Republicans Now Say They Won FL-13 Because They’re Brilliant, Not Just Because of Obamacare

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 20 2014 5:52 PM

Republicans Now Say They Won FL-13 Because They’re Brilliant, Not Just Because of Obamacare

The first wave of FL-13 spin was the obvious one: Republicans had snatched victory from the Democrats because voters rose up against Obamacare. Democrat Alex Sink "was ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare," said NRCC Chairman Greg Walden. Cut and dried.

Only now can the truth be told: Republicans won in FL-13 because they deployed amazing and heretofore secret voter outreach technology. The details were "shared exclusively" with National Journal, and they portray a GOP doing, basically, what parties should aways do.

Even in December, when the race was in its infancy, GOP officials using Honeybadger determined there were two key groups of voters it identified as essential to Jolly's victory: Republican seniors and independent and center-right women. The NRCC, along with assistance from the Republican National Committee and Florida state GOP, targeted those voters for persuasion -- a process strategists say was accomplished in part by combining their own information with what was available at the RNC's revamped Data Trust, a central hub of voter information for GOP campaigns.
In late February, NRCC strategists estimated that, among those who had returned absentee ballots, Honeybadger showed Jolly trailing Democrat Alex Sink by six points. Among those who hadn't yet voted, the system indicated that he led by 12 to 14 points.
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Good for the strategists, but they weren't saying much that public polls weren't saying louder. The ACA, as Democrats admitted, was a greater motivator for GOP turnout than anything Democrats could offer their base. Before the election, Democrats were saying they'd be in trouble if turnout was lower than 200,000. Turnout was 183,962. (In 2012's general election, 189,605 people turned out to vote for Rep. Bill Young alone—139,742 showed up to vote for the Democrat.)

But there's more credit to go around. The New York Times, which has been running more and more pieces about the work of Americans for Prosperity (only fair, given how much the group will spend on elections), is up with a profile of its new long-term voter persuasian efforts. This, we're told, is a huge evolution from its 2012 stumble, and it had a dry run in Florida.

The group’s ground troops — including those who knocked on doors, ran phone banks and reached out through social media to gauge ways to motivate voters — were part of a much larger project, with a prize much larger than a congressional seat.
Americans for Prosperity turned the Florida contest into its personal electoral laboratory to fine-tune get-out-the-vote tools and messaging for future elections as it pursues its overarching goal of convincing Americans that big government is bad government.

How many troops? How many phone banks? We are not told, and AFP hasn't answered my question about more specifics. I asked it because "little-noticed" was a good way of describing the Florida push. At the end of February, when I showed up in Florida, local activists told me they had seen little of AFP. When I dropped by the AFP office closest to the district (in Tampa), I saw one person working in a large space, and some literature, but no one answered the door when I knocked, and the lead Tampa-area activist didn't return my calls.) The only evidence we have of the push is a March 5 cache of photos, which portray AFP President Tim Phillips revving up slightly more than a dozen activists, so the effort might have geared up after I left.

What kind of effort? The strategy described in the NYT piece sounds like the strategy deployed in 2012, which I covered, and which didn't go spectacularly well. AFP, which must spend much of its money on nonpartisan voter "education," sent volunteers to walk precincts, talk to targeted voters, and get them thinking about their problems with government. It didn't work then. AFP's proved far better at TV ad buys (which the NYT piece credits with improvement, though the straight-to-camera story ad they're using this time also demo'd in 2012) and with lobbying state legislators in Republican states.

I don't want to sound too negative. Both the NRCC and AFP seem to be aware of what failed in 2012, but both are benefiting from the natural midterm swoon of nonwhite, less old voters. They may be rapidly adjusting their tactics. They also want to create the impression that donor money is being spent in amazing ways you won't believe—hey, Obamacare ain't gonna win this election by itself.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.