On Tuesday night, longstanding Republican Sen. Thad Cochran defied the polls and defeated Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel in the Mississippi Senate primary runoff by a 51 to 49 percent margin. While the Republican establishment in D.C. rejoiced at their colleague’s victory, this election also could confirm their worst nightmare: field programs can effectively turn out voters in mass.
After losing the initial primary election on June 3rd, Cochran knew he had to shake things up. The traditional strategy of pummeling the airwaves with negative advertisement did not seem to be working, and his opponent was up in almost every single poll. However, Cochran’s fundraising was on a roll; a Mitch McConnell D.C. luncheon hauled in over $800,000 for the embattled incumbent. The National Republican Campaign Committee gave their all to support Cochran, refusing to abandon the 76-year-old legislator during his time of need. The robust fundraising in the wake of his June 3rd defeat allowed for the Cochran campaign to change course, away from advertising and towards a strategy that few, if any, Republican candidates have ever employed: a robust get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operation targeting atypical Republican voters.
Although the Democrats have become experts at turning out their base, Republicans have always lagged far behind in their technology and organizing strategy. It is rare that we see Republican campaigns with truly effective field programs, and their overall strategy focuses much less on turnout than their Democratic competitors. That is, until Thad Cochran.
The Cochran campaign, headed by Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour, did something of genius between June 3rd and June 25th. They took a page out of the Democratic playbook and pumped their resources into creating an effective GOTV operation.
More to the point, Barbour and his team developed a bold and innovative targeting strategy. Instead of focusing on turning out their base, which most campaigns do, they focused on turning out the fringe voters, and in particular, Democrat-leaning African Americans. They were able to do so by playing to African Americans fears that a McDaniel victory in the state would risk stepping “back to the bad old days” and of reduced Federal funding for local projects.
The strategy worked. In Mississippi's 24 counties with a majority black population, turnout increased an average of 40 percent over the June 3rd primary. In some counties, the increase was close to 100%! (In the other 58 counties with majority white populations, the increase was only 16 percent.) This resulted in thousands of additional votesfor Cochran, most of which were African American. Cochran’s margin of victory was 6,693 votes, and it is safe to say at least 5,000 of those are from African Americans who did not vote in the initial primary.
Although today they are happy for their colleague’s victory, here is why mainstream Republicans should be worried for 2014:
This election proves that field programs work, especially in African American communities. And when African American communities vote, Democrats overwhelmingly win. Across the country, state Democratic parties have had field staff on the ground prepping for 2014 elections for months. Democratic campaigns are dumping huge amounts of money into organizing and creating robust GOTV plans. The staffers on the ground in battleground states such as Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Kentucky are experienced and professional products of the Obama generation of campaign operative. If it is possible for Cochran, a 76-year-old establishment Republican to turn out African American Democrat voters in droves during an off-season runoff primary, it is possible for any Democratic candidate to make sure the same communities turn out in November by using the resources and expertise Republican operatives simply do not have.
GOP, you have been warned.
Evans is a junior at The George Washington University, majoring in political science and communication. A veteran of the campaign trail, he has been on the paid staff of both Terry McAuliffe’s and Martha Coakley’s gubernatorial runs.