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.”