Solving the Turnout Problem

Two years ago, Republicans throughout the country were growing despondent. Polls being released showed their candidate, Mitt Romney, trailing President Barack Obama. How could it be, they asked themselves, that in a country where the unemployment rate was, at the time, hovering around eight percent, the president was ahead by as much as seven points?

Enter Dean Chambers, a Virginian who will forever be known as the “unskewed polls guy.” Chambers argued that the polls were oversampling Democratic voters and thus were unfairly “skewed” in the president’s favor.

Many Republicans latched on to this, and for the rest of the race, would reweight the poll samplings to more accurately reflect how they thought the electorate would look. A column written by Chambers late that September using this method to reconfigure the polls showed Romney winning with as many as 316 electoral votes. That would end up being 110 more than he actually won on Election Day.

What had been left unasked during the run- up to the presidential election was why the pollsters used the samples they did. It wasn’t bias on the part of the pollsters; the numbers used were also a result of the data collected. Democrats, especially during presidential elections when Obama was running, had an advantage in their ability to get their voters to the polls. They simply turned out in better numbers than Republicans did, and the polls accounted for this.

None of this really came as a surprise, but it drove home the need for the GOP to build something that would help close that gap. The Romney campaign had tried, but had failed miserably, when their much-hyped “Project Orca” system that was supposedly going to — in Romney’s words — give his campaign “an unprecedented advantage on Election Day” didn’t. And despite the campaign telling volunteers in the run-up to the election that it was the “most technologically advanced plan to win the 2012 presidential election,” Orca ended up being one of the contributing factors of the president’s reelection when it ended up,  for a variety of reasons, not being functional on Election Day.

In the period after the 2012 loss, the Republican National Committee (RNC) decided to make sure a similar disappointment would never happen again. The decision was then made for the RNC to create a tested and fully functional system to maximize turnout that will be in place for future candidates to use in whatever races they run. While every campaign will be free to use it however they choose, the problems faced by the Romney campaign with Orca should not hamper the RNC system.

The Romney campaign spent $40 million on technology in the 2012 race, and only a small portion of that was on Orca. The RNC has already spent close to $100 million on this new project, and according to CTO Andy Barkett they are still only “75 percent of where I expected us to be right now. Not 100 percent. And certainly not 100 percent of where we need to be.”

Many in the GOP have wondered whether this new approach will really be successful, or just end up being a well-hyped dud, much like Orca was. There are a few reasons to be hopeful that these fears will end up being unfounded.

First off, the fact that RNC chair Reince Preibus is still diverting funds away from groups the RNC traditionally funds in election years, like the NRSC, and is instead spending on this project, shows that he himself has confidence in its ability to perform. That cannot be underestimated. The number- one objective for the GOP this cycle is regaining control of the Senate, and Preibus’s legacy as chair is tied to that in a big way. If it weren’t showing real signs of success internally, you can bet he’d go back to dumping money on competitive races in an effort to salvage them, instead of spending even more on this, allotting $8 million to turnout efforts as recently as two weeks ago.

What is more impressive is the virtual silence coming from the GOP about the project, other than periodic updates. This stands in stark contrast to Orca, about which Romney staffers were constantly raving to anyone who would listen, and the DNC, which since 2008 has been boasting about the ability to use Obama’s system in other races — something that has yet to actually happen. The fact that they don’t feel the need to keep talking it up shows that they have confidence its performance will speak for itself.

Hopefully, that confidence is well-placed.