WASHINGTON -- Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee's primary win was more than just a victory over a conservative challenger. It was a critical test of the GOP's superior voter-turnout army, which could be the deciding factor in the November elections.
In an aggressive effort on behalf of the GOP's embattled liberal senator, the Republican National Committee pumped $400,000 into the race on a voter identification-turnout drive that brought a record number of voters to the polls -- voters who gave Chafee his 54 percent to 46 percent victory over Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey.
But in this case, the RNC voter-turnout ground game did not just focus on Republican voters in the heavily Democratic state, but also independents, who helped provide Chafee with the critical margin of victory.
It was at first an under-the-radar operation that shipped 86 out-of-state volunteers into Rhode Island, and half a dozen paid staffers needed to pull it off. But the GOP isn't quiet now about what they achieved. They want the Democrats to know what they are up against in this election, and the RNC is trumpeting its efforts and the techniques that went into Chafee's win.
In a memo sent out to "interested parties," RNC Political Director Mike DuHaime explained how the RNC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee chaired by Sen. Liz Dole had produced the voter-turnout feat using "the latest technology" and a huge grassroots force.
By employing "the latest microtargeting techniques," the two campaign committees and the state party's army of volunteers had joined "to create a unique turnout universe comprised of both Republicans with a history of primary voting, and unaffiliated voters who were far less inclined to vote in a GOP primary."
"Microtargeting" is not a political term that is widely understood by the voters, but it has become a major high-tech weapon in the GOP's voter turnout arsenal that sealed President Bush's re-election and boosted the GOP's congressional majority. Since then, it has been upgraded and even perfected into a more powerful, far-reaching tool in the midterm elections, party officials told me.
In a nutshell, it is based on tens of thousands of calls to voters that in turn produces a mountain of political data about their political preferences and views on specific issues. That information is fed into a vast computer base known as the Voter Vault, which allows the party to "microtarget" election turnout calls, mailings and door-to-door visits with specific messages tailored to specific groups of people.
The RNC's "investment in upgrading phone-bank reporting technology and Voter Vault allowed us to quickly identify focused groups of voters to target with paid or volunteer communications, while also giving us the ability to evaluate the remaining potential voters identified by microtargeting," DuHaime's memo says.
How the GOP's voter turnout operation performed last week gives us an advance peek into how they plan to overcome what election analysts say will be a Category 5 anti-Republican storm in November that could put the Democrats back in control of the House and weaken the GOP's hold on the Senate.
Insiders tell me that the RNC analyzes past turnout numbers and victory margins, and produces voter turnout target numbers in key races (often with a safety-margin) that they believe will be enough to overcome the Democratic vote.
In the Chafee race, the GOP's turnout organization produced a record number of GOP primary voters (62,099) that beat the previous record set in 1994 by a whopping 38 percent. Sitting on a cash hoard of about $30 million, the RNC plans to replicate what they did in Rhode Island in about three dozen House races and six or more Senate contests where GOP candidates are vulnerable.
Volunteers are staffing most of the ground operation, but paid organizers will be sent in wherever needed, officials told me. Notably, the size of the GOP's volunteer operation belies polling stories, which suggest that Democratic voters are more enthused than Republicans in this year's election.
In tiny Rhode Island, however, in the last 11 days of the campaign GOP volunteers made 198,921 voter contacts, 190,350 phone calls and 8,571 door-to-door visits. Surely this suggests a significant level of enthusiasm at the grassroots that party chairmen tell me they are seeing in their states, too Now, compare this to what has been going on over at the Democratic National Committee, where Chairman Howard Dean has been in a bitter personal squabble in the past several months with Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chief, about how much to spend on voter turnout.
They've reportedly declared an uneasy truce, with Dean agreeing to spend $12 million on turnout, with an anemic $2.4 million for some 40 House races. That, Democrats tell me, is woefully inadequate to overcome the GOP's much larger and better-funded operation.
Meanwhile, if there was any enduring lesson out of Chafee's come-from-behind victory in Rhode Island, it is this: Don't underestimate the GOP's voter-turnout ground game.