President Barack Obama’s unprecedented success at targeting and turning out voters in 2008 has motivated the Republican National Committee to overhaul key aspects of its get-out-the-vote program to put the eventual GOP White House nominee on more competitive footing for 2012.
In an extensive interview with Roll Call, RNC Political Director Rick Wiley revealed the committee’s strategy for combating what is expected to be an Obama re-election campaign that is at least as technologically advanced and operationally effective as it was three years ago. Wiley said his No. 1 priority is improving how the RNC uses technology to connect with prospective voters and developing a better system for volunteer door-to-door contacts, while also updating the committee’s voter rolls.
“We’re taking a top-to-bottom look at the turnout program and all the pieces that are in the turnout program and figuring what works, what doesn’t work and what’s outdated,” said Wiley, who served as an RNC regional political director during the 2010 cycle. “Right now, we’re getting outhustled on the doors, there’s no doubt about it.”
As the RNC seeks to hand off a well-oiled ground-game machine to whomever wins the presidential nomination, the committee plans to focus its resources on 13 states in particular, although the field could ultimately expand to 20 to 25 states, depending on how the campaign unfolds. The top nine are states won by President George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia.
“The next four,” as they are referred to internally, were chosen based on GOP performance in the 2010 midterms: Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Obama’s target list of swing and Republican-leaning states is not expected to change from the 2008 campaign.
As an example of an outdated system, Wiley cited the RNC’s once-vaunted “72-hour program” to turn out voters during the last three days of a campaign. He said the committee must adjust in an age when millions participate in early and absentee voting beginning as soon as six weeks before Election Day. The RNC’s Voter Vault, once the gold standard of voter-contact databases, is also due for modernization, Wiley said.
In the Obama states that the RNC is targeting, local GOP officials sound optimistic that the national party will provide the leadership, the tools and the money to effectively compete against a Democratic operation that could raise $1 billion.
“Candidly, it’s a significant task,” newly installed Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call said recently in a telephone interview. “Having said that, I’m optimistic.”
Obama won Colorado with 54 percent of the vote in 2008; President George W. Bush won the state with 52 percent four years earlier.
Obama announced his re-election bid last week in an online video directed to his supporters. On the Republican side, there is no clear frontrunner, with the field of prospective candidates forming slowly compared with the 2008 campaign. New RNC Chairman Reince Priebus began preparing for the 2012 campaign upon taking office in mid-January, but he faces significant challenges.
The committee closed February with a paltry $2 million in cash on hand and $21 million in debt from the previous administration. The RNC finished 2007 with $17.4 million on hand and no debt.
The Obama campaign already has organizers on the ground in all 50 states through his grass-roots volunteer group, Organizing for America. Obama campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan said the president’s campaign team expects to field at least as strong a GOTV operation as it did in 2008.
“The OFA field program will continue their work of building neighborhood teams and grass-roots organizers across the country in support of re-electing President Obama to a second term,” Hogan said.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn said the implications of the RNC’s ability to adequately upgrade its ground game go beyond the presidential contest and could determine how successful the GOP is in Senate races. The Texan is eyeing a net gain of at least the four Democratic seats needed for the GOP to retake the Senate.
“We need a healthy and vigorous RNC that’s hitting on all cylinders,” Cornyn said. “A presidential election year is going to have bigger voter turnout and obviously other factors than we had in the  midterm election.”
Wiley said there are no significant changes planned for the basic structure of the RNC’s Victory program, which serves as the organizational structure for implementing the committee’s ground game at the national, state, county and precinct levels. However, the RNC will work with party operatives in each state to develop a GOTV strategy that fits the local political dynamic and is looking to add staff dedicated to new media in targeted states.
In fact, the Internet and reaching voters through new media portals such as Twitter, Facebook and text messaging is one area where Wiley conceded Obama remains far ahead of the RNC, and he said his goal is for the committee to close the gap as much as possible before the campaign gets under way next year.
“We have not, in the past, used the Internet to contact voters in an efficient manner, and the Obama campaign was very good in that arena,” Wiley said. “We have to step up our game online — without a doubt.
Wiley, a former Wisconsin GOP executive director and presidential campaign aide to ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), welcomed the continued presence of third-party conservative groups while also expressing a desire to harness the energy and activism of the tea party movement more effectively. Wiley said he would better be able to gauge the early progress of his overall efforts after the May 16-18 Dallas convention of state GOP chairmen.
Former Rep. Robin Hayes, now chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, is preparing for another onslaught by the Obama campaign in the Tar Heel State. The Democratic National Convention is taking place in Charlotte, and North Carolina was home to one of the president’s most successful turnout efforts in 2008. Obama outperformed the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), by more than 600,000 votes, becoming the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since 1976.
While the North Carolina GOP — like many state parties — is planning its own ground-game activities, Hayes acknowledged that victory will require the assistance of a capable RNC.
“We are absolutely sure that President Obama and the various special interests and labor unions and the whole crowd are going to throw everything and the kitchen sink at us,” Hayes said. “We are preparing on every front.”