How David Perdue Knew He Would Win
The morning after he won Georgia’s open Senate seat, Republican David Perdue was asked on “Fox & Friends” how he avoided a runoff when every available poll had shown a tight race.
It was the question of the day in the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity — where millions of dollars poured in from both sides during the final month of the contest, yet the Republican emerged with an unexpectedly large 8-point victory.
His answer indicated the Perdue campaign may have been the only ones not in the dark.
“Our pollster, Chris Perkins, had it pegged all along,” the former corporate CEO and first-time candidate responded.
It was a rare shout-out for a consultant on national television, but it wouldn’t be the last time the Texas-based Perkins would receive praise in the wake of the election. In interviews with other Perdue operatives and consultants, and in a briefing at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Perkins was consistently cited for accurately feeling the pulse of the state — even when his numbers seemed too good to be true.
In mid-October, as Perdue’s own words on “outsourcing” appeared to rock the race, six public polls showed Michelle Nunn had pulled to either a tie or into the lead. But Perdue’s internals showed he was still up 5 points.
“We were a little worried,” NRSC political director Ward Baker said. “We had another poll go in.”
According to Perkins, Perdue was up 5 points in each of his tracking polls — one per week for the final six weeks — until the final week of the race, when Perdue led 48 percent to 40 percent, with the Libertarian candidate taking 3 percent.
“That guy nailed it,” Perdue media consultant Fred Davis said. “There were a lot of polls out there, and his were always more optimistic than the public polls that we saw. You see five kind of scary polls, and then your pollster tells you you’re up 5, you kind of don’t believe your own pollster.”
In some ways, the race turned out a lot like Republican wins across the country. Public polls projected a competitive contest, even as a GOP wave bubbled beneath the surface. And Republicans failed to lose a Senate seat in a state Mitt Romney had carried in the 2012 presidential contest.
In the Peach State, Perdue emerged in late July underfunded from a competitive primary and two-month runoff against Rep. Jack Kingston. Awaiting him was Nunn, the daughter of a beloved former Democratic senator, who had spent nearly $5 million from July through September and still had $4 million left for the final weeks of the race.
Perdue received some much-needed air cover from the NRSC and others as he reloaded for the general.
“We were broke and out of a very tough primary runoff against Kingston and not able to immediately defend ourselves,” Perdue general consultant Paul Bennecke said. “I thought the timing of that really was important for us to take a breath, catch up and then get back up on TV.”
A strategic release by national Republicans of an internal Nunn campaign memo also bought Perdue some time, but nothing could prepare them for their own October surprise.
Reporters corralled Perdue at an Oct. 6 campaign event to ask about his business record, specifically comments he made during a 2005 deposition about outsourcing production at a company. Perdue responded that he was “proud” of his record, and the narrative of the race immediately elbowed.
In response, the NRSC called veteran communications strategist Kevin Madden, who parachuted into Atlanta for two days to help refocus the message. According to sources familiar with the situation, Madden asked Perdue why he was running for Senate and then helped ensure the candidate clearly explained that to voters.
Multiple campaign insiders insisted confidence in the candidate’s ability to bounce back was never the issue — it was the pure volume of ads slamming Perdue that made it difficult to get its own message out.
“The big question becomes, do you directly respond to that, or do you move on and try to change the subject?” Davis said. “Those were the kinds of discussions we had.”
Perdue launched an ad Oct. 7 claiming Nunn’s “desperate, untrue attacks on David Perdue hide her real goal — that’s hiding her support of Barack Obama’s job-killing, big-government policies.”
A week later, in a direct-to-camera ad, Perdue said, “I’ve helped create and save thousands of American jobs, regardless of what Michelle Nunn says.”
It actually wasn’t a major shift in message from what Perdue laid out for Bennecke when the consultant, who had helped elect Perdue’s cousin Sonny Perdue as governor, sat down with the soon-to-be candidate at Perdue’s Atlanta office in March 2013.
Given his 43 years in the private sector, “I thought David, if elected, would bring a fresh perspective that’s very rare today in politics,” Bennecke recounted the Friday after the election, as he took the backroads from Atlanta south to Hamilton for his first weekend of rest in three months.
“He outlined why he wanted to run when we met,” he continued. “We prayed about it, we talked about it and we decided we would set up an exploratory committee.”
Perdue announced the committee in May 2013 and two months later formally entered the race. He joined several candidates in what already appeared to be an unwieldy and unpredictable field, most notably former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Kingston.
At the start of 2014, with Perdue still relegated to the back of the pack with little name ID, the campaign opted to get on TV early. It had also been building an infrastructure and started what would be 10 months of voter ID and door knocks, a capacity crucial for any successful campaign in a state with a surging population and out-of-date voter file.
“Come Feb. 1, we were four months out from the primary, we sort of did a long-ball strategy where we wanted to go up on TV before everyone else,” Bennecke said. “We wanted to go up with no clutter; we wanted to set the tone for the campaign; we wanted to show folks that David was different from your normal election crop of candidates.”
The creative concept that emerged was simple: Four identically dressed crying babies with T-shirts that read, respectively, “Phil,” “Karen,” “Jack” and “Paul,” with Perdue talking to the camera as the only adult in the room.
“If these politicians had any understanding of the free enterprise system and knew how to make a difference,” he said, “wouldn’t they have done it already?”
Davis said the point was to not single out any of Perdue’s opponents, but consistently refer to them as one entity and insist that supporting them would not bring change to Washington.
“The ‘babies’ was a very, very memorable way to get that point across,” Davis said. “Most candidates, I would have to say, would probably not have approved it. The difference with David, which made him a great client, is he’s a marketing guy. So he understands developing a brand, sticking with a brand.”
They stuck with that concept, and Bennecke said everywhere the candidate went, people would ask, “Aren’t you the babies guy?” Soon, he said, the question became, “Aren’t you the outsider?”
“David always told the story about a woman who walked up to him and said, ‘I’ve got one question for you, have you ever run for office or served in Washington?’” Bennecke said. “He said, ‘No, ma’am,’ and she said, ‘Well you’ve got my vote.’ We knew we had something on that.”
In the general, Nunn and her Democratic allies simply weren’t able to persuade and turn out the vote she needed. Georgia is a state Democrats expect to soon consistently compete in statewide federal elections, but Republicans successfully tied Nunn to the unpopular president in a terrible year for Democrats nationally.
In the leaked memo, the campaign set optimistic goals of taking 1.4 million votes, including 30 percent of whites and a significant surge in black voter registration and turnout. According to the results, exit polls and Democrats in the state, none of those goals were met.
Bennecke touted his own ground game — and the campaign’s ability to keep quiet the extent to which they were going in identifying supporters and potentially persuadable voters. A week after the runoff, the campaign set a goal of winning about 1,362,000 votes — it ended up with 1,355,392.
“Out of 159 counties, I’d say we probably missed 5-8 of them where we underperformed our goal,” Bennecke said. “Those are some tactical things that I think are important in developing what then became the message arc of what we were trying to do to win the election.”
Democrats’ ability to hit Perdue out of the gate dropped his 10-point lead in internal polling coming out of the runoff down to 7 just after Labor Day. Despite the significant bump in the road on outsourcing and inability to define the candidate on their terms until late, the Republican was able to defy expectations and win the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss outright.
“We knew ‘Washington outsider with business experience that will shake things up and get spending under control’ was the best message in the primary, was the best in the runoff, and it was the best in the general,” Perkins said. “From a consistency standpoint, getting to that as quick as we could was really what needed to be done, and we finally did it in the last 10 days.”
This is the third in a five-part series examining the campaigns behind the cycle’s most fascinating races. Earlier editions examined Rep. John Barrow’s defeat in Georgia’s 12th District and Rep.-elect Elise Stefanik’s victory in New York’s 21st District.