Republicans are happy and optimistic for the first time since 2010. After President Obama’s reelection in 2012 and the loss of Virginia’s governor’s mansion in 2013, it seemed to many conservatives the game just might be lost for good.
And then came 2014. Republicans made huge gains, and we’re celebrating a new dawn. Did we finally figure out what to do with “big data” and use it effectively to target voters? Did Republicans finally get grassroots right?
Certainly there seemed to be more organization, effort, and money spent, but it’s not at all clear that Republicans are anywhere close to where we need to be for 2016.
But the worst lesson that Republicans can take away from 2014 was that we’ve substantially closed the gap with the left on messaging, targeting, and tactics. The left is now entering a period of reassessment and research to determine how to come back in 2016. And if the right hopes to ensure 2014 is a turning point instead of an aberration, we need to conduct more, and better research starting now.
Republicans were working with a fantastic political baseline in 2014—low presidential approval, a slew of Democratic Senate incumbents defending their seats in Red states, a midterm election, and high-quality candidates drawn into battle this year, in part precisely because it was so favorable to Republicans in the first place.
In terms of matching the Democratic turnout machine, Republican turnout was actually much lower than it was in 2010. And preliminary analysis comparing turnout in states where Democrats invested heavily to states where they didn’t suggests they did quite well boosting turnout.
The left’s superior political campaign skills simply couldn’t save Democrats in politically hostile, or even some marginal, states from a continually stagnant economy, disruption in health care, and unpopular executive actions on the part of the Obama administration.
The left continues work to perfect turnout tactics and targeting, but they are doing far more than this. They are working on ways of growing their base, and shifting the electoral baseline over the long-term.
A great example of this can be found in some exciting new research from political science researchers Michael LaCour and Donald Green, working with a progressive interest group trying to increase support for gay marriage. They found significant impacts from attempts to persuade voters at the door, but these impacts faded quickly. Personalized gay marriage persuasion scripts delivered by gay canvassers, however, had huge immediate impacts that persisted over a period of three weeks and beyond.
The results are truly stunning, in terms of their absolute impact, but more so in terms of the possibilities they suggest for long-term persuasion, for the ability to discover how to shift the electorate substantially for an extended period of time.
The left is now applying these findings to canvassing research aiming to shift opinion on abortion. And the early results suggest that they are finding some stunning outcomes here as well.
My firm, Evolving Strategies, had the privilege of conducting extensive, innovative persuasion experiments in key battleground states for clients this past year. We have, like many groups on the left, found some incredible results and uncovered methods that hold the potential for long-term, persistent persuasion on important issues. But the right as a whole must do much, much more if we want to catch up, let alone exceed the left in the battle for the American electorate and government.
The scientific revolution and the emergence of systems of liberty and capitalism can be seen, in retrospect, to have led to an inexorable expansion of wealth and human flourishing in those societies that embraced them.
When one side of the political spectrum asks, and scientifically answers questions that the other side never even considers, when one side is creative, consistent, and scientific in its research, they will win over the long term.
Yes, the left will make mistakes, and be overwhelmed at times by chance and circumstance. But they will most certainly win if the right doesn’t match their methods.
Adam B. Schaeffer, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and co-founder of Evolving Strategies, a data and analytics firm dedicated to understanding human behavior through the creative application of randomized-controlled experiments.