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RNC’s Rick Wiley Seeks to Level Playing Field

Six months after the Republican National Committee set out to modernize a moribund voter-turnout operation, Political Director Rick Wiley expressed confidence that the committee’s new strategy would help the eventual GOP presidential nominee level the playing field with President Barack Obama.

In an interview with Roll Call, Wiley said the RNC used the special election in Nevada’s 2nd district to test a new ground-game program that is focused on early voting. That program continues to be refined — as do new strategies and technologies for identifying voters and getting them to the polls in the last three days of the campaign. The RNC also plans for the first time to heavily utilize social media and will recruit “virtual precinct captains.”

“We’ve made good progress,” Wiley said.

The RNC is racing to complete its get-out-the-vote makeover in time to hand off to the Republican presidential nominee a fully functioning political operation prepared to wage a fair fight with Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Wiley, who was initially concerned about the RNC’s ability to adequately fund such a program, noted that the committee is close to paying off its vendor debt, and he predicted he would have the necessary resources despite being outspent.

Whether the fight for the GOP nomination concludes early next year or continues deep into the spring — similar to the 2008 Democratic primary — Wiley said the RNC’s goal is to deploy staff and political infrastructure into the field as soon as the party’s White House candidate assumes control of the committee. Wiley said he does not want a repeat of 2008, when there was a three-month lag between Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) victory and deployment.

“We just can’t afford to lose that time now, so we’re not going to. We’ll have a nominee, but that nominee will have a true, robust operation handed off to them from day one,” Wiley said.

The president’s team doesn’t appear worried.

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said the president’s supporters have spent the past three years organizing across the country in preparation for his 2012 re-election bid. While the GOP is busy sorting out whom it is going to put up against Obama — and as the various wings of the Republican Party fight for position in the nominating process — the Obama campaign is building a political infrastructure and forging connections with voters.

LaBolt, echoing what the Obama campaign has said repeatedly, said the president intends to widen the playing field beyond the battleground states and Republican bastions he won in 2008. LaBolt noted that 12,000 individuals signed up to be volunteer summer organizers — more than in the first campaign. On one particular day, Obama supporters hosted 1,100 house meetings across the country, LaBolt said.

“The most compelling advocates for the president are volunteers in communities across the country reaching out to their friends and neighbors each day,” LaBolt added. 

Wiley is even more bullish on the Republicans’ prospects of ousting Obama next year than he was in April because of the charged political atmosphere and the president’s weak job approval ratings in swing states.

Wiley said he has his eye on the nine states Obama won in 2008 that were captured by President George W. Bush in 2004 — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, in addition to Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Wiley rejected the notion that Obama could widen the playing field, let alone hold ground from 2008, conceding only that Colorado remains problematic for Republicans. “The wave sort of didn’t make it out there” in 2010, Wiley said.

Still, he argued that new leadership at the Colorado GOP could help turn things around in 2012, and he expects a more effective turnout operation in several states because of new and more focused leadership within the state party ranks.

But it’s the RNC’s new ground game, much of it derived from internal focus groups made up of GOP strategists from both inside and outside the committee, that has Wiley excited.

He credited the new early voting program with helping Rep. Mark Amodei (R) jump out to a 20-point lead among early and absentee voters en route to a crushing Sept. 13 victory in Nevada’s 2nd district special election.

Wiley said the RNC is developing ways for people to vote absentee directly from their smartphones or other personal handheld devices. He said nine of the 15 2012 battleground states are likely to be won or lost in early voting.

The RNC is using technology to upgrade its traditional boots-on-the-ground voter-turnout operation and will test it in some upcoming Northern Virginia state Senate races. The committee is also exploring how to harness the Internet to expand its voter rolls and encourage sympathetic voters to cast their ballots. Like the new early voting program, this is another case where the RNC political director is building a system where none existed before.

Wiley is hoping to mimic what has been successful for Obama and the Democrats by using the Internet and social media to access individual activists and related groups. Modeled after the team leader program from the 2004 Bush campaign that targeted geographic regions with local volunteers, this new strategy will employ virtual precinct captains to corral voters in social networking communities, such as Facebook and Twitter.

“You have hundreds of thousands of people that sit on their smartphone or their computer all day long and they have a network of people,” Wiley said. “How do we get those people engaged, where they’ll never walk into a Victory center or make a phone call for us? But they are starting some kind of conversation with people who are probably like-minded, probably friends of theirs.”

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