WASHINGTON February 24, 2015 — Less than two months into 2015, it seems like 2016 already. Would-be Republican presidential candidates have started jockeying for position with donors and opinion leaders, and political reporters have started their play-by-play account of the quadrennial horse race.
By now, you may have heard the common narrative about 2016 being an uphill battle for the Republican party. As the refrain goes, the Presidential year brings a higher turnout with a more diverse electorate than what we saw in the midterms. Forced to defend 24 seats, many in swing states, the just-seated GOP Senate majority will be short lived.
And any Republican Presidential nominee will have to tip toe along a precarious line between an ultra-conservative primary audience and the more moderate presidential election year voters – a destructive dance sure to make a candidate unacceptable to one audience or the other. The historic mid-term victory just a few months ago won’t help in a Presidential year electorate.
If you listen to enough pundits, you might wonder why Republicans would even bother to show up in 2016.
The naysayers forget an important reality of the 2014 election. The story wasn’t just how many seats Republicans won, but how they won – especially in the close races. Advanced analytics and voter modeling, fueled grassroots turnout programs that gave candidates a final push past the finish line.
Republican candidates across the country outperformed public poll numbers. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Florida Governor Rick Scott and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback all seemed to be tied or trailing in tight battles for re-election. Each won his race (with Walker’s 5.7-point victory particularly surprising). The same trend held for winning Senate candidates like Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Iowa’s Joni Ernst. In North Carolina, now-Sen. Thom Tillis never led in a public poll. In Virginia, Ed Gillespie’s late surge came up less than 20,000 votes shy of toppling popular Sen. Mark Warner. Most polling in a Georgia showed a Senate race ticketed for a runoff; David Perdue won outright on Election Day.
Each of these campaigns employed a smart, data-driven strategy to identify and turn out voters. They knew – generally – whom to speak to, what to say, and how to say. If that sounds familiar, it should: the Obama campaign team basked in well-deserved plaudits for their use of similar tactics in 2012. This time around, Republican bought in and used these ideas to put together an effective “ground game.” The GOP physically gathered every vote possible, and the final tallies on Election Night showed it. Ballot box results which outperform poll numbers are the residue of this kind of effective voter contact and get-out-the-vote operations.
A smart, sophisticated grassroots campaign turns a favorable messaging environment into votes. In 2014, several weeks of Middle East fighting and Ebola fears painted the picture of a President (and his ruling party) in over his head. After two years of building and installing a better grassroots infrastructure, Republicans were much better equipped to remind voters of these concerns and motivate them to vote. (To their credit, several outside conservative groups fought with similar strategies, as well.)
It is almost certain that the 2016 electorate will be bigger and more diverse than last year’s – and that does represent a challenge for the GOP. Candidates and campaigns will need to identify voters who agree with them, even if those individual voters are in segments of the population which are not traditionally right-leaning; or if those voters live in strong Democratic neighborhoods; or if those voters only care about one or two issues and don’t tend to make it to the polls unless someone lights a fire under them. That In a busy electorate, the campaign that knows who it’s looking for and can reach them with a compelling story has an important advantage.
It will be true for candidates on all levels, but especially so for whoever wins the spot on the party’s Presidential ticket. In fact, the process will have to start in the primary. With a probable GOP field that features more depth and accomplishment than either of the previous two cycles, primaries will favor candidates who are best able to establish a core group of voters, grow them into a plurality, and motivate them to vote. Caucuses will reward this kind of organizing even more.
In other words, if a Republican candidate wins in 2016, it will be the one with a robust data analytics and voter modeling operation, who found and turned out every last vote possible – starting in New Hampshire and Iowa and continuing through November. It means taking another step forward with the technology and techniques Republicans used so effectively in 2014.
Winning in 2016 remains a significant challenge for the Republican Party – but as 2014 shows, it’s a challenge the party at least has the tools to meet.