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Parties Compete To Build The Best Voter-Turnout Machine


Even more than most elections, in midterm vote is determined by exactly who shows up. That's because most people don't show up, so you can have an outsized effect by getting core supporters to the polls.


Now in this fall's elections, Republicans and Democrats alike are fighting to turn out their voters. And the GOP sees an excellent chance to recapture the Senate.

MONTAGNE: Democrats hope to profit one more time from their own sophisticated turnout machine. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There's no intrinsic, partisan advantage in identifying and turning out voters. Through 2004, Republicans were more effective at this. But after 2004, Democrats invested a lot of time and money to close the gap. And with a former community organizer at the top of their ticket, they created a superior field operation. Now, says Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus, his party has to catch up.


REINCE PRIEBUS: We had to stop being a national party that decided that it was OK to show up once every four years, five months before an election. We had become a U-Haul trailer of cash for a presidential nominee. And that is a loser strategy. In the meantime, the Democrats hired 10 people every 10 blocks in Cleveland and South Florida and wherever they needed to be. And each one of their volunteers had a list of 800 names on the piece of paper, and they were going to get to know those people.

LIASSON: Here's what Priebus has been worrying about.

MARIA PALMER: Ms. Goppen, this is Maria Palmer. I'm calling on behalf of the Kay Hagan campaign and the Democratic Party...

LIASSON: On a Tuesday night, a Democratic campaign office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is bursting with volunteers calling voters.

PALMER: And now, I was wondering if we could count on your support for Senator Hagan? Yes, that's fantastic.

LIASSON: This year, Democrats are counting on their experienced field operation to help minimize their losses. A good turnout operation can add one or two points, and in a tight race like the one here in North Carolina, that could make the difference. But the Democrats have an uphill battle. Most of the top Senate races are in red states. On top of that, Democratic voters who are young, low-income, minority voters tend to show up in presidential years and stay home in midterms. At the Hagan phone bank, volunteer Arnie Shechter says his job is much harder than two years ago.

ARNIE SHECHTER: The primary difference is that when I canvassed for Obama, everyone had an opinion already when I came to their door. And in this campaign, being a nonpresidential year, I've had people ask me everything from, which one's the Democrat, to, what does a senator do? When is the election?

LIASSON: In 2008 and 2012, Shechter says, Democrats just had to capture the excitement. In 2014, they have to create it. And that takes a lot of high-tech combined with low-touch, says Sasha Issenberg, the author of "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science Of Winning Campaigns."

SASHA ISSENBERG: Traditional field programs, while they rely on data and modern analytics, are still very much about old-fashioned, off-line communications. So you have a lot of computers and servers churning through algorithms to make predictive models, but the fact is that fieldwork looks like politics in the 19th century, by and large.

LIASSON: And this is where Republicans are trying to catch up. The RNC, together with allied groups like the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, are spending tens of millions of dollars on databases, websites, apps and field offices.

SETH NOBLE: Absolutely perfect day to canvas.

LIASSON: Just down Highway 40 from the Hagan phone bank, Republican volunteer Seth Noble is walking down Penny Lane in Cary, North Carolina. He's looking for low-propensity voters -Republicans who might need an extra nudge to turn out. Noble's shoe leather is backed up by his smartphone. It has a neighborhood map to tell him where to knock and an app to enter important data, like which houses display an American flag or a tell-tale bumper sticker.

NOBLE: I see we got some kind of bumper sticker about Nancy Pelosi, so we will put that.

LIASSON: The bumper sticker says, fire Pelosi, so this house looks promising.

NOBLE: Hey, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Damn, they're ganging up on me.

NOBLE: My name is Seth. I'm a student volunteer for the North Carolina Republican Party.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, I'm voting for a Republican.

NOBLE: All right, so I'm guessing if the election for U.S. Senate were held today, will you vote for Republican Thom Tillis...


NOBLE: ...Or Democratic...


LIASSON: All the information goes into Noble's app where it can be slurped into the servers at Republican Party headquarters in Washington so the GOP can follow up with each voter to make sure they get to the polls.

CHUCK DEFEO: We're standing in the heart of Para Bellum Labs, the new data and digital department for the Republican National Committee.

LIASSON: That's Chuck DeFeo, chief digital officer of the RNC. He's surrounded by dozens of Republican millennials monitoring computer screens.

DEFEO: So you see a staff of almost 50 people that range from people who are skilled in understanding and using political data, all the way to engineers who build applications to our new data science team, as well as our social media marketers and our...

LIASSON: It's all new, says DeFeo. None of this existed a year ago at the RNC. A couple blocks away at the DNC, Democratic operatives are looking at their computer screens, confident they still have an edge in field operations. The DNC's tech director, Andrew Brown, says his party has simply been at this longer, so their voter lists are bigger and richer.

ANDREW BROWN: I'm showing a screenshot right now of an example record on the voter file, but it lets campaigns know who lives in their district and what kind of conversations they've had with that person in the past and what kind of conversations they should have with that person in the future.

LIASSON: What's new this year, says DNC digital director Matt Compton, is that Democrats' tools have all been scaled down so they can be used by any campaign at any level.

MATT COMPTON: I went to college with a guy who's running for his very first race. He's running for county commissioner in North Carolina. And he has access to the same voter file that the Hagan campaign does, running statewide. And he's able to use the same data, build the same type of model that the presidential campaign did two years ago. That, I think, really changes the face of - of what we talk about when we talk about campaigns these days.

LIASSON: The inner working of field operations are mostly invisible, so you can't measure their quality until Election Day. Although, it's fair to assume the Republicans are not as far behind the Democrats as they were in 2012. One thing that's changed, says the RNC's deputy political director Molly Donlin, is that the Republican ground operation won't go away even after Election Day.

MOLLY DONLIN: We've got staff in these target states that as of right now are staying there. They're building this infrastructure, and going into 2016, that's - that's huge for us because we - we don't have to take everything down and build it back up again. We have the ability to keep staff in the states for the next couple years. We don't have to shut it down.

LIASSON: On that, the DNC's Andrew Brown agrees.

BROWN: Field is forever. I mean, it's really about building communities. It's about having conversations. It's about making those conversations resonate year after year and grow on itself, and a lot of campaigns have to kind of start from scratch in terms of introducing the candidate. But they don't have to start from scratch in terms of knowing who they're talking to.

LIASSON: And that is what the permanent campaign looks like now. Even when there are no candidates, there is continuous outreach to voters and to volunteers. Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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