It appears that after eight years of missteps and missed opportunities, the Republican Party has finally figured out its campaign strategy, tactics and infrastructure. That starts with candidate selection and oversight, brings in better polling and message testing and finishes with strong and accurate get-out-the-vote operations. Add in the muscle and money of third-party groups like Americans for Prosperity, American Crossroads and others and you have a machine that gave Republicans control of the Senate, their largest House majority since Harry Truman was in office and expansion of their control of state legislatures and governors’ mansions. It was not a perfect game – House GOP incumbents lost, Senate Democratic incumbents won – but it was about as good as it gets, especially considering the performance of the last three election cycles.
Virtually none of these strategic elements worked effectively for the GOP in 2008, 2010 or 2012 (the 2010 House GOP midterm elections are an exception and more explained by the health care law, in my view). Finally, after losing another Presidential election because of flawed fundamentals in 2012, the party took a hard look at the situation and decided that a complete ground-up reboot was in order. This included not only the data points (there was a lot of detailed crunching of numbers for sure), but the people on the team as well. As reported in the National Journal, one Republican strategist hired after 2012 to lead the reboot told Senate Republican campaign leaders "Our candidates suck...Our staffs suck." This theme played across third-party organizations as well and the party committees.
Staff people were not the only ones under fire. The party committees took a much stronger hand in candidate selection and placed stiff requirements on how candidates conducted their campaign operations. No more Akin or Murdock "exotic" candidates (as Charlie Cook charitably calls them). And, if incumbents started to lose their way, like Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), then their staff got the boot and professional operators parachuted in to right the ship. Even then, there were one or two candidates that could not be helped.
Finally, major investments were made in the “ground game” by third-party non-profits and Super PACs so that get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts would be more effective. As well, micro-targeting of voters was used expansively and with precise messaging. In short, lots of research was done to understand the voters and what was needed not only to secure their vote, but also get them out to the polling booth.
Caveat number one – the President was an anvil around the neck of many Democrats, especially in the Senate. The President's approval rating was not in the toilet, it was already on it's way out to the main sewer line and try as they did, Democratic candidates could not shake their connection to him. This was especially true for those incumbents who had a tangible record of supporting the President on say the "O" word. The President himself said this election was a referendum on his policies. Really? Ok, then – many voters would say – I can't vote against you, but I can sure vote against Kay Hagan (D-N.C.)!
Caveat number two – despite big gains on Wall Street and steadily dropping unemployment, the economy is not doing much for most Americans. In some battleground states, this was acutely true. For example, wages in North Carolina have gone down by seven percent over recent years compared to a national average of one percent. And just as the President and his party gets credit for a good economy, they get blame for a bad one. That blame can become real in the voting booth.
Caveat number three – the traditional midterm election challenge of voter turnout continued to be true regardless of Democrat GOTV efforts. Simply put, young (18-30) and minority voters (reliable Democrat supporters) did not turn out like they did in 2012 and older, white voters-, (reliable GOP voters) turned out in greater numbers. Democratic candidates won the female vote by four points while their GOP opponents won the male vote by 16 points, according to the Pew Research Center.
So the national environment and traditional electoral dynamics did play their part in the Democratic losses on November 4. However, and more importantly for the long term, the GOP did everything that the Democrats and the President had successfully done for three election cycles and it paid off. Essentially, parity has been achieved between the two party political apparatuses. Now we'll see what it means for the 2016 election cycle when twice as many Republican Senate seats are on the table as Democrat and the White House is also in play. If both parties play at the top of their game in 2016, that will be the true test of who has really figured out the formula. That will be exciting to watch.
Thanks for reading. As usual, the opinions expressed here are my own so feel free to call me out on them. You can do that by emailing me.
Talk to you next month.