Since 2004 Democrats have schooled the GOP in the parties ground games for a decade. Now, the GOP is hoping they can finally turn this around. A number of races at the beginning of the cycle have become inviting targets for the GOP but other races have turned unexpectedly competitive.
In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn has run a strong campaign against Republican David Perdue. Polls on the race have see-sawed with Nunn maintaining a slim edge in the last few polls (all within the margin of error). As a result, the race could come down to the GOP’s ground game and for once the party appears to have an edge. A conglomeration of interest groups and the state GOP have invested heavily in digitally targeted mailings and canvassing. Democrats have largely focused on registering new voters. The result has been Perdue leading among early voting while trailing in public polls. It further aids the GOP that the state Democratic party has atrophied since the turn of the century.
Kansas is a race neither party never expected to be competitive. Senator Pat Roberts has run a lackadaisical campaign and until recently he had no campaign whatsoever. His opponent, Greg Orman, is an Independent who is getting strong support from Independents and Democrats. However, Orman’s candidacy seems to be a a curse as well as a gift. Orman’s campaign does not have access to party technology or staffers and as a result the GOP’s professional ground game is outworking Orman’s campaign.
In an ultra competitive Senate race in North Carolina, the party is increasingly relying on untested digital technology to get them over the finish line. They have put particular faith in a spunky intern’s phone app that has allowed the party to target thousands of voters a week.
The GOP ground game’s improvement has become especially pronounced in two quintessential swing states, Iowa and Colorado. In both 2008 and 2012 the GOP was outworked in Iowa and since 2004 the GOP has not won a statewide election in Colorado. The GOP is working to change these dynamics.
Early returns give the GOP reason for optimism in Iowa. According to an internal memo the GOP now leads Democrats among partisan early voters. However. in polls those that have already voted admit they support Bruce Braley by double digits. Still, if the memo is accurate, the GOP lead among early voters would eat into the Democrats absentee ballot advantage and allow the traditional GOP advantage on election day to be the difference.
Colorado’s new all-mail voting system makes assessing early returns more difficult. But, among self identified Democrats and Republicans in every survey since September, Republicans have said they are more likely to vote. It also helps that Corey Gardner leads among Independents who are most likely to vote as well. According to the Colorado Secretary of State, more Republicans have already returned their ballots than Democrats.
GOP parity or advantages in the ground game are a significant change since 2006. The national Democratic turnout effort in 2006 helped provide the framework for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Even in the banner year of 2010 for the GOP the party was outworked in Nevada and Colorado (two of the closest races in the country).
Republicans believe they can change the script this cycle with the help of outside organizations. While the GOP ground game is working so is the massive ground game of Americans for Prosperity. While barred from specifically endorsing a candidate by federal campaign laws they can encourage targeted undecided and GOP voters to register and urge them to vote on certain issues.
Some political observers say this could be the difference. Though Democrats are benefiting from outside organization canvassing it is not nearly as massive or comprehensive as AFP’s. Combined with the level of spending blanketing races, the GOP advantage with third party groups is only amplified.
None of this is to say the GOP will win every close race this cycle. But, even in failure in 2014 the party can find what does and doesn’t work in preparation for 2016 and beyond.