POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 7, 2014
WASHINGTON » The Democrats' plan to hold onto their narrow Senate majority goes by the name "Bannock Street project." It runs through 10 states, includes a $60 million investment and requires more than 4,000 paid staffers. And the effort will need all of that — and perhaps more — to achieve its goal, which is nothing short of changing the character of the electorate in a midterm cycle.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is preparing its largest and most data-driven ground game yet, relying on an aggressive combination of voter registration, getting out of the vote and persuasion.
The committee hopes to make the 2014 midterm election more closely resemble a presidential election, when more traditional Democratic constituencies — single women, minorities and young voters — turn out to vote in higher numbers, said Guy Cecil, the committee's executive director.
While the goal is ambitious, Cecil has some experience. "Bannock Street" is drawn from the name of the Denver field headquarters for the campaign of Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., for whom Cecil was the chief of staff. Bennet won in 2010 by generating higher than forecast turnout.
"We're making a fundamentally different choice," said Cecil, who laid out the Democratic Senate strategy in an interview at the committee's headquarters. "Yes, we have to be on TV, and yes we have to help close the gap between Democrats and Republicans on the air, but we're not willing to sacrifice the turnout operation or the field operation to do that."
Even with new funding and tactical tools, the Democratic Senate campaigns face considerable challenges. The voting rates of core Democratic constituencies — African-Americans, Hispanics, unmarried women, younger voters — historically drop considerably in midterm elections. According to data from the Voter Participation Center — a nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing the share of historically underrepresented voting groups — the reduction among these groups between 2008 and 2010 was nearly 21 million, going from roughly 61 million to 40 million.
Moreover, in many of the states, especially those where the Obama campaign had little real presence, the campaigns are basically starting from scratch. Young voters, for instance, are highly mobile and often have to be registered again because they have moved in the past two years. The effort is also in part reliant on volunteers, and many of the nearly dozen states in play do not have a strong Democratic volunteer culture.
"The question is whether the party's Obama-era volunteer base will replicate itself for a Mark Pryor or a Mary Landrieu or a Kay Hagan," said Sasha Issenberg, author of "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns," referring to three vulnerable incumbent Democratic senators.
The committee is taking lessons from 2010, when, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that prohibited government restrictions on political spending by corporations, individuals and labor unions, it poured the majority of its financial resources into trying to match Republicans in television ads. And it is using as models successful 2012 efforts in Montana and North Dakota, two states that were not presidential battlegrounds but which elected Democratic senators (Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp) through the committee's robust field effort that helped increase the turnout.
"Television is a fundamentally persuasive medium, and by transferring those resources to targeted mobilization, you see a party whose path to victory goes through changing the electorate, not through winning over the opinion of typical off-year voters," Issenberg said. "Campaigns are realizing that the smartest way to win the next vote is by mobilizing a nonvoter than by trying to win over a voter."
In many ways, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's efforts reflect a broader shift in electoral politics toward a more data-reliant and empirical approach: The effectiveness of television ads — which experts agree reach a point of oversaturation near the end of campaigns — is difficult to measure, while improved data-modeling and analytic techniques allow campaigns to more closely target their ideal voters.
Matt Lira, the deputy executive director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that on the Republican side there was a "holistic obsession" to use existing data and technology to not simply "reverse engineer" the most recent Obama campaign.
"If all we achieve is catching up to Obama 2012, we'll be two years behind, so we want to focus on what does the technology enable us to do in 2014," he said.
Voter registration and mobilization efforts are at the center of the Democrats' new strategy. The committee estimates that in Georgia, for example, there are 572,000 unregistered African-American voters and there are more than 600,000 likely supporters of Michelle Nunn, the Democratic Senate candidate there, who voted in 2012 but not in 2010. The goal, then, is to register the African-American voters and to target the likely Nunn voters to show up to the polls during a midterm election.
But black voters who did not register to vote in 2008 or 2012, amid all of the excitement surrounding the nation's first black president, could pose a challenge to register in 2014.
The Bannock Street project is specifically focused on ten states — Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Michigan, Montana and West Virginia — with plans for senior field operatives and other staff members to be in place by the end of the month.
The state teams will each be required to come up with a "strategic plan," complete with a budget and data-mapping program. Paul Dunn — the newly hired national field director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who also ran the 2010 Bennet field effort — will travel around the country, subjecting the teams to "murder boards" and making sure they are in constant communication with the Democratic committee.
The committee is also joining with Civis Analytics, a data firm founded by Dan Wagner, who served as the chief analytics officer on Obama's 2012 campaign. Because Civis is privately backed, including by Google's Eric Schmidt, the partnership will provide Senate Democrats with additional troves of data to use to target voters. The committee knows, for instance, that in Iowa people with German and Scandinavian surnames are likely to vote slightly differently than those with English and Irish surnames.
"Your program will live and die by the strength of the data available to you on the voter file," read a memo provided to the field teams.
The project will also require the state teams to constantly update their voter files so they can use their resources as efficiently as possible.
"We will be able to go into the 58th precinct of the 5th Ward of Little Rock and see if they've gotten a door knock, phone call or piece of mail, and know what TV they're watching," Cecil said.
Ashley Parker, New York Times