This issue’s shoptalkers: Rob Jesmer, a partner at the Republican firm FP1 Strategies and the former executive director of the NRSC; Emily Post, a political adviser at EMILY’s List and the political and field director at the DLCC during the 2012 cycle; Mitch Stewart, founding partner of 270 Strategies and battleground states director on Obama for America in 2012; Phillip Stutts, president of Phillip Stutts & Company and the national 72 Hour/GOTV director for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004.
C&E: Looking back on the 2012 Obama turnout effort—just how precise were you able to be when it came to identifying and targeting your persuadable voters?
Mitch Stewart: We ended up being very precise. The proof point on that is that we continually tracked folks who had voted and measured that up against support scores for each individual so that the models we were using were updated and fresh. When states started reporting early voting numbers immediately on election night, we started seeing the proof of that. In Florida, our model was of by .7 percent. So when you have a state where almost half of the voting population votes before Election Day, it’s a pretty good indicator of how we’ll end up doing with the rest of the electorate. That was an invaluable resource and tool that we had to make sure that we better allocated resources as the electorate dwindled and we got closer to Election Day.
I think there was a lot of innovation in 2012, both on the Republican and Democratic side, but one of the most important developments was the aggressive nature of early vote. During the primaries on the Democratic side in 2008 we learned to take advantage of early voting. GOTV can’t just be a single Tuesday. One of the lessons we learned in 2010 with the enthusiasm gap we saw between Republicans and Democrats was that we were never able to recover from that narrative as Democrats. It was a factual narrative, but we weren’t able to recover. So last year we had a concerted effort very early on to make sure that we won early vote immediately, because we hoped it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
C&E: How much of what the Obama campaign did in certain targeted states actually helped Democrats down the ballot?
Jessica Post: In states where there were overlapping targets there were certainly some benefits. In a state like Wisconsin, we were able to combine GOTV efforts and use some of the Obama modeling and the other modeling the DNC placed on the voter file. In many ways, the addition of the models to VoteBuilder, and some of the specific tech tool enhancements, really boosted what we could do. In the past, it was much more difficult to refresh the turf list and refresh targets. Now, it’s a lot easier to pull out people who have voted, refine those models, and update those universes overnight. At the legislative level we benefited from the DNC’s growth in technology infrastructure.
Phillip Stutts: Did you find it easier to work through the party or through Super PACs and third party groups?
Post: It depends on the finance laws of the state. At the field level, it’s about having messaging. I think our third party groups in states were really good about carrying messaging. But the efficiencies that you gain when you’re able to coordinate with all actors in a state are great. When you’re talking about field mobilization, you can do the messaging through an IE, but you can’t just paper over the organizing you have to do on the ground. That has to be done through state parties and through organizing entities.
Stewart: One question I have for you guys on the Republican side…
Rob Jesmer: Just how shitty was it? (laughter)
Stewart: One of the advantages we certainly had was a voter file that all of the players used, so it was a great aggregator of data. That was a fight that we had within our party after 2004. There’s not a debate within the party now about who should have the file. You have Catalist on the non-electoral side and then you have the DNC file on the official side. There seem to be a couple of different entities popping up on the Republican side and trying to be the breadwinner when it comes to data right now. How is that playing out?
Stutts: I remember being in the war room in 2004 and Ken Mehlman was asking, “Where are we going in the future?” The model we had used was through the party and the campaign. We won so the thinking was that maybe the party structure was the way to go in the future, but then other groups came in and everyone saw what Obama was able to do and it sort of shook up the entire system. I don’t know that we ever defined what the best way to do this is, and I’m not sure the party is the only way to go. All these offshoots have come out and I think the competition has been good.
C&E: There seems to be less of a willingness on the Republican side to unite around one particular entity when it comes to data.
Stutts: Well, Rob’s been in the structure recently enough that he might have a reason for that.
Jesmer: Yes, but I’m very happy to be out of it. Look, I think it’s always better to have the party be the central player in this stuff. They are uniquely equipped and it’s just helpful for them to be taking the lead. The legality of working with third parties makes this more challenging. You can have competition and then the RNC can pick one or two of these companies or entities and provide the data. I think that’s the way it has to go for the party long-term. I also think there’s enough will on the party side to get this together and try to fix the problem. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m somewhat optimistic that the national party will get this figured out and lead the way. It’ll probably not totally get itself worked out until we have a nominee three years from now, though. That person is going to come in and they’re going to dictate the way things happen, much like the Obama campaign did in 2008. Until that happens, it’s going to be a little dicey.
Stutts: I think that’s exactly right. The nominee and whatever team that person puts together will control the power structure. That’s the nice thing we had with the Bush administration, and that’s the great thing the Obama team had. Everybody knows where the authority comes from. And to echo what Rob said, it’s going to be the Wild West of competition to see who shakes out within the party. If our nominee ends up winning, maybe we’ll see the reverse of what we see now. We saw this after John Kerry lost in 2004. We had the vaunted turnout machine—the greatest turnout machine in the world. Well, they reversed it in one presidential cycle.
Stewart: I was [former Sen.] Tom Daschle’s [D-S.D.] field director in 2004 and we exceeded what we thought was a reasonable turnout expectation in getting to 51 percent. Obviously we fell short, and we heard a lot about the 72 hour plan and about Voter Vault. Is that something that’s still used on the Republican side?
Jesmer: Voter Vault is still used nominally, but it’s antiquated and it’s certainly not the future. A lot of what I worry about for our party is that people look at 2012 and think it was a tools problem. There’s no question about it—we’re behind on that, but I often ask people to assume that Gov. Romney’s campaign had the same exact tools and the same fundraising capacity Obama did. If that were true, and it came down to the better candidate, does anyone believe Gov. Romney would have won? Most people in my party believe that he still would have lost. You can have the best GOTV plan and the best tools in the world, but you still need a compelling messenger to go along with that. It still is a message delivery mechanism and the messenger matters. Our party does not just have a tools problem.