Since Monday morning, Republican Party elites have been using whatever leverage they can to push their nominee, Todd Akin, from the Missouri Senate race. In most cases this has meant withholding institutional support: The Crossroads GPS super PAC has pulled its pro-Akin advertising, and leading Senate Republicans have indicated their campaign fund will follow. But a low-profile move that doesn’t have any monetary value attached to it may prove the most consequential—by hurting the Republican Party more than it helps.
“We have Victory centers and volunteers who do work and phone scripts around Missouri and I’ve told them to take Congressman Akin off the script today,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told St. Louis’ KMOX on Monday.
Victory is the name Republicans use for the local coordinated campaigns it runs in conjunction with state parties to boost the entire ticket. (Democrats employ a similar structure.) By coordinating the mechanics associated with voter turnout, party officials believe they can avoid redundant efforts—by, say, a presidential campaign, a Senate campaign, and a gubernatorial campaign all running simultaneously in the same state (as is the case now in Missouri).
At this point, most Victory centers around the country are using volunteers to call or canvass people seen as likely Republican targets, and are using a script that asks a handful of questions to assess the voter’s degree of support for Romney and the other candidates on the Republican ticket. Those who demonstrate strong Romney support now likely won’t be contacted again by the campaign until it is time to actually cast a ballot, when they will become targets for the Victory get-out-the-vote program. Voters whose support appears shaky should become targets for Republican persuasion efforts, particularly direct mail and online ads. Because it was developed with party funds, voter information collected through these field efforts gets shared with the individual campaigns.
Removing Akin’s name from those scripts carried an implied threat to his candidacy: The party is no longer using its resources to identify his supporters so they can be mobilized in November. But the RNC’s gambit could be self-destructive even if it succeeds in forcing Akin to drop out (and he’s vowed to stay in the race): The party is sacrificing what could prove to be a useful (and potentially unrecoverable) trove of data that should help Romney keep Missouri—at the moment probably the most safely red of all the presidential battleground states—from being competitive.
If Victory volunteers in Missouri had continued asking about both Akin and Romney this week, they would have likely picked up on individual-level movement away from his candidacy. Some fraction of those voters who identified themselves as Romney/Akin supporters likely became Romney/McCaskill supporters or Romney/Undecided supporters after the candidate’s remarks about “legitimate rape.” There’s no reason to believe these people are lost for good: many of these people could come back to the straight Republican ticket if Akin is replaced with an acceptable candidate, or if Akin manages to win back voters’ trust.
But the voters who were turned off by Akin’s remarks should worry Romney because they probably represent those most susceptible to Obama’s “war on women” message. Democrats will certainly be eager to individually identify these voters, likely social moderates whom Obama’s strategists hope to wedge from their party’s presidential nominee on reproductive issues. If a voter quickly changed her mind about Akin why not tell her all about Paul Ryan’s attitudes on abortion and rape and see if she wavers on Romney?
The Romney camp should see this potential expansion of Obama’s universe of persuasion targets as a new area where he may be shortly be forced to play defense. But that will be much harder to do if he doesn’t know which voters Obama will see as vulnerable to his efforts. Priebus may have wanted to punish Akin, but it could be Romney who suffers the most lasting damage.