Chris Carr was named as the party's political director in February 2015, and he contacted me to discuss the ways in which the party's field efforts have changed and evolved over the past few election cycles. When Carr and I spoke on the phone earlier this week, I asked questions about what the Republican National Committee was doing and he explained their tactics. That conversation (lightly edited, etc. etc.) is below.
Before we jump into it, though, some context: What we're talking about here is the field effort or the ground game. That's the work that campaigns do to directly contact voters to persuade them to support their candidate or to ensure that they vote. That latter effort is usually called GOTV, for "get out the vote." There's some other jargon below; where I've noticed it, I've added some footnotes to explain.
My original article took issue with the party's failure to open offices, because centralized offices have traditionally been the best means of gathering volunteers and dispatching them to talk to voters. Carr explains why the GOP sees offices as less of a priority. It is not because offices, as the party's Sean Spicer said last week, cannot vote.
THE FIX: Let's start with the basics. Tell me what it is you're doing this year in terms of field — talking about persuade and get out the vote — that is different substantially than what you've done in past years and why you've made that change.
CARR: First of all, it's an earlier investment in field than ever before. We've got staff that's in the field — some of the staff have been out there working since 2013. We started building out in the battleground states — there was some overlap from the last cycle, such as North Carolina, Florida and some other states —
THE FIX: Last cycle meaning 2014?
CARR: Correct. Chairman [Reince] Priebus and the leadership started staffing up in 2013. What we did is we built off of that and so in all of the battleground states we started building out staff in probably June of 2015. We had all of our state directors, most of our deputy state directors hired on by August/September 2015.
I went back and looked at 2004, 2008 and 2012 and in just Ohio, as an example, we — the RNC — had hired our state director for Ohio in May of all of those election years. Again, we had our state director in the summer before preparing for the nominee.
So that's number one. That's a big difference in terms of the early investment.
Number two, we returned back to focusing on more volunteer trainings, which was done, I thought, very well back in 2004.
I saw an email last night that I got — someone forwarded from Hillary Clinton's campaign. It talked about the importance of doing doors (1) and why it's important to do doors. And they're good at that. They're very good at that. I think that we got away from a lot of that and explaining to volunteers why we do certain things and why it's important. Because if they don't know that, they're not going to show up and do it. I mean, it's just common sense.
After every cycle, the RNC does a survey to volunteers throughout the country. I went back and read those surveys early in '15 and it was an eye-opener. I saw in a lot of the survey responses, a lot of volunteers saying, "We show up in an office and we're asked to sit down and make calls, and we don't get a lot of people on the phones, and the scripts (2) I feel like a robot — dah dah dah — and we don't know why we're calling certain people."
So: Training. That's another big difference in what we've done from the last two presidential elections.
The third thing I'll touch on is more focus on the personal interaction with voters and volunteers. One-on-one meetings we do with volunteers is something we started last summer with our staff. We would call through past volunteers and even new volunteer prospects and just sit with them for 15 to 30 minutes, just to develop a relationship with volunteers and get buy-in with them face-to-face instead of just calling through a bunch of old volunteer lists.
So: Personal interaction with volunteers. But also voters. Which is why we have moved a lot from primary focus of phones to doors.
THE FIX: So that's a good transition into my next question — one of the questions that's been looming here, and we've seen reports including at The Post about the lack of field offices. But, a): Is the sense that you're not putting a high emphasis on offices correct? And b): If it is, then how, if your priority is doors, do you saturate an area without having a central locus of activity in that area?
CARR: It comes down to: What is your priority in the field?
One of the biggest priorities this cycle and last cycle is bodies in the field. It's not just paid staff, it's, again, it's volunteers. That's why we launched our Republican Leadership Initiative, where we have fellows. We were out doing organizing, anywhere from 15, 20, 30 hours a week. These folks were volunteers, and we have north of 4,500 trained RLI fellows that are working.
Specific to your question about the offices, we started a neighborhood team leader program. The focus of the team leader program is to recruit super-volunteers (as we've called them in the past) to lead neighborhood teams to do things such as voter registration, voter ID (3), persuasion and GOTV. One of the requirements of becoming a neighborhood team leader — you have to earn the title and go through a testing phase — is opening up your home and having house meetings and house parties. For instance, during the primary and caucuses, these neighborhood team leaders would open up their homes and have a social event, with volunteers from their neighborhood or their precinct.
They also have house meetings where they will do trainings on the importance of doing doors. They'll do role-plays of how to speak to a voter in your neighborhood.
So with what has been done in offices before, where volunteers would show up and you'd have coffee and doughnuts and you'd ship people back out to 15 minutes away from the office and then ask them to come back to drop off the literature — now they can stay within the vicinity of the neighborhood or their precinct that they're working in. They'll show up to a neighborhood team leader's house, and we use that as a staging location.
That's not to take away from offices. If offices weren't important at all, we wouldn't have opened our offices. We wouldn't invest in that brick-and-mortar. But we feel very strongly that having offices in the spring of 2016 was not a priority. Our priority was to hire staff, train volunteers, train them well and then start building toward capacity. Start opening up offices around Labor Day, which is now, because we'll be doing more phone calls in offices as we get into early voting (4) and GOTV.
We know through different tests that the RNC has done — and the RNC did quite a few field tests last cycle in Colorado and Florida and in the runoff in Louisiana — that not only is a neighbor-to-neighbor or door-to-door interaction much more effective than phone call, but it's also much more effective to have a volunteer do that door-to-door contact than a paid person. Which is why our focus has been on building toward capacity, which means recruiting volunteers, training them and then activating them.
THE FIX: So let's do a quick hypothetical. What do you do if you have a place that has a lot of voters that you are trying to contact, perhaps a lot of people you need to persuade, but you don't have anyone on the ground that can be a team leader. Do you recruit someone on the ground to be a team leader? Do you open an office?
CARR: The first thing that we did is we worked with our data team. We broke all the battleground states into targeted turfs (5) which are 8,000 to 10,000 target voters who are either low-propensity or categorized as swing voters (6). We ranked those turfs and that's where we went first to recruit the neighborhood team leaders.
In all of these states, you have a state director and, depending on size of state, they have deputy state directors with different responsibilities. And then we have regional field directors and below them are the turf coordinators and the field organizers — those are the ones that are working within these turfs and assisting. There is a paid person that helps the neighborhood team leaders and helps organize the house meetings and the house parties.
Just to give you a number: The number of house meetings that we've done cycle-to-date is 4,018. And our average attendance at these house parties is 15. So that's 60,270 that have attended an actual house meeting and learned how to help organize their turf.
Aside: Carr's team provided numbers on the size of its staff: "In the 11 battleground states there are 3,861 paid staff and trained organizers. Across 33 states there are more than 6,000 paid staff and trained organizers."
THE FIX: So someone shows up at a house party, learns how to knock doors, and they use an app if they want to go do that, is that how it works?
CARR: They use an app. They receive that training for that app at the house meeting. Or, we've done trainings also at a state party headquarters or county headquarters. Frankly, a lot of our RLI trainings and a lot of our volunteer trainings have taken place at a Republican Party office. They don't all happen within a house meeting.
THE FIX: You have a count of contacts or door knocks. What's the ratio in terms of people who are coming through the house-meeting system and people who are coming through the party system? Is it half and half? Which is more effective? Where have you had more contacts?
CARR: The house meetings. It's simply more convenient for the volunteers to either attend a house meeting with the neighborhood team leader in their own neighborhood or within a couple miles radius, versus driving all the way across town to an office.
That's what we saw even in our volunteer surveys after last cycle. These are volunteers who've been volunteering for several cycles and they were complaining about the drive and the commute to an office and the frustration with constantly just being asked to do phone calls.
I think with this new program, it's more convenient for them. I think it's easier for them because a lot of them are talking to their neighbors. They're not necessarily talking to strangers, which makes it far more effective for people to persuade a voter if they actually have a relationship or if they're familiar with that voter because they live on the same block.
THE FIX: Obviously, early voting is looming in a lot of places. What's your strategy? This is an atypical GOTV effort. What are you guys putting emphasis on?
CARR: This is not a one-size-fits-all effort.
It's easy for a national party or a national campaign to have a one-size-fits-all GOTV plan, but it's not. Because the voting methods have changed in so many of these states, you can't have that. You have to have a very state-specific — and not only a state-specific but a county-specific GOTV plan. The reason I say that is that a lot of the jurisdictions within the state, it's very different. It's got to be literally jurisdiction by jurisdiction.
We started preparing for GOTV back in October 2015. We did an entire month's simulation of the month before election. We refer to that as a national month of action. This past Saturday we did a national day of action, the seventh that we've done. It's a training exercise and a recruitment exercise to get new volunteers to come out to a training in the morning and then in the afternoon they're activated to hit doors.
It gives the staff the opportunity to recruit volunteers, train them and it gives new volunteers the opportunity to learn how to do it because, let's face it: Walking door-to-door and talking to voters is not always easy. I think once they do it, after they do it one day, they realize that maybe it is not as hard as they thought it is. But you have to do these things before you get into GOTV, which is why we have focused our efforts for over a year on getting ready for get-out-the-vote effort. Everything from absentee chase (7) to early voting and then Election Day.
This has really changed dramatically over the last couple of cycles. The RNC's biggest focus for turnout in 2004 was called the 72-hour task force. It was focused primarily on building toward capacity for the final 72 hours, which began on Friday night and ran through the close of polls on Election Day. Whereas today, our focus is on 72 hours, but it's also extended into an entire early-vote period, because a lot of these states have either early voting, or places like Colorado, it's all vote-by-mail now. Every registered voter receives a ballot, and then we have to go out there and make sure to remind our identified voters to make sure that they mail in or drop off their ballots.
THE FIX: So if you could steal anything that Barack Obama did in 2008 or 2012, what do you think is the key innovation that he brought that you guys feel was the insight that you were trying to bring to this thing?
CARR: We're already doing a lot of the things that they had done.
What they did — and I thought they were very smart to do this — was they looked at all the success of 2004 and they perfected what we did in 2004, and it's our responsibility to perfect what they did in '08 and 2012.
It comes down to community organizing. That's the number one thing. The community organizing is everything I just spoke about. It's boots on the ground early. It's recruiting passionate volunteers and then training them — not just how to do something, but why. That's what we've learned in this party. I think that's the biggest cultural difference between what we're doing now and what we did then.
In the past, a lot of the field operations were command-and-control from Washington, D.C. I think our approach is different now because we really empower the state staff and local staff to really take control of their targeted turf and build out these targeted teams.
[Obama's] guys in Chicago were content-providers to field staff and their volunteers. They had a fellows program. They hired the very best. They empowered them to do their jobs within their communities.
And it's working for us.
1. "Doing doors" or "knocking doors": Going door-to-door to contact voters, as opposed to calling them on the phone.
2. "Scripts": The tailored message that volunteers are asked to give to voters. These usually vary depending on the audience.
3. "Voter ID": Asking a voter if they will support your candidate.
4. "Early voting": Systems in states that allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day.
5. "Turf": How field people refer to an area that's targeted for a particular reason.
6. "Either low-propensity or categorized as swing voters": This is the heart of field. You're either trying to push people who don't vote consistently (low-propensity voters) to go to the polls or you're trying to convince people who may or may not back your candidate (swing voters).
7. "Absentee chase": Campaigns track to see who has requested an absentee ballot and when it was returned to know the window they have to persuade or encourage them to vote.