you: Who was your Romney county chairman?

There are a lot of suggestions about how Republicans need to change their message. But the results do not support an overhaul or abandonment of Republican positions. Mitt Romney actually won among independent voters, a huge improvement over John McCain. He did better among younger voters and the middle class than John McCain did. He also did better among Catholic and Jewish voters.

In fact, in states where neither the Romney nor the Obama campaign implemented an aggressive base-turnout operation, Romney outpaced McCain’s 2008 numbers. If those trends had held in the targeted states such as Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, Romney would have won. But they did not. Wherever the Romney turnout operation went head-to-head with the Obama turnout operation, Obama turned out more voters and erased Romney’s strategic gains.

This election revealed longstanding institutional flaws in how Republicans identify and get out their vote. The Romney campaign inherited a failing model that has dominated Republican planning for a decade.

Going into the final weekend before the 2000 election, George W. Bush led. But Al Gore’s organization dominated the get-out-the-vote cycle, and the results on Election Day proved that he had closed the gap. Republicans began searching for a new model, and in 2001, the “72-Hour Program” was launched. It was implemented in selected states in 2002 and became the backbone of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign of 2004.

Much of the theory behind the 72-hour model is excellent: It puts a premium on person-to-person campaigning, voter registration, and absentee and early voting. On Election Day, the 72-hour model advocates sending volunteers door to door to make sure Republicans get to the polls.

But the 72-hour model has a fatal flaw: It is centralized. It relies on regional phone banks and “walk teams” that enter unfamiliar neighborhoods. The focus is on metrics and counting “contacts.” The 72-hour model severs the relationship between the grass roots and the neighborhoods. It creates a layer of anonymity at the exact moment in a campaign when personal relationships are most powerful.

If you volunteered for a Republican campaign in the past decade, chances are you were directed to a “Victory Center.” You were given a phone and a script. You called a stranger and read them the script. If they weren’t home, you left a message. Congratulations, you just made a “contact.” If you signed up to walk precincts, you were directed to a central location and handed a map, lists, and literature. Leave a door hanger, and you made another “contact.”

It wasn’t always this way. The traditional grass-roots model was neighborhood-based. It’s what we used to refer to as a “field organization.” Campaigns would recruit county chairs, town chairs, and precinct captains. These local volunteers — supported by the campaign’s field staff — did the job of registering voters, asking for their vote, identifying supporters, and getting them to the polls. They held house parties, knocked on doors, distributed signs, and tracked the votes on Election Day — all within their own neighborhood.

As you can imagine, field organizations could be riddled with blind spots. If volunteers didn’t execute the plan, precincts went unreached. It would be revisionism to suggest that there was some sort of “golden era” of Republican GOTV.

But the anonymous phone calls aren’t working. We must go back to the neighborhood-based model. We need neighbors reaching out to neighbors. That’s a meaningful and persuasive contact. When you get a political call from a campaign volunteer, you should recognize the name of a friend on the caller ID.

Ironically, technology has made the old model much simpler. Handheld apps, Internet-based campaign software, and call-from-home phone systems could allow precinct captains to update their voter lists in real time and on their home computers over the course of weeks and months. Campaigns could better identify holes and send teams of volunteers to fill the gaps.

Moreover, we’ve never had this level of activist energy and enthusiasm. People want to help like never before. Unfortunately, we’re going to burn out a lot of volunteers if our response is to shackle them to a phone in a boiler room.

Campaigns will need much larger field staffs. Consultants don’t make a commission when they hire field representatives the way they do with television ads, direct mail, robocalls, and even centralized phone banks, so expect a lot of pushback. And the GOP needs to retrain an entire generation of operatives. After all, they’ve been taught that campaigning consists of reporting how many “contacts” they’ve made so someone can announce to the press how well the campaign is doing with its “grassroots” efforts.

None of this will be a panacea. Republicans need to improve their branding and outreach, and to get much better at explaining their positions and dealing with the media. But is there a better way to reach new communities and overcome a negative, media-driven image than by sending a neighbor to knock on another neighbor’s front door?

— Andrew Boucher is a partner at Mace & Boucher Consulting. He is the former national political director for Rick Santorum for President and a former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee.


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