On Election Night in 2012, I remember the moment when it became clear Mitt Romney was going to lose. I e-mailed blogger Ace of Spades, consultant Rick Wilson, and a host of others in a drunken rage. Besides an absolutely horrible Election Day get-out-the-vote system (Project ORCA), the campaign had been making poor decisions on ad buys and the electoral map all year long.
We saw layup states turned into nail-biters, the home state of the vice-presidential candidate going for President Obama by as wide a margin as it had for Governor Scott Walker five months earlier, and a genuinely confused presidential candidate who believed what his pollsters and inner circle had told him so strongly that he hadn’t even prepared a concession speech.
The GOP can learn from its mistakes and avoid a similar result in 2016, but it will require the party to break out of its rut and understand that the map of today, and the map of the future, isn’t the one that consultants and pundits have acclimated themselves to. Let us talk about the illusion of the “blue wall,” avoiding wasteful ad spending, fishing where the fish might be biting, and planning how we can change our face and our fate.
Expand the Map
Let’s start with Pennsylvania. It’s what Nate Silver and others have called an “inelastic” state, meaning there are few independents who swing between parties, so you can’t really count on winning them over to put you ahead. Plotting a victory here is quite an interesting thought-exercise, and two lines of thinking are usually explored.
The first involves peeling off as many Democrats with weak knees as can be found. The western part of the state is full of such DINOs, and the “collar counties” surrounding Philadelphia have a nice share of “moderate” voters (Democrats who won’t call themselves Democrats). To get over the hump, you have to backpedal like mad to avoid scaring off the moderate suburbanites. This will likely antagonize your base in the T (the redder northern and central parts of the state), so you find yourself coming up short.
The second line of thinking involves creating unprecedented Republican turnout, with enough undecideds and perhaps conservative Democrats to barely get you over the hump (Karl Rove’s 50 percent + 1 strategy). This brought President George W. Bush within 2 percent in the state in 2004, but the inevitable backlash to running red arose in places like Montgomery County, where suburban moderates voted for Kerry and gave him a narrow win.
Both of these options have strengths that are relevant for most purple states: In the Colorado Senate race in 2014, for example, enthusiasm in conservative areas allowed Republicans there to finally win a “war of the margins” (winning red areas by larger margins than the Democrats won blue areas) despite losing both Arapahoe and Jefferson, the biggest “swing” counties in the state. In the same cycle, Cory Gardner’s push for over-the-counter birth control made it more daunting for the incumbent, Senator Mark Udall, to paint him as a radical, which shows that a more moderate image plays well.
Now let me introduce a third way.
Pennsylvania’s untapped vote (that is, eligible but unregistered voters) runs around 1.6 million strong, based on my analysis of census data and current registration statistics. It is more concentrated in redder counties than in bluer ones, and while some of these counties have a higher percentage of Millennial and non-white residents (i.e. groups less likely to vote Republican), notable swaths do not.
Citizen Voting-Age Population (CVAP)
While many smaller rural counties would be all but invisible on a population or registered-voter map, they’re here, and they add up. Pennsylvania’s vote in general is older and whiter, despite the diversity of its major metropolitan areas. Perhaps as a testament to the impressive efforts of Democrats to turn out every voter they can find, Philadelphia County and Allegheny County (which contains Pittsburgh) make up a far smaller portion of this untapped mass than they do of registered voters, meaning that registration efforts there have been very successful — as the first diagrammatic map above shows.
If you grow your own share of the overall electorate, you kick off the campaign with a bigger base and shrink the voter deficit in ways that pummeling everyone’s TV sets with ads can’t match. This isn’t glamorous work, but it is essential. We don’t know how favorable these potential voters are, but with so many of them around, and almost zero effort having been made previously to bring them in, there are fish in the lake. Party leadership, third-party PAC organizers, and the candidates themselves need to drop a line in and see what bites.
Setting a national goal for new-voter registration should be the Republicans’ top priority going into 2016.
The work involved to identify, register, and successfully turn out another 100,000 to 200,000 voters will be daunting in Pennsylvania, but it can be done, and it can be modified and implemented in other states that have seen neglect in this crucial campaign activity. In redder states such as Florida and North Carolina, it could mean the difference between a 5 percent win and a nail-biter.
Setting a national goal for new-voter registration should be the Republicans’ top priority going into 2016. In addition to making the midterm cycles even redder than they already are, it will make chasing the whims of the perpetually undecided during a presidential year less essential. Long-suffering donors will likely be more pleased by seeing six-figure increases in GOP voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, and even Wisconsin than another clever ad or poorly thought-out hashtag campaign.
Fortune favors the bold, and persistence increases the odds, so if in the first cycle of this new approach we still find ourselves outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we can build on it for 2020. Tough down-ballot fights in states with roughly the same political hue as Pennsylvania can be won in 2016, and the Senate majority preserved, even if we come up short for the grand prize. The party must envision winning over longer terms than just the next cycle.
The Myth of the Impenetrable Blue Wall
Democrats have carried Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New York, and D.C. in each of the last six elections, giving the impression of a formidable blue mass the Republicans cannot overcome. But this “wall” is just the latest in a series that we have seen rise, harden, crack, and collapse over the decades:
Finding opportunities and weaknesses in the other side’s “home turf” is essential, and no matter how big the previous cycle’s win, they always exist. Parties rise on coalitions that are ever-evolving, and a side effect of that evolution is that they all have a shelf life. Not all states vote for a party for the same reasons: Republican California and Republican Nebraska in the 1970s and 1980s were as different from each other then as they are now, when they vote for opposite parties. Pennsylvania is one of several states behind the Blue Curtain where, I feel, we can start knocking a few holes and roughing up the place.
Another area of opportunity is the upper Midwest, where Hillary Clinton did poorly in the 2008 primaries against Obama (who outperformed Kerry and Gore here in both of his elections). These were states that had been trending red a bit, were close in 2000 and 2004, and swung back to the left in 2008. The president’s appeal helped prevent any serious inroads by Mitt Romney, even with a running mate who hailed from the region.
Based on her 2008 primary performance, though, Hillary’s chances of inheriting Obama’s advantages here are questionable. Wisconsin’s key areas are its northeast and far west. A Republican who can connect with these voters, as Scott Walker did in each of his gubernatorial campaigns, should win, despite the best efforts of the Democratic bastions Milwaukee and Madison. There are untapped voters here as well, though they hail from bluer regions than what we see in Pennsylvania:
With a focus on expanding the party’s registered-voter pool and squeezing out every vote we haven’t tried to find before, we may surprise ourselves with how much blue territory cracks and crumbles. The GOP has put up an abysmal counter-effort against Democratic voter drives, so even a modest one will purple up a lot of places. Of course, you will have to persuade the mushy middle, those voters you want to coax out of the wilderness, and this is where smart ad buys can come in.
Advertise Smartly, Early, Cheaply — in the Right States
First, ad spending should correlate with the size of the electoral vote, or at least the potential mass of persuadables and untapped voters. No more spending twice as much in Northern Virginia as you do in Pennsylvania, as the collective conservative groups did in 2012. This means you should begin advertising months before you even have a candidate, in rural and exurban areas and cheaper markets such as Rhineland, Wis., or Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Before the opposing party has a chance to mold the image of your potential nominees, soften the ground in these places. Fun, relatable ads can work well before they are drowned out in the great TiVo Sea of October, as now-senator Joni Ernst’s hog-farm ad showed last year. Don’t hold out and wait until the last minute to make buying decisions, which will only suck up more precious funds.
As an election year drags on, the air wave battle becomes more and more like the trenches of World War I: A little is gained, a little is lost, and nothing actually changes in terms of the outcome. But advertising dollars spent early, cheaply, in key markets, can help pave the way for bigger gains later in the cycle. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in 2012 by Romney’s campaign, the Republican party, and third-party groups, and all they had to show for it was North Carolina. I suspect the emphasis on ads is dying: Ground-game basics and winning the “war of the margins” proved very effective in Colorado for Cory Gardner, while the advertising arsenal of “Mark Uterus” did little to save him.
Speaking of follies, have you heard of the acronym “OHFLAVA”? It is a way to remember the “most important” states for Republicans: Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. The tight focus on these three states is misguided, however, when you consider that Virginia has been trending to the left for some time, and dismaying when you realize that many strategists, right now, are willing to lead the candidates who are paying them down this path yet again. The 2000/2004 map isn’t the way to victory in 2016. States are always changing, so we must consider how they have moved to determine which should receive the most emphasis heading into next year.
Consider again my point about advertising. Here is a short table showing where the Romney campaign, the Republican party, and various PACs spent the most money, along with their margins:
Romney did not just spend ad money in a lot of small states, he spent a ridiculous amount of it. When states are drifting away from you, I understand the desire to spend something to keep them in their place. But if there are other options just sitting there with cheaper media markets you could invest in early, like, say, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Pennsylvania, why fight such an expensive fight to get crumbs, when you can fight a smart one and inflate your electoral-vote haul?
The electoral map of every Republican presidential candidate must include a few states Bush didn’t win in 2000 or 2004 — for instance, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. Hell, go bold, and if you find a receptive audience, at least consider Michigan or New Jersey. I realize that many of these places will be longshots, but a winning campaign will make moves in surprising places and leave the opposition in hot pursuit.
Narrowing your options to a small set of small states with very few electoral votes is just asking for failure. The goal of any campaign should be to clear well over 300 electoral votes, so that when things get rocky, you’ll still have the 270 you need. When you make your ceiling the minimum number of votes required to take the White House, you’re doing it wrong. Hillary Clinton doesn’t even have to win everything Obama did in 2012; she just needs to keep the bleeding to a minimum.
If Republicans are serious about making the Democrats’ lives hell next year, they need to jump into states they have been neglecting. It will be a lot harder for Democrats to hold the White House if they are in a Philadelphia street fight or a Minneapolis melee than if they are gleefully recording the latest bungled campaign appearance in a cornfield.
Let’s get our priorities in order.
Let’s go fishing in Pennsylvania and see what we catch.
Let us spend wiser, and persuade earlier.
Let us directly challenge the great wall, and watch it collapse like cheap gypsum board.
Let’s hear it for boldness. There is no room for anything less.