State Politics

Republicans rev up ground game for Florida presidential fight

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talks at a campaign rally at the Meadow Woods Recreation Center in Orlando on Wednesday. Clinton has a network of supporters in Florida built up over decades.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talks at a campaign rally at the Meadow Woods Recreation Center in Orlando on Wednesday. Clinton has a network of supporters in Florida built up over decades. TNS

State and national Republican party leaders can’t do much about serious obstacles in their path to winning the White House back in 2016: a frontrunner for the nomination with a knack for offending key voter groups or Demographic changes steadily making the Florida and national electorate more diverse and Democratic-leaning.

What Republican Party leaders can do, and are doing, is seize lessons from Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns — investing early and heavily in both high-tech and old-school voter outreach in Florida and other battleground states.

Where four years ago the national party started building its Florida voter mobilization program for Mitt Romney about five months before Election Day, this cycle it already has more than 200 organizers in the state specially trained to recruit more organizers and volunteer leaders. Call it a tribute to Obama’s campaign, which originally came up with the concept of a “campaign fellows” program to train community organizers.

The Republican National Committee’s ambitious overhaul of its voter turnout program includes plans to triple the roughly 100 RNC staffers on the ground in Florida for Romney in 2012.

“The purpose is building toward capacity next year when it really matters,” said Chris Carr, the Republican National Committee’s political director. “When we have a nominee, we have deliverables to give. We have an infrastructure.”

There is less sign of a pulse on the Democratic side in Florida.

Frontrunner Hillary Clinton has no paid organizers in the state, but she is considerably better positioned here than Obama was at this point in the 2008 cycle — and considerably behind where he was in his successful 2012 re-election campaign in Florida.

“She’s in very good shape compared to where we were in 2008,” said Ashley Walker, who ran Obama’s Florida campaign in 2012. “There already are house parties and phone banks constantly and that’s a good sign.”

The cash-strapped Florida Democratic Party has been launching what it calls a “massive” voter registration program, focused heavily on Hispanic and African-American voters, and recently received a $30,000 grant from the Democratic National Committee to ramp up that effort.

When we have a nominee, we have deliverables to give. We have an infrastructure.

Chris Carr, Republican National Committee political director

“The DNC has already developed and is actively using software that estimates how many potential new Democrats there are to be registered, how many net votes would be produced by registering new voters, and how difficult it will be to find potential voters in an area,” said Christina Freundlich, a DNC spokeswoman. “This data helps our state parties and Democratic campaigns to direct canvassing and voter registration drives to target the highest density of unregistered voters, and calculate how much of their resources to commit to influencing an electoral result.”

Voter registration statistics suggest Florida Democrats need the help.

Since the 2012 Florida election when Obama beat Romney by 74,000 votes, the Democrats’ voter registration advantage over Republicans has dropped by more than 140,000 votes to about 395,000.

Obama built the largest and most sophisticated voter turnout operation that Florida and the rest of the country has ever seen, but Republicans are optimistic they have significantly cut that Democratic organizational advantage and question whether Clinton as the nominee can build an operation as successful as Obama’s.

While the DNC for months has been spending more than it raises, the RNC has a $20 million campaign war chest this year, after spending $100 million on voter turnout in 2014. Much of that went toward improving the party’s digital program to target and turn out Republicans, which they expect will give their nominee a significant advantage over what Romney had.

“Now we have national infrastructure, the largest we’ve ever had, the earliest we’ve ever had it — and we’re doing meaningful things out there, we’re not just putting staff out there,” said Carr of the RNC. “They’re measured every day, every week as to what they’re doing and what they should be doing: which is growing the party and building out these turfs.”

Back in 2000, Republicans were caught flat-footed by the heavy Democratic turnout in Florida that resulted in a virtual tie. Republican leaders studied and embraced the Democrats’ aggressive turnout programs in 2004 and improved on them with precise targeting of individual voters through consumer and other data.

In 2004, it was John Kerry and the Democrats stunned by the voter turnout efforts on the other side. But then the GOP did little to build upon success. Democrats did.

“The Obama campaign went back and looked at what we did in ’04 and they made it better. A lot of us laughed about community organizing,” said Carr. “Of course, they had the last laugh because of their infrastructure and what they were able to do with early investment in a very well-trained field organization.”

Carr is a Louisiana native who becomes fired up talking about the importance of political persuasion through old fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor engagement and relying on field organizers with ties and knowledge of their community.

“When you do that, you gain trust, and so by the time you really need to do door-to-door and persuasion, people trust you as the messenger for your candidate if they know you and you have a track record in that community,” he said.

We’re a full 18 months ahead of the game this time.

Jesse Kazmol, RNC chief data officer

The GOP’s new voter turnout program divides Florida into 255 “turfs,” each with 8,000 to 10,000 targeted voters. Rather than waste time and resources on reliable Republican voters, they are targeting persuadable swing voters and Republican-leaning voters who often fail to vote.

Using thousands of data points — from voter registration, and auto registration records to credit card data — the party develops precise scores to determine who appears to be the best voters to target. They can tell which voters tend to open political emails, which are likely to be at home during the day, which are moved by national security issues and which by federal spending.

“We’re a full 18 months ahead of the game this time, trying to refine these scores,” said Jesse Kazmol, the RNC’s chief data officer.

Where the party used to update its data-driven predictive models for voters in a battleground like Florida up to three times a year, now they do it weekly.

The Clinton campaign maintains it is focused on the early primary states and that now is not the time to start building a general election campaign.

“Their focus at this point has to be on winning Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Steve Schale, a former Obama Florida director who had been supporting a Joe Biden candidacy earlier this year. “If she wins Iowa and New Hampshire, the primary is over. There’s no justification for Bernie’s path after that point,” he said of Clinton’s top rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

If she wins the nomination, Clinton would have some significant advantages over Obama in his first campaign. The Clintons have a vast network of supporters in Florida developed over more than two decades, while Obama knew few people.

“She is such a strong brand here,” said Florida Democratic Party vice chairman Alan Clendenin, one of 300 people who turned out for a Clinton fundraiser at Democrat Alex Sink’s home near Tampa on Wednesday. “The Obama infrastructure is not fully intact, but it’s still here. Between piecing that together and her part that already exists, she’s going to be able to walk in and turn on a campaign. She will have massive campaign.”

Contact Adam Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes