The Right's Early Vote Dilemma

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Republicans need to adjust to early voting now; that's the real lesson of 2012


It was Sandy’s fault. Actually no, it was the demographics. Or maybe we just had a flawed candidate. You know what—let’s just blow the whole thing up.    In the wake of President Obama’s victory, some Republicans have been in all-out panic mode, suggesting the party needs a fundamental restructuring to ever win a national election again. But before we do anything rash we should look at the data, particularly on the early vote.   The biggest takeaway for Republicans after Obama’s 2012 victory isn’t that the party needs to throw its value set overboard just to remain competitive; it’s that our party’s candidates need to adjust to early voting, and they need to do it now. If the GOP had a better data-driven early vote strategy in place—and had the party been laying the groundwork for this in the three years following Obama’s 2008 victory—election night likely would have looked much different in 2012.     The Republican election post-mortems this time around remind me a bit of the overreactions from Democrats in the wake of John Kerry’s 2004 defeat. Kerry lost the Electoral College 286 – 251 and hysteria ensued among Democrats. But in reality, the party wasn’t that far off from righting the ship. In fact, Kerry lost Ohio and the election by 118,601 votes.   What lesson did the post-Bush reelection Democrats learn? The GOP’s turnout machine was far superior and probably made the difference on Election Day. The core of that effort, which I was a part of, was solely data driven from planning, to decisions and ultimately to outcomes.   In similar fashion to 2004, just 340,959 votes in four states separated Romney from winning the presidency this year. That’s only a swing margin of 170,479 votes. What would the narrative be today if Romney had won by a slim margin? Would Republicans be instantly acquiescing on immigration reform and higher taxes? I doubt it. But let’s delve into one aspect of this election that could have made that slim difference: early voting. The numbers tell the story of just how different Election Day might have been for Romney had his campaign closed the early vote gap with Obama in some key battlegrounds. The president’s margin of victory in Florida was just over 73,000 votes, but Democrats outpaced Republicans in the early vote by 129,000 votes. It was a similar story in Virginia where Obama’s total margin over Romney was just 115,910 votes. According to Charlie Cook’s absentee vote tracker, Obama localities in the state generated 120,000 more absentee votes than those that favored John McCain in 2008. In Ohio, 1.6 million early votes were cast by the weekend before Election Day, according to an AP analysis of the early vote. Of the ones we can measure by party, Democrats outpaced Republicans by 96,000 votes; Obama won the state by 103,481 votes. And in Nevada, Romney lost by just 66,379 votes. There, Democrats had an early vote edge of 47,964.       If Republicans had just broken even with the early vote in three of the four marginal difference states, they could have pulled out a victory on Election Day.

It’s not as though strategists haven’t been beating the early voting drum for some time now. Nearly four years ago, I wrote a cover story piece in this very magazine that strongly suggested early voting was the future of GOTV operations and that campaigns needed to begin building it into their turnout plans.

It was clear even then that voters were trending toward the early vote in increasing numbers given the convenience factor, particularly in key presidential battleground states like Ohio and Florida. Since 2000, the popularity of early voting has steadily increased in every state in which it has been implemented. By this point, campaign operatives know that GOTV is less about the final 72 hours as it is about the final 720 hours. In addition, we’ve had two successive presidential campaigns with different early voting strategies. Obama’s team believed turning out all of their supporters (not just a subset of supporters) from early vote to Election Day was the key to victory. The Obama camp spent five years perfecting this model. The Romney team and the Republican National Committee had just eight months to plot out their strategy, and the emphasis was on turning out unreliable supporters rather than the entire database of identified supporters. Unfortunately, from 2009 to 2011, the RNC did little in the form of real data-driven work with grassroots and early vote organizing. That two-year lag helped shape the 2012 strategy. The 2012 Romney/RNC strategy made sense given that time wasn’t on their side. But ultimately, the GOP’s two-year lag when it came to perfecting data-driven early vote plans led to the failures of 2012.   

Since Election Day, angst-ridden and confused Republicans seem to be lashing out at anything and anyone perceived as dragging the party down. This nervousness and anxiousness isn’t a bad thing if refocused in the right direction. These moments have the ability to force a sort of clarity that can make future decisions impactful to election outcomes. But rather than throwing out a bunch of opinions that we think will work, Republicans should review election data and learn from it. Fact is the Republican Party isn’t that off the mark from being competitive again. From a macro standpoint, it will take the right messenger to expand the voter base. From a micro standpoint, Republicans need to re-focus their efforts on better data-driven models, especially where the party is getting hammered in most states election after election: early voting. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the constant drumbeat from Republicans was that Romney would lose the early vote but win the Election Day vote, thus winning the presidency. Republicans would be better served the next four years to not concede anything and fight to win the early vote and Election Day. If they do, the post-election hysteria will be a lot more fun to read.  Phillip Stutts serves as president of Phillip Stutts & Company, Inc., a grassroots consulting firm. He previously served President Bush and the RNC in 2004 as the national 72 hour/GOTV director.


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