By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 14, 2006
The turnout campaign that Republican operatives used to help pull Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee to victory in the Rhode Island primary was a potent demonstration of how money and manpower can transform a race even in an unfavorable political environment -- and a preview of the strategy that national party officials say they plan to replicate in the most competitive House and Senate races over the next 55 days.
In the past two national elections, in 2002 and 2004, Republicans outperformed Democrats in bringing their backers to the polls, but many Democrats and independent analysts have suggested that the competition may be different this year, in part because of slumping morale among GOP activists. But Chafee's performance -- combined with reports of late-starting organization and internal bickering on the Democratic side -- suggest that the Republican advantage on turnout may remain intact even as many other trends are favoring the opposition.
The Republican National Committee, convinced that Chafee is the party's only chance of keeping a seat in a Democratic-leaning state, spent $400,000 to ship 86 out-of-state volunteers and several paid staff members to Rhode Island. They targeted not just Republicans but also independent voters during the final days of the campaign, following a blueprint developed months ago by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Chafee campaign.
The effort helped Chafee survive a spirited challenge from Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey by boosting primary turnout to an all-time high. In June, GOP leaders used a similar turnout program to help lobbyist Brian Bilbray win a special California election for the House seat vacated by indicted GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
There were several factors behind Chafee's 54 percent to 46 percent win, including his popularity among independents and his decision to attack Laffey in television ads during the final weeks of the campaign. But it was the repeat success of the GOP voter-mobilization program that had Democrats anxiously examining returns.
"Their turnout operation is exquisite," a senior Democratic strategist said. "We are not going to match them."
While Democrats are confident they are on track to capture the House and possibly the Senate, top party leaders are privately expressing concerns about the RNC's $30 million financial advantage over the Democratic National Committee and how the money will be used to maximize turnout in pivotal races.
Events this week put the GOP edge in sharp relief. While the RNC was fine-tuning its "microtargeting" program in Rhode Island, Democrats were announcing they had finally resolved a months-long dispute between Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) over a budget for mobilizing voters.
The DNC will spend $12 million to help Democrats up and down the ballot this fall. Some party leaders privately acknowledge that House Democrats in particular are only beginning to put in place an operation to turn out voters and that Republicans are many months ahead in planning.
Democratic leaders, who agreed to speak about the matter on the condition of anonymity, said their turnout strategy will be sufficient even if it is not equal. Senate Democrats have already put $10 million into turnout for contested races and began a detailed voter-identification effort months ago, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has brought on grass-roots organizing expert Michael Whouley to head up its turnout efforts. Democrats said they have one advantage this year that Republicans cannot match: voter intensity. Numerous polls show that Democrats, disdainful of President Bush and the Iraq war, are motivated to vote on Nov. 7, while Republicans do not have similar enthusiasm.
Still, Republicans said the combination of the Chafee win and new polling data showing renewed voter confidence in GOP anti-terrorism policies suggest their election plan could limit losses and protect their congressional majorities. An ABC News poll released yesterday found that Bush's relentless focus on terrorism in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks benefited the White House and the GOP. Republicans held an edge of seven percentage points when respondents were asked which party they trust to handle terrorism, a 14-point change from last month.
Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster involved in competitive races this fall, said he was not surprised by Republicans' improving numbers on the fight against terrorism but added: "If this blip holds, it should be something that concerns us."
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.