In 2010, Republicans across America experienced a renewed sense of victory as the GOP seized elected offices on the local and state levels and regained control of the U.S. House, unseating Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as Speaker and ending the unilateral Democratic dominance in Washington of the last two years.
Despite astonishing victories across the board, there was one notable race the GOP failed to grab in November: the fight for the Nevada Senate seat currently held by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
In the lead-up to November, reporters, pollsters and insiders identified Sen. Reid as having insurmountable disadvantages as a candidate: horrible naked re-election numbers; a state on the brink of outright economic depression with the nation’s highest unemployment and foreclosure rates; and, a proclivity to misrepresent his state with every vote he cast.
Yet, when Nov. 2 arrived, America watched the three leading pollsters get it wrong, as Sen. Reid claimed victory.
Most of the media has forgotten about Sharron Angle by now and is freshly focused on the question of whether the Republicans will be able to maintain their newfound popularity and ensure additional congressional gains in 2012. But in analyzing this question, it is enlightening to analyze the tactics and strategies of Sen. Reid’s campaign, the most lethal and competent Democratic campaign in 2010.
Sen. Reid did not win because of Hollywood looks or Kennedy-esque tongue: He won because he resurrected the Democratic political machine to build an aggressive grassroots campaign that even the most enthused Tea Party activists could not match.
While some point fingers at Sharron Angle’s amateur blunders, the knee-jerk impulse to blame Angle, the personality, fails to acknowledge the disciplined, relentless, well-oiled and strategic turnout machine that defined Sen. Reid’s campaign.
Sen. Reid’s machine took more than a decade to construct. It relied on an army of paid workers and was birthed out of a need to overcome a dominant political machine that the late Gov. Kenny Guinn and a handful of Republicans put together in Nevada between 1998 and 2004.
As Sen. Reid built his party machine, Republicans watched their state party die, their donor network disband and their pool of viable candidates disappear.
The Nevada Democratic Party, armed with almost $9 million compared to the Republican Party’s $3.3 million, registered voters, built a grassroots army and mobilized Democratic voters to turn out on Election Day.
Those trying to get Angle elected focused their energies on buying up television and radio time. In fact, the airwaves were so jammed in the weeks leading up to the election, it was impossible to purchase time on the air in Las Vegas and Reno.
Nevada’s airwaves became little more than “white noise” driven by independent conservative groups and six-figure donors. In the end, Democrats matched the Republican media buys and the average voter was tired of viewing six to seven consecutive political ads each commercial break.
While Angle supporters invested in television and radio, Sen. Reid and his allies took a different tact, realizing that ads were no match for an aggressive turnout machine. In the last months of his campaign, Sen. Reid and other liberal groups had more than 1,000 paid walkers canvassing targeted neighborhoods where they implemented the most effective get-out-the-vote plan of 2010.
The effectiveness of Reid’s machine is apparent when examining Hispanic turnout, which hit an all time high at 15 percent of the Nevada electorate. According to polling conducted by Latino Decisions, 90 percent of Hispanics chose Reid over Angle. Based on election results, if Angle could have successfully secured 50 percent of the Hispanic vote, she would have achieved victory.
We had some experience with the Angle-Reid matchup. In August, we launched an independent 527 aimed at educating voters about Sen. Reid’s voting record. Armed with a fairly small budget and a team of 30 grassroots canvassers, we embarked on an experiment to compete with Sen. Reid’s machine.
In the last 30 days leading up to the election, our grassroots team canvassed approximately 50 precincts. If you compare the results of those 50 precincts against statewide returns, Angle’s percentage was 1.14 percent higher than Reid’s in the precincts where our teams were actively canvassing homes.
Republicans must revive their turnout machine to avoid missing prime opportunities in 2012. It may not be as sexy as a television ad, but there is no substitute for person-to-person contact.
Chuck Warren is a Partner with Silver Bullet, LLC, a Nevada-based public affairs firm specializing in initiative qualification, grassroots and crisis communication. Joshua W. Jones is President and CEO of Red Clay Communications, a Georgia-based public affairs firm specializing in political advocacy, government affairs and communications.