Inside the Republican Database Behind David Jolly’s Upset Victory

Republican number-crunchers concluded that invoking Nancy Pelosi’s name was the best tool to motivate their voters.

National Republicans argued their new turnout tools helped Republican David Jolly win a key special election.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
March 18, 2014, 3:37 p.m.

To hear Re­pub­lic­an strategists in­volved with Dav­id Jolly’s cam­paign tell it, the new­est Re­pub­lic­an in Con­gress owes his vic­tory to a “Hon­ey­badger.” That’s what of­fi­cials at Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee call the voter data­base they’ve spent a year tire­lessly build­ing from scratch, a sys­tem they ar­gue was es­sen­tial to Jolly’s sur­pris­ing win in last week’s spe­cial elec­tion in Flor­ida.

In de­tails shared ex­clus­ively with Na­tion­al Journ­al, lead­ers at the NR­CC de­scribed a first-of-its-kind polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion de­ployed on be­half of a Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate. Led by Hon­ey­badger, a con­tinu­ally up­dat­ing sys­tem that in­teg­rates real-time data with ex­ist­ing voter files, they say they were able to track voters they had to tar­get, dis­cov­er what mes­sages would mo­tiv­ate them to go to the polls, and pro­ject ex­actly how much ground Jolly had to re­cov­er when early ab­sent­ee vot­ing didn’t swing his way.

Strategists with the House GOP’s polit­ic­al arm aren’t shy about tout­ing its im­pact, either: Without the cut­ting-edge ef­fort, they pro­fess, the newly-min­ted con­gress­man would be look­ing for a new job this week in­stead of head­ing to Wash­ing­ton.

And, NR­CC of­fi­cials say, none of it ex­is­ted in 2012. “We wer­en’t do­ing any of this stuff last cycle,” said John Ro­gers, the com­mit­tee’s deputy polit­ic­al dir­ect­or.

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. With early vot­ing be­gin­ning March 1, and the elec­tion just 10 days later, the party was run­ning out of time to make up the gap.

So Re­pub­lic­ans tar­geted voters whom the data­base iden­ti­fied as es­sen­tial to vic­tory and the most likely to turn out. And to en­cour­age them, they didn’t just de­ploy a stale mes­sage. Strategists at the NR­CC and with­in its leg­ally sep­ar­ate in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure team had meas­ured which mes­sages were most ef­fect­ively per­suad­ing voters to turn in their bal­lots.

In this case, they turned to a mes­sage — de­livered across a vari­ety of di­git­al plat­forms and email — that fo­cused on ur­ging them to vote now or watch Demo­crat­ic Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi move one step closer to re­claim­ing the speak­er’s gavel.

“We had a lot of high-prob­ab­il­ity folks left, so if we were able to fo­cus our mes­sage prop­erly, we could cre­ate a surge, or amp­li­fy it,” Ro­gers said. “Once we switched to that script across the board, that’s when the surge star­ted. That was late Feb­ru­ary.”

Demo­crats roll their eyes at the sug­ges­tion that they were out­wit­ted last week. They have reas­on to do so: Many of the tac­tics de­scribed — like us­ing peer pres­sure to goad voters to cast their bal­lot — have been used by Demo­crats be­fore. Even GOP of­fi­cials ac­know­ledge that scal­ing up their ef­forts to work with all of the com­pet­it­ive 2014 House races is chal­len­ging. And strategists still warn that catch­ing up to Demo­crats will re­quire a com­plete ret­ro­fit­ting of the party’s cul­ture that could take years to com­plete. In­deed, party lead­ers were so pess­im­ist­ic about Jolly’s chances that they leaked un­fa­vor­able de­tails about his cam­paign to Politico days be­fore the elec­tion.

Demo­crats also ar­gue, as they did in the wake of last week’s de­feat, that they out­per­formed what was a right-lean­ing dis­trict in an off-year — hardly proof the GOP’s polit­ic­al ma­chine had grown by leaps and bounds.

“Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans brag­ging about win­ning a Re­pub­lic­an-held seat with a heav­ily Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate is hardly il­lu­min­at­ing and cer­tainly doesn’t demon­strate wheth­er their data and ana­lyt­ics op­er­a­tions have joined the 21st cen­tury,” said Emily Bittner, spokes­wo­man for the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “In this race, Demo­crats closed a wide re­gis­tra­tion gap in a chal­len­ging en­vir­on­ment, and this fall we will fight in more fa­vor­able dis­tricts us­ing proven tac­tics honed over sev­er­al elec­tions to turn out voters.”

But the chest-thump­ing from Re­pub­lic­ans should non­ethe­less give Demo­crats and their can­did­ates pause. The much-bal­ly­hooed tech­no­logy and data gap between the two parties is sup­posed to be one of the party’s few ad­vant­ages an oth­er­wise tough year. And al­though it’s un­likely that Re­pub­lic­ans have caught up, there’s little doubt that the race in Flor­ida’s 13th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict shows a party that has made sig­ni­fic­ant gains since Novem­ber of 2012.

“[Demo­crats] either over­sold the data tech­no­logy they have, or we’re start­ing to beat them at their own game,” said Ger­rit Lans­ing, the NR­CC’s di­git­al dir­ect­or, who ran the Flor­ida race’s in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure ef­fort. “In Flor­ida, I think both were true.”

After the last elec­tion, Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials con­ceded they had been out­wit­ted by the more soph­ist­ic­ated Obama pres­id­en­tial cam­paign and oth­er down-bal­lot Demo­crat­ic op­er­a­tions. And while the GOP has down­played policy fixes, such as im­mig­ra­tion re­form, to im­prove the party brand, it fol­lowed through on its pledge to in­vest heav­ily in im­prov­ing its os­si­fy­ing polit­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture. The RNC, for in­stance, has hired top of­fi­cials from Face­book to lead its tech­no­lo­gic­al im­prove­ments and launched ini­ti­at­ives to help it in­nov­ate in the data and di­git­al fields.

The same happened at the NR­CC, where of­fi­cials de­cided to scrap plans to buy an ex­ist­ing voter data­base and in­stead built on their own, which later be­came Hon­ey­badger.

Lans­ing, run­ning the in­de­pend­ent ef­fort, said his out­fit also emailed those who hadn’t voted yet pres­sur­ing them to do so. Forty per­cent of those who re­ceived the email, he ad­ded, used a tool provided to identi­fy where they could vote, even giv­ing dir­ec­tions.

“The me­dia has bought in to this idea we don’t even know what the In­ter­net is,” he said. “We’re happy they think their data op­er­a­tion is so great; it’s only go­ing to help us catch up and sur­pass them that much quick­er.

“This is some of the fruit those changes are bear­ing.”

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