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In R.I., a Model for Voter Turnout

The Republican National Committee spent $400,000 to send volunteers and staff members to Rhode Island because it considered Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee the party's only chance of keeping a seat in a Democratic-leaning state.
The Republican National Committee spent $400,000 to send volunteers and staff members to Rhode Island because it considered Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee the party's only chance of keeping a seat in a Democratic-leaning state. (By Stew Milne -- Associated Press)

Chafee, who often clashes with the White House and congressional leaders over policy and political tactics, said the Rhode Island primary shows that the GOP strategy can work. "The proof is in the pudding," he said. He noted that the state saw a record turnout for a Republican primary and said that the turnout operation "made the difference." The RNC lacks the resources to replicate its efforts in Rhode Island in every competitive congressional race. But GOP officials said that the $30 million they plan to spend on turnout will allow them to run aggressive programs in most of them. Already, for example, they have more than 40 paid field experts in Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee and nine in Connecticut for the three competitive House races, according to a person familiar with RNC operations.

Near Election Day, they will decide where to deploy thousands of volunteers, some paid, for reinforcements.

Recent history underscores the importance of superior voter-mobilization plans. In 2004, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) thought that if he received 190,000 votes it would be impossible for former congressman John Thune (R) to beat him. Daschle won 193,340 votes; Thune got 197,848. In Ohio -- the central battleground in the race between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) -- Democrats met all of their projected vote totals but came up more than 100,000 short.

The Rhode Island effort offered a window into how a mobilization program unfolds.

About six months ago, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sat down with the Chafee campaign to construct a voter-turnout program. Weekly phone calls followed and a number of NRSC senior staffers -- including political director Blaise Hazelwood -- made regular trips to the state to ensure the structure was being built. They identified potential Chafee voters and pressed Democrats to change their party identification to "unaffiliated," a move that would allow them to vote in the Republican primary.

As the campaign wore on, Republicans began another slew of phone calls to unaffiliated voters to tell them that they could vote for Chafee and then immediately change their registration back to unaffiliated or Democrat. The RNC road-tested a new technology in the race that officials said is making their targeting program faster and more precise. It is based on a program that allows volunteers to call potential voters, note their political views and preferences on sheet of paper and immediately scan the results into a huge database known as the Voter Vault. Experts in the political practice known as microtargeting can then instantly analyze the results to determine which issues are moving voters and adjust their pitch.

All told, the Chafee campaign spent $500,000 on the effort, while the Republican National Committee chipped in an additional $400,000. The NRSC spent $1.2 million on the race -- primarily on an extended television campaign that attacked Laffey. Heading into the final day, Chafee said he had "deep apprehensions" about his ability to win.

Bill Lynch, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, said the turnout numbers are worrisome. "It will make for an interesting couple of months," he said.

Staff writers Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.


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