MARIETTA, Ga. — Standing toward the back of the Cobb County Republican Party headquarters, chairman Joe Dendy marvels at the scene.
A clutch of volunteers is handwriting postcard messages to would-be voters — one of the most intimate ways to reach supporters. But he is more intrigued by the other group — young, old, white and black — using new phones that automatically dial numbers from a database and can leave prerecorded voice mails for people who don’t pick up. Another group is out in the neighborhood using a phone app that feeds back information to a database that will keep county and state party officials updated on potential voters.
“We’ve never had anything like this going before,” Dendy said.
Republicans here and across the country are now emulating the tech-driven, national-style ground game long dominated by Democrats. Party officials want to use the new methods to draw out voters to support congressional and gubernatorial candidates this year and then prepare to help the party’s presidential nominee during the 2016 election.
Here in Georgia, the new GOP investments in technology come at a time when Democrats are increasingly enthusiastic about their chances in a state they have not been able to win for years.
Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), is in a tight race with Republican David Perdue for an open Senate seat, while Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter is challenging GOP incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal in a race that polls suggest is tied. If Democrats keep it close, they could force Georgians to return to the polls twice to vote in runoff contests — on Dec. 2 in the governor’s race and Jan. 6 in the Senate race.
“They’re saying this could go until January,” Dendy said. “But we do not want to work over Christmas.”
The GOP efforts here in Cobb County — a Republican stronghold that helped elect Newt Gingrich to Congress — is the end result of Victory 365, a project launched after Republicans lost the presidential race in 2012. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus initiated a top-to-bottom review of party operations, messaging and fundraising. In a recent speech, he conceded that the RNC “had become a U-Haul trailer of cash for a presidential nominee” that would deploy manpower and technology only around Labor Day.
In Georgia and other key states, the RNC partnered with state party operations to deploy paid staffers and millions of dollars in new databases, apps, Web sites and phone systems. In Cobb County, Dendy has essentially ceded day-to-day ground operations to Ashley Williams, 24, a paid GOP staffer helping organize volunteers. She is the kind of young, energetic party staffer that Democrats regularly deploy into a key state more than a year before an election.
Williams works alongside volunteers such as Bob Maynard, who spent time last week dialing up potential supporters on an automated phone system paid for by the state party and the RNC.
“A vote for Michelle Nunn is a vote for Harry Reid,” Maynard said between calls, referring to the Senate majority leader. “That’s the real issue. He’s got 370 bills tied up in the Senate that came over from the House. And Nunn might be the second coming, but you don’t vote for her and get a Republican Senate, and there are a lot of things that need to happen.”
In addition to the retrofitted GOP operations, Republicans benefit from another powerful organization working to turn out conservative voters: the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
From a suburban office building in Duluth, Ga., founder Ralph Reed — the former head of the Christian Coalition and a onetime candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor — oversees a multimillion-dollar operation that recently started distributing 1 million voter guides to churches across Georgia. The placards display the faces of Perdue and Nunn and list where they stand on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and the Affordable Care Act. An additional 850,000 mailers with similar information will be sent to the homes of evangelical Christians, Reed said. Many of those households will receive at least two phone calls from Reed’s organization.
Reed said his group, a nonprofit prohibited from endorsing candidates or coordinating with the GOP, is spending more money on Internet-based outreach than on traditional mail, telephone or person-to-person contact for the first time. Using micro-targeting software costing seven figures, Reed said, the group has amassed a database with 33 million social conservative voters living in 21 million households nationwide.
“When I was at the Christian Coalition in the 90s, I was taking a shotgun and aiming it at the evangelical vote and pulling both triggers and spraying this buckshot,” he said. Now, with better technology, “I’m targeting voters based on the propensity of their voting behavior and based on their pre-qualification of sharing my values, and I’m hitting them one at a time.”
But the coalition still reaches out in person. Thursday, field staffers Robert Potts and Jon Harbison drove 90 minutes south of Duluth to Rock Springs Church, Benny Tate’s megachurch operation in tiny Milner, Ga. Tate is a nationally known pastor who meets regularly with national Republican luminaries.
During a brief meeting with Potts and Harbison, Tate lamented that barely 20 percent of Americans are planning to vote in this year’s elections and said that he eagerly distributes the coalition’s literature in hopes that it will inspire participation.
“The political issues are not my motivation,” he said. “The morality of our country is my heart. It matters not to me if a person is independent, libertarian or Democrat. I want to see where people are standing on Bible-based issues. That’s where I encourage our people to line up.”
Democrats in Georgia can’t yet match that kind of deeply personal outreach — but they’re trying.
Eager to take advantage of a growing Democratic voter base fueled in part by an influx of new residents from other states, Nunn and Carter are operating a coordinated campaign that allows them to pool resources. But while Republicans have 17 major outreach offices across Georgia, Democrats have seven. Facilities like the Cobb County GOP headquarters are under long-term leases, while Democrats are mostly renting short-term space.
Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University who specializes in political mobilization, said the Democratic efforts might not be enough this year.
But she added, “Even if they lose these elections, they’ve actually acquitted themselves very well to be competitive in future cycles. I don’t know if 2018 is the year or 2020 or 2022, but they’re laying the foundation to make sure they’re not also-rans in future elections.”
Nunn’s statewide headquarters in downtown Atlanta doubles as the city’s Democratic outreach office. It resembles the kind of pop-up offices that President Obama’s 2008 election campaign opened across the country. Hand-painted campaign signs and instructions on how to politely make phone calls hang on the walls.
The most frequent volunteer is Carol Baird, a 63-year-old retired federal employee. She showed up last year out of anger over the government shutdown. She offered to stop by once a week and help answer the phones.
“They didn’t have a phone yet,” she said.
Now, she sits amid a mix of older and younger volunteers — most of whom haven’t lived in the state for more than a few years.
“We’re finding a lot of people coming out of the woodwork that probably just needed somebody they could get behind, needed someone they could believe in, needed somebody who had a shot and could win,” Baird said.
But will these Democrats show up again in two years to help out? Baird isn’t sure. Once it’s all over, “I go back to being retired and my husband gets me back.”