Sunday, October 01, 2006

Campaign 2006: The Republicans' Secret Weapon

You think the GOP is sure to lose big in November? They aren't. Here's why things don't look so bad to them
Even Time magazine (super dribbling liberal) is waking up and smelling the coffee...T

The polls keep suggesting that Republicans could be in for a historic drubbing. And their usual advantage—competence on national security—is constantly being challenged by new revelations about bungling in Iraq. But top Republican officials maintain an eerie, Zen-like calm. They insist that the prospects for their congressional candidates in November's midterms have never been as bad as advertised and are getting better by the day. Those are party operatives and political savants whose job it is to anticipate trouble. But much of the time they seem so placid, you wonder whether they know something.

They do. What they know is that just six days after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, his political machine launched a sophisticated, expensive and largely unnoticed campaign aimed at maintaining G.O.P. majorities in the House and Senate. If that campaign succeeds, it would defy history and political gravity, both of which ordain that midterm elections are bad news for a lame-duck President's party, especially when the lame duck has low approval ratings. As always, a key part of the campaign involves money—the national Republican Party is dumping at least three times as much into key states as its Democratic counterpart is—but money is only the start. "Panic results when you're surprised," says Republican National Committee (r.n.c.) chairman Ken Mehlman. "We've been preparing for the toughest election in at least a decade."

Thanks to aggressive redistricting in the 1990s and early 2000s, fewer than three dozen House seats are seriously in contention this election cycle, compared with more than 100 in 1994, the year Republicans swept to power with a 54-seat pickup in the House. Then there's what political pros call the ground game. For most of the 20th century, turning out voters on Election Day was the Democrats' strength. They had labor unions to supply workers for campaigns, make sure their voters had time off from their jobs to go to the polls and provide rides to get them there.

Now, though, Democrats are the ones playing catch-up when it comes to the mechanics of Election Day. Every Monday, uberstrategist Karl Rove and Republican Party officials on Capitol Hill get spreadsheets tallying the numbers of voters registered, volunteers recruited, doors knocked on and phone numbers dialed for 40 House campaigns and a dozen Senate races. Over the next few weeks, the party will begin flying experienced paid and volunteer workers into states for the final push. The Senate Republicans' campaign committee calls its agents special teams, led by marshals, all in the service of the partywide effort known as the 72-Hour Task Force because its working philosophy initially focused on the final three days before an election.

So Republicans hope to close the deal in tight races with a get-out-the-vote strategy that was developed in the wreckage of the 2000 presidential campaign. Bush's team was led then, as it is now, by Rove, Bush's political architect and now White House deputy chief of staff, and Mehlman, then White House political-affairs director. Their theory was that Bush lost 3% or 4% of his expected vote in 2000 because those people just stayed home.

What Rove and Mehlman wanted to figure out was the code for increasing the number of Republican voters who could be reliably summoned to the polls—a code that, once cracked, could be used to win election after election. "We want to turn 75%-Republican areas into 78%- or 79%-Republican areas while at the same time turning 15% areas into 18% or 19% areas," says Mike DuHaime, political director of the R.N.C. In the off year of 2001, the creators of the 72-Hour program tested it in odd, lower-profile contests, including court races in Pennsylvania. The Bushies picked clusters of precincts where they quietly tried their new methods, then compared those with similar precincts where the campaigns did things the more traditional way. Those experiments helped Republicans develop a handful of precepts that constitute the party's playbook for this fall:

1. Learn from the past Fifteen G.O.P. data experts spent months after the '04 election comparing turnout records from the swing states with the Bush-Cheney campaign's databases to figure out the optimal amount of mail, phone calls and door knocks that would persuade a probable G.O.P. voter to go to the polls.

2. Draw in new voters The Bush-Cheney campaign used state records to locate potential Republicans with Florida State University license plates, then had fellow Seminoles call them to sound out their views. Whereas parties used to go after certain precincts or zip codes, Republicans now know even which individual households they want through microtargeting—the use of computerized consumer data, from magazine subscriptions to charitable contributions, to help locate voters who are likely to vote Republican if they turn out. Other telltale signs of potential latent Republicanism are snowmobile ownership and enrollment in private schools.

3. Low tech can be better Caller ID, TiVo, cable channels and satellite radio all make it harder to reach voters than it was just a few years ago, increasing the importance of person-to-person appeals, the hallmark of old-fashioned, grassroots campaigns that used to connote an amateur or a low budget. "You clearly have to have TV ads," says White House political-affairs director Sara Taylor, "but for a little less TV, you can buy a whole lot of pizzas and phone lines and salaries for young men and women right out of college" to make phone calls, knock on doors and recruit and manage volunteers.

4. Details, details The shopping list includes everything from chairs to cell phones for hundreds of workers for Republican Party victory committees, whose staffs are charged with creating state turnout machines. TheG.O.P. says their volunteer forces in '04 proved to be more effective than the paid workers contracted by Democrats, unions and Democrat- oriented fund-raising groups. Even Election Day comes sooner for Republicans, who have begun putting a huge effort into locking down absentee voters and vote-by-mail ballots in states that use them.

5. Spend more Republican officials estimate that at the end of August, their committees and campaigns had $235 million to spend in the two-month home stretch, a $58 million advantage over Democrats. The R.N.C. plans to lay out more than $60 million on turnout efforts and advertising vs. the more than $14 million set aside by Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) chairman Howard Dean. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who has been critical of Dean's approach, complained at a D.N.C. fund-raising luncheon in Washington last week that theG.O.P. "is pouring tens of millions of dollars into races, and we're not matching that." House Republican officials contend that many of their Democratic challengers are so little known that they could be buried in an ad blitz. "You hit them, and they fold like a house of cards," a strategist said.

Republicans had begun to feel better about the election recently after Bush got a bump in the polls, reflecting a steady decline in gas prices and a successful effort by the White House to push national-security issues to the top of the news. But by last week G.O.P. operatives were less elated. Newscasts were trumpeting the tales of infighting in Bush's war cabinet told in Bob Woodward's State of Denial, a book full of stories about an Administration pursuing a war with no clue how to go about it. And Representative Mark Foley, a Republican from Florida, resigned after his X-rated Internet chats with teenage boys from the House page program were made public. A safe seat for Republicans was suddenly in jeopardy.

Republicans acknowledge one ominous vulnerability: for more than a decade, the party has benefited from an intensity gap. Stoked by hatred of Bill Clinton or love for George W. Bush, G.O.P. voters have been more certain to vote than Democrats—meaning that the party tends to perform better than the final opinion polls suggest. Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, head of the House Democrats' campaign committee, recently told Time that gap had counted for as much as 5 to 7 points for the Republicans. But he thinks this election year might be different. "Their voters are unhappy," he says. "They're despondent about a failed President."

White House officials also concede they aren't so sure that Republicans will be motivated to go to the polls this year. Of course, expressions of doubt on the part of senior Republicans could be part of another game the G.O.P. plays better than the Democrats do these days: the expectations game. The Republicans are, after all, in the enviable position of being able to lose a lot. As long as they end up keeping control of both houses, they still come out the winner on Election Day.
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