Republicans are hoping that an overhaul of their election data program made before the 2016 election will help carry the party through an uncertain midterm.
While the party is expected to benefit from a favorable Senate map, the GOP will be forced to fight a tough battle to keep control of the House. A president’s party historically loses House seats in the first midterm after a presidential election, a trend that could be compounded for Republicans if Trump’s controversies and Republican legislative woes continue into 2018.
But the Republican National Committee is confident that its revamped voter data, which it sees as a major factor in Trump’s ability to expand the presidential map in 2016, will pay dividends once again in the midterms.
After a string of internal projection successes over the past two cycles, “we are pretty confident that we know what the electorate is going to do,” RNC senior adviser Katie Walsh told The Hill in an interview.
“We have the foot to the gas on this and we will keep moving forward to make sure that in ’18, we run a better program than we did in ’16. And in ’20, we run a better program than in ’18,” Walsh said.
In 2012, stinging from another defeat at the hands of former President Obama, then-RNC chairman Reince Priebus put $100 million into restructuring of the party’s data and digital forces with the goal of never getting outgunned again.
National party voter data categorizes voters according to a variety of metrics meant to help predict whom the voter will choose in an upcoming election and what issues will resonate with that voter. That data is distributed across the party, informing decisions like which doors to knock and what issues to prioritize while targeting a persuadable voter.
The data allowed the RNC to stay in contact with both the Trump campaign and Senate campaigns to tell each camp which voters should be targeted with what messages to maximize turnout, a vital tool in a year where Senate candidates weren’t always looking for the same coalition of voters that delivered Trump the presidency.
After Trump’s win, party officials were quick to point to the data program as a key part of the strategy. At the time, a top RNC aide claimed in an interview with The Hill that while internal projections had Trump slightly behind going into the final weekend, he was put over the top thanks in part to the RNC’s success at turning voter data into turnout at the ballot box.
The RNC says it predicted national presidential voter turnout in 2016 within just 700,000 votes, out of the more than 136 million votes cast. The RNC also claims its prediction came within 0.2 percent of turnout in Montana’s recent special election, while predictions of each candidates’ vote share were less than one percent off of the final result.
Those results give the RNC the confidence that future projections will allow them to make smart spending decisions to win close elections.
“[The data] team is able to tell us down to a specific voter, identify people moving away from us and decide what message we can deliver to them to have an effect,” said Juston Johnson, the RNC’s political director, in a recent interview.
Campaign data expert and journalist Sasha Issenberg told The Hill that it’s hard to judge the success of a party’s data operations. But Issensberg has found that Republican campaign operations were more satisfied with the data coming out of their party than Democrats were with the Democratic National Committee.
The tight margin of victory in 2016 also muddies the waters, according to Issenberg, the author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.”
If fewer than 100,000 voters had voted differently and backed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE instead, Trump would have lost — a result that, while vastly different from what happened, may not have fallen outside of an accurate projection model.
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“The question is, how much, despite Trump’s victory and the apparent top-level success about the RNC’s data in the campaign … trickles down to a state legislative caucus, to a gubernatorial election in another state, to other races?” Issenberg said.
The 2018 midterm cycle will be a new test for the RNC’s data program.
Trump won’t be on the ballot as his party faces adverse historical trends on Election Day. Only twice since 1938 has the president’s party won more House seats than it lost in a post-presidential race midterm — once in 1998, during the impeachment of President Clinton, and again in 2002, following the 9/11 attacks.
The GOP’s situation could be even more dire than usual, thanks to Trump’s low favorability rating and the ongoing investigation into allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
Those factors could create a tough midterm environment for Republicans, but the party is buoyed by a favorable map in the Senate that includes Democratic incumbents running for reelection in 10 states Trump carried in 2016.
Democrats have so far failed to win any of the coveted House special elections of 2016, but they’ve slashed the 2016 margins in districts in Kansas and Montana, boosting Democratic hopes that an anti-Trump wave could be materializing.
The RNC aides said that the shrinking GOP margins in states like Montana, where Democratic Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenate confirms Trump’s watchdog for coronavirus funds Montana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip MORE is up for what could be a tough reelection, don’t concern them much because of their faith in the data and what it means for the field program.
“We’ve been monitoring the electorate over time, so, again, we can go back and find those people that gave President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE his 20-plus point win in Montana and see which ones we think maybe slipped in the special,” said Liam O’Rourke, the RNC’s deputy chief data officer.
“We can identify those people down to the individual and we can work with the political department to develop a plan to reengage over the next year.”
But part of that sell will depend on how successful the president — as well as the Republican congress— can be before Election Day. Republicans have championed accomplishments such as confirming Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and slashing regulations.
But whether the party can deliver big-ticket promises such as tax reform and healthcare will play a role in motivating those voters too.
There’s clearly a confidence gap between the two parties on data. On Wednesday, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton agreed with the RNC’s assertion that the GOP has finally surpassed the Democratic National Committee’s data program.
Clinton blasted the Democratic Party’s data as “mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong” compared to the RNC’s during an onstage interview with Recode.
“Donald Trump, who did nothing about really setting up any kind of data operation, inherits an RNC data … is basically handed this tried and true, effective foundation,” she added.
A slew of Democratic data experts pushed back on her comments, including TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier, who tweeted that “the data operation Clinton ‘inherited’ was the most robust data operation the DNC has ever seen.”
Fwiw, the data operation Clinton “inherited” was the most robust data operation the DNC has ever seen, including during the Obama re-elect.
— Tom Bonier (@tbonier) May 31, 2017
DNC spokesman Michael Tyler didn’t dispute Clinton’s characterization in a statement. He said that new chairman Tom Perez has admitted that the “DNC was not firing on all cylinders” in 2016 and that the chairman is reviewing the DNC’s data and other programs.
Democrats have long been seen as holding the data advantage, thanks in no small part to efforts made by former President Obama’s campaigns. Yet while that data work may have helped produce big successes in presidential years, Democrats lost both the House and the Senate even with what was seen as a data edge on Republicans.
The 2018 midterms will represent an important test for both parties’ data operations.
Without the presidential candidate on the ballot, a midterm election is especially “decentralized,” Issenberg said, adding that the key for the party is making sure all of its candidates and campaigns know how to deploy the data, in what’s expected to be a number of tight races.
“How many people in the party’s ecosystem who are out on the front lines of campaigns next year are sophisticated users of what the data department in Washington is producing?” he asked.