TCS Daily

After Howard Dean: The GOP's Political Innovations

By William Beutler - July 14, 2004 12:00 AM

The next step in grassroots campaigns is here. And this time, it's Republicans who are leading the way.

Only a few years ago voter turnout and grassroots operations -- the so-called "ground war" -- were overlooked by Republicans and taken for granted by Democrats. But after labor's surprising 2000 push in Al Gore's behalf and then the Republicans' even more impressive 2002 "72-hour-strategy," that fight is now as fierce as the battle on television and radio -- the "air war." With both sides now playing, the margins are getting smaller, like sprinters shaving a few hundredths of a second off their 40-yard dash. Innovation has become all the more important.

In North Carolina's 10th congressional district we may be seeing just such an innovation getting its first tryout. What's more is that following a presidential primary season where Democrats created the campaign blog and appropriated for political use, this is happening in a Republican primary.

There, four candidates are racing toward a July 20 primary to replace the retiring Cass Ballenger. Little separates the candidates. All are strong conservatives with little or no legislative experience; none is well known throughout the district; and a runoff is all but a given.

Nobody knows exactly how many people will turn out, but the safe guess is very few, perhaps 15-20%. Thanks to redistricting headaches, this year's North Carolina primaries have been pushed back from May to July, which is unusual for the state. "I know a lot of Republicans who do not realize that we have a primary," says Shawn Charles, Republican party chairman of Catawba County, the district's largest county.

In a standoff like this, the political consultant's equivalent of "location, location, location" is usually "media, media, media." Businessmen George Moretz and Sandy Lyons are deep-pocketed self-funders who have been on the air for months. But ads don't always reach the likely voters and in close congressional races -- especially low-turnout primaries -- turning out one's supporters can make all the difference. So the other option is to fire up the grassroots, which is the route Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman and State Representative Patrick McHenry are taking.

Several longtime observers of North Carolina politics contend that any two of the four could make it to the next round. John Hood, a former Heritage scholar and now president of the John Locke Foundation, says he can't make any useful predictions: "All four campaigns have given me a plausible spin for why they're in good shape."

So is there any way to avoid getting dizzy? McHenry thinks he has an answer -- in a small fleet of portable DVD players.

This January McHenry sat down with his consultant, former Iowa Republican chairman Dee Stewart, and committed to DVD a nearly identical series of messages. 200 of them, in fact, over the course of three sittings and seven hours: One each for his 20 volunteers and the ten counties they would start visiting. Working six-and-a-half days per week for the past seven months, the McHenry campaign has already knocked on some 40,000 doors, DVD player in tow, playing these short messages to potential supporters.

In them McHenry introduces himself, then says: "My good friend [Name] is visiting with you today to tell you about my conservative experience, and to discuss with you my plans to bring more good paying jobs to [County] County," before asking for their vote and support and thanking them for their time. By July 20, the McHenry campaign expects they'll have brought these messages to 55,000 doorsteps, in this district with some 50,000 active voters in 38,000 households. Everyone will meet him at least once. Those on the fence will meet him again.

The messages will win no Clios and McHenry will not be invited to Inside the Actors Studio. But they don't need to. The operating theory as Stewart explains it is "that a person will rarely vote against someone with whom they have a personal relationship." Even in a district-wide race it is impossible for any candidate to meet with every potential voter, but the McHenry campaign believes it has found the next best thing.

Regent University professor Peter Wielhouwer, who studies voter behavior and grassroots politics, thinks this is the logical progression of several trends, notably the practice of sending voters videotaped candidate biographies. In the aftermath of Howard Dean's Iowa yowl, for example, his volunteers sent thousands of 18-minute VHS and DVD clips to Wisconsin -- but how targeted were they? And who's to say anyone would watch? This time, McHenry's volunteers have an endurable message for a captive audience, and as Wielhouwer says, they are "bringing the candidate's face to the voter's house." Not only that, but it's a face that knows where it's at and who his representative at the door is. If it's a little gimmicky, no problem -- McHenry calls it his "wow factor."

A few years ago, this would have been impossible; imagine trying to lug a TV-VCR combo around a neighborhood. Now recordable DVDs are inexpensive enough that any under-funded and unknown but serious candidate could do the same. And unlike the aforementioned blog or MeetUp gathering, which attracted tons of press attention recently but don't necessarily attract undecided voters, the portable DVD player improves upon a method that already does. Better yet, after years of technology separating candidate from voter, this time it's being used to bridge the distance, albeit virtually.

Because voters see their representative in the House as working for them in a way they don't see their senators or president, and because they tend to think they have a greater impact on localized races, voters respond to face-to-face contact in local races such as this. Stewart realized that if they could make people feel like they knew McHenry, "it doesn't matter how much TV someone else runs."

He'd better hope so. By the end of March, Moretz and Lyons had outspent him nearly six and seven times over, respectively. McHenry, like Huffman, cannot replenish his war chest at will and didn't join the air war until just recently. Yet none of the others seem to have engaged the ground war as vigorously as the McHenry campaign. Charles has noticed. Put the other three candidates together, he says, "and Patrick still outworks them."

Other factors may also benefit McHenry. The other three candidates all hail from Charles' Catawba County and may split the near quarter of the vote it accounts for. Nevertheless, in late April McHenry pulled off a stunning upset at the county's annual Lincoln Day dinner, winning that night's straw poll by an overwhelming margin. McHenry took 197 votes to second-place Huffman's 94. Charles, who oversaw the vote, said "it woke up the other candidates. It put a greater sense of urgency to their campaigns." At least it caused Huffman to, well, huff about it. In an editorial afterward, Catawba's largest newspaper defended McHenry and admonished his detractors in the Huffman camp.

Should he win, at 28, he would be one of the youngest members of the House -- not that he's under any illusion about there being a "youth vote" that will carry him to victory. While McHenry has only two years in the state House and a stint as a Bush appointee in the Labor Department, he does one unique intangible: Unlike Florida Rep. Adam Putnam, the current youngest member who was derided as "Opie" during his first campaign, nobody will mistake McHenry even for Richie Cunningham. Thanks to his prematurely graying hair (it's a family thing) some district residents have mistaken him for being as many as 40 years old. "We like his gray hair," Stewart chuckles. Consider his situation the opposite of eternally youthful John Edwards' predicament.

All this would seem to bode well for McHenry, who has already shown that he can move his supporters and even possibly "wow" those who haven't made up their minds. But low turnout makes such races unpredictable. "People who fall into turnout prediction traps deserve to not get out of them," Hood advises. For a July primary, it's impossible to tell which voters are actually going to show up -- there just aren't enough data points to figure it out.

But Wielhouwer allows that in a low turnout race, McHenry's DVD technique "could make a serious dent in the electorate." There's no telling yet if it will be only a dent or enough to break through to the runoff, but if he does those portable DVD players will have to take some of the credit. "This is a great test case," Stewart says.

Even if McHenry is rebuffed and returns to defend his state House seat, the personalized, targeted DVD message as a campaign tool will live on. After all when Howard Dean fell from grace, he didn't bring the campaign blog down with him.

William Beutler is a writer for National Journal's Hotline.


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