By Ari Berman
In 2005, polls on election eve showed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine dead even with his Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore. When the results came in, Kaine won by six points, 51 percent to 45 percent. How to explain the disparity between the polls and the final tally? “The Democratic ground game swamped the GOP’s,” wrote Markos Moulitsas on the popular blog Daily Kos, “even with [Karl] Rove’s full attention and stewardship.”
Knowing that they’d need to pick off moderate and independent voters to win in traditionally Republican Virginia, Kaine’s campaign early on commissioned a large survey to figure out how to contact non-traditional Democratic voters who might be receptive to Kaine’s message. Whereas Democrats traditionally only focused on voters living in 65 percent Democratic areas, the Kaine campaign used polling, census and commercial data, known as “microtargeting,” to go into Republican-friendly exurbs and reach frequent churchgoers sympathetic to Kaine’s background as a missionary or suburban women who liked his education plan. In Virginia’s seven fastest growing counties, Kaine won six of them, enough to swing the election. “Virginia was version 1.0 of microtargeting,” said Kaine’s pollster Peter Brodnitz, referring to the technology that’s become all the rage in political circles.
In the run-up to the ’06 election, there was very little written about the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote (GOTV) success in Virginia and an excessive amount of ink spilled about the GOP’s vaunted 72-hour plan, which was widely credited with electing Republicans in 2002 and 2004. As Eric Boehlert recently noted, TIME magazine’s Mike Allen wrote three articles in October alone hyping the GOP’s GOTV: “The GOP’s Secret Weapon,” “Why the Democratic Wave Could Be a Washout,” and “Why Some Top Republicans Think They May Still Have the Last Laugh.” The $64,000 question for political prognosticators was whether that not-so-“secret weapon” could keep the Republican Party afloat?
The answer, with a few notable exceptions, was no. Issues mattered a lot more than mechanics. In August, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman identified two major themes for Republican candidates to highlight: terrorism and cultural values. But the war in Iraq overshadowed the war on terror. And sex scandals involving Mark Foley and National Association of Evangelicals president Ted Haggard made it difficult for Republicans to trumpet moral rectitude. Republican candidates had almost nothing to run on. Voters took note–and anger over Iraq, corruption in Washington, skyrocketing deficits, economic inequality, social extremism and a host of other issues drove them to the polls.
Independents and moderate voters abandoned the Republican Party in droves. The Democratic base turned out in record numbers, especially in the Northeast, and the party even picked off 28 percent of self-identified white evangelicals. “The big story you’re not getting in the post-election coverage is that in 2006, Democrats finally came up with an answer to Karl Rove,” wrote Zach Exley of the New Organizing Institute.
The 72-hour plan was able to save long-endangered and well-funded GOP incumbents, such as Jim Gerlach in suburban Philadelphia, Heather Wilson in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Deborah Pryce in Columbus, Ohio. But in a number of rapidly emerging races the GOP was caught blindsided and unable to assemble its GOTV machine until it was too late. “The foundation of the party’s advances had been a highly sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation that ideally took a year to set up,” the New York Times reported after the election. “But the party was suddenly confronted with new districts coming into play–particularly across the Northeast, where Republicans were surprised by a storm of suddenly competitive races–and did not have the time to set up the turn-out-program that had worked so well before. Many of those candidates lost narrowly.” The list of surprise casualties included GOP incumbents such as Jim Leach in Iowa, Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley in New Hampshire, Jim Ryun in Kansas, Sue Kelly and John Sweeney in New York, Richard Pombo in California, Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania, Anne Northup in Kentucky, J.D. Hayworth in Arizona and Gil Gutknecht in Minnesota.
Conventional wisdom held that a centralized Republican Party would always best the decentralized (and often disorganized) Democrats. But a more bottom-up structure allowed the Democrats to react more quickly and push resources where they were most urgently needed. In the month before the election MoveOn.org was able to redirect its large volunteer-run GOTV phone program to new races, like Tim Walz in Minnesota or John Yarmuth in Kentucky. In Heath Shuler’s race in largely rural North Carolina, for example, MoveOn members made 111,000 calls to voters, about as many as voted for the candidate on Election Day. “A lot of these campaigns didn’t have the money to run big field programs in these districts,” said MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser.
So outside groups working outside the party, like MoveOn, helped fill the void, by broadening the battlefield of competitive races and putting manpower behind candidates in tough fights. They had better data, thanks to a two-year collection effort helmed by Catalist. Organized labor, lead by the AFL-CIO, lead the largest voter mobilization drive in its history. Emily’s List undertook a huge “modeling” study of different combinations of possible voters in the battlegrounds of Michigan and Minnesota. ACORN had 750 field organizers on the ground in Missouri to marshal support for raising the minimum wage and, by extension, Senate candidate Claire McCaskill. Citizens Trade Campaign PAC used the issue of trade to target independent and disaffected Republican voters in places like North Carolina and Indiana.
But all the good work would have been for naught if President Bush hadn’t been so unpopular and such an overwhelming number of voters didn’t think the country was moving in the wrong direction. And the Democratic Party itself barely seemed up to the job at times. DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel and DNC Chairman Howard Dean spent months fighting about where the party would spend its money, wasting precious time that could have been used for organizing. Ultimately, the party got it together, with the DSCC launching a huge $25 million GOTV program for its Senate candidates, Emanuel hiring turnout wizard Michael Whouley and the DNC chipping in $10 million in cash late in the game.
Would a more cohesive party have helped Democrats pick up an even greater number of seats? Perhaps. In ’06, Democrats and progressives went a long way toward erasing the GOP’s turnout advantage and puncturing the myth of Karl Rove. There’s more work to be done, however, if they want to permanently surpass the other side. Which is why Dean and Emanuel plan to sit down soon to discuss 2008.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation, based in Washington, DC, and a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute.
By Ari Berman