Former Obama hands are leading Cory Booker’s campaign. Why that could matter in 2014.

August 16, 2013

Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) is running for the Senate in 2013. But arguably the most interesting part of his campaign is what it says about Democratic strategy in the 2014 midterm elections.


(Mel Evans/AP)

Booker's campaign team, a roster full of strategists who worked on President Obama's reelection effort, have deployed a turnout model and strategy cut from the same cloth as the Obama campaigns. The result, they say, is the foundation of an approach Democrats hope to deploy in 2014.

"I wouldn't just call it a test case. But it's a test case in circumstances that really militate against a high turnout," said Joel Benenson, who polled for Booker, and was Obama's chief pollster in 2012. "And the high turnout prevailed against all expectations. It shows that it works. I believe there is the prospect for replicating this in midterm elections."

Booker won the Democratic primary Tuesday by a wide margin, surprising no one. His near-universal name recognition, celebrity status and substantial financial advantage made him the overwhelming front-runner from day one of the race to fill the seat once held by late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D).

What was surprising was how many voters turned out for the noncompetitive election during the height of summer vacation season. While turnout was low (about 9 percent), it was higher than many had anticipated leading up to election day. More than 350,000 voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary, surpassing turnout levels in Senate and gubernatorial primaries dating back to 2005.

A key part of the Obama campaign's success in 2012 was its ability to turn out key parts of its coalition like young voters and minorities at levels on par with 2008. It excelled in the race for voter data.

A key part of the strategy, explained a former Obama campaign strategist, is honing in on potential voters who need an extra nudge to turn out.

"You identify the people who are kind of on the fence about voting ... and that's where we have a real impact," said Elan Kriegel, a Booker campaign consultant. Kriegel was the battleground states analytics director on Obama's 2012 campaign.

A big part the Democratic Party's dismal 2010 midterm election, meanwhile, was its inability to get the same voters to turn out. (For more on the GOP's built-in midterm advantage, read this excellent primer by David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Report.)

Democrats are defending a fragile Senate majority in 2014, and making a long-shot push to take back control of the House. To have success on either front, the party will have to do a better job of getting its core supporters to cast ballots.

And that's where the lessons learned from the Booker campaign's field team and in the analytics department could come in handy, his team says.

"We did a lot of the the kind of statistical modeling that we did on the [Obama] campaign. The effort that we did with Obama we did exactly for Booker," said Kriegel, who is putting together a firm called BlueLabs with other Obama alumni.

Benenson and Kriegel are just two of the many former Obama operatives on Team Booker. Campaign manager Addisu Demissie also worked for Obama. So did spokesman Kevin Griffis. The campaign also enlisted the help of 270 Strategies, a firm founded by Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, both leading strategists on Obama's 2012 campaign. Veteran New Jersey hands Steve DeMicco and Brad Lawrence, not Obama veterans, headed Booker's media team.

This much is clear: Booker's campaign was in a favorable spot for implementing Obama campaign strategies on smaller scale. He is very popular and he is running on very Democratic territory. The battle for the House and Senate, by comparison, will be fought on much less Democratic terrain with Democratic candidates who lack Booker's natural strengths. So it remains to be seen how effective the tactics will be in those political environments.

"Booker would have won in any event," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker, who added: "I think the turnout was for the number two and three guys. I think that's what boosted it," a reference to Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, Booker's opponents who come from different geographic areas in the state.

"He is cruising, he has a national fundraising base and he is a wildly popular Democrat in a Democratic state," said Republican strategist Ed Rogers, who doesn't buy the idea that the New Jersey race portends much of anything for 2014. Virginia, a swing state where Obama tactics will face pressure-testing in the governor's race this fall, looks like a better setting for judging success or failure, Rogers added.

Other Republicans are also skeptical that Democrats' 2012 turnout success can be replicated in the midterms.

"The Democrats ability to effectively use 2012 turnout tactics in 2014 will be predicated on sufficient excess dollars (of advertising and other forms of voter contact) to fund the play," said veteran Republican strategist Kieran Mahoney. "I don't think they will have the dough, but time will tell."

With strategists like Bird and Kriegel fanning out, building their firms, and taking on more candidate as clients, the 2014 midterm stands to be the biggest test yet of whether the Obama machine can be successfully deployed in a nonpresidential election.

And if these former Obama strategists become household names, they will have to grapple with another question in 2016 and beyond.

"The big question no one is really taking a look at is 'What will the Democrat coalition look like in a post-Obama political world?'" said Republican strategist Doug McAuliffe.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Aaron Blake · August 16, 2013