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Wisconsin Recall Offers Strategic Lessons for Mitt Romney

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann.

In five months, Republicans will learn whether Gov. Scott Walker’s victory foreshadowed something big for the party beyond Wisconsin.

But even if the June recall election proves less than a broad political harbinger, the Republicans’ rare opportunity to test-run their voter turnout operation this close to November could pay important tactical dividends in key battleground states that could decide the presidential race.

Before all of the votes were tallied last Tuesday, top Republican strategists were already crunching the data, and they believe what they learned on the ground in Wisconsin can help them elsewhere.

“We never dubbed it a dry run … But there is no better testing ground than an election,” said Rick Wiley, the Republican National Committee political director. “Now we have strategy teams in D.C. and Boston looking at how things are performing.”

Wiley spoke to Roll Call on Friday by telephone from Boston, where he was briefing top campaign strategists for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In concert with the Walker campaign, the RNC led a get-out-the-vote effort modeled on its presidential-level Victory program that operated 23 field offices throughout Wisconsin and made an incredible 4.5 million voter contacts in a contest that saw approximately 2.5 million people vote.

Political analysts and partisans are still arguing over the political ramifications of only the third gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history. But with the fall battle against President Barack Obama’s well-oiled re-election machine in mind, Wiley said the RNC gleaned tactical and strategic insights from the Wisconsin contest that could significantly affect the Republicans attempt to reach parity with an Obama campaign that has sprinted to a huge operational head start over team Romney.

If the RNC’s ground game for the Wisconsin recall revealed any major flaws that need correcting, Wiley wouldn’t concede as much. But he was willing to share some of the positive highlights that are likely to be implemented by the Romney campaign and the RNC Victory program when absentee and early voting begin sometime after Labor Day. His characterization of the GOP approach to voter turnout moving forward: “Our ability to be nimble.”

What pleasantly surprised Wiley the most in the Republicans’ extensive effort to micro-target Wisconsin voters was the success Republicans had with low-propensity voters. Normally written off in favor of focusing on turning out mid- and high-propensity voters, the RNC’s Victory program took a gamble, sending tens of thousands of absentee ballot applications to voters with a poor history of showing up to vote in major elections, let alone unusual special elections.

The result: about 10,000 additional votes for Walker that the GOP would have normally never sought. The governor ended up winning by a wide margin, but those extra votes bolstered the Republicans’ confidence early last Tuesday evening, as exit polling incorrectly suggested the potential for a photo finish with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D). Targeted absentee voters received five ballot applications, five phone calls and were part of a door-knocking program that hit 250,000 homes.

“The ability to get those 10,000 people to vote in a June 5 recall is just huge for us. These folks just don’t vote,” Wiley said.

The RNC political director also discussed elements of the Victory GOTV programs’ micro-targeting strategy, which intends to deeply refine the voting universe any number of categories that can be used to craft specific turnout messages.

Similar to the way pollsters telephone a sample of a survey universe to make broad predictions on a candidate’s political standing or the state of campaign, the Republicans on any given night would call a small percentage of a targeted voting demographic. If the sample demographic responded well, campaign volunteers would be assigned to hit this entire voting universe with heavy follow-up.

If a sample responded poorly, a third-party contractor would be paid to robo-call the voting universe — or it might be dropped altogether from the GOTV program. This approach saved the RNC and the Walker campaign from expending too many personnel and resources on voters that weren’t going to perform well or might show up and support Barrett, while saving those investments for demographics that appeared more fruitful according to the micro-targeting research.

“Micro-targeting has allowed us to slice and dice,” Wiley said. “We’ll do that this summer and fall throughout the country.”

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