Texas Democrats haven’t enjoyed many election nights in the past 15 years, but Nov. 7, 2006, was a memorable one. Sure, Republican Gov. Rick Perry was re-elected (again), and Democrats lost every statewide race (again). But the party did pull off one big success: a sweep of all 47 elected offices in Dallas County.
It was a stunning coup that offered hope for the future to a beleaguered party. Dallas County, once a GOP stronghold, after a century of Democratic domination following the Civil War—was suddenly without a single elected Republican. The reasons Dallas turned Democratic were varied and complex. The area’s demographics had shifted radically; local Republicans had grown complacent; and Democrats recruited a strong slate of candidates and crafted a compelling, anti-incumbent message. But the victory wouldn’t have been possible without a well-funded, devastatingly effective grassroots turnout operation. Volunteers knocked on thousands of doors and called every Democratic-leaning household they could find to ensure voters showed up at the polls.
“It played a major role,” says Darlene Ewing, chairwoman of Dallas County’s Democratic Party since 2005. The television, radio and 1.2 million mailed advertisements also helped, of course. But the party spent just as much money on its grassroots field operation as on paid media in 2006—a violation of conventional campaign wisdom, which dictates that the majority of resources go toward advertising. “I’m a big believer in field operation,” Ewing says. “I’m trying to get people out to vote for judges, JPs, county judge, county commissioners. When you have a governor’s race or a Senate race, the airwaves are flooded. Anything we would do is going to get dwarfed by all of that. [Voters] become immune to it. You know, they’re watching a ball game and here comes an ad—‘vote for me’—and they’re going to the bathroom and getting a beer.”
But when someone shows up at their door—especially when that person is the candidate—potential voters become personally connected to the race and are much more likely to vote. “I have 72 candidates on my ballot,” Ewing says (counting statewide races). “It’s hard to get people to focus on that number of candidates. So that’s why when they knock on their door, it makes an impact. It’s harder to do it that way. It’s a lot easier to just run a bunch of radio ads and TV ads. [But] we’re just big on human contact.”
Dallas Democrats’ success with grassroots outreach jibes with what many of the sharpest political minds in the country now believe is the best way to turn out voters. The logic is straightforward enough. For most people, the only time politics punctures the hustle to keep gas in the car and stay current on the bills and keep up with American Idol is when they believe it directly affects them (or people they care about). It’s the same reason a new parent, who once didn’t even know where the local school was, can suddenly recite standardized test scores, graduation rates and who’s running for school board.
And the best way to make voters feel connected? Talk to them. A campaign mailer most likely will be tossed in the trash. A television commercial will be missed in the channel-surf. Pricey TV ads garner media attention—and enrich campaign consultants—but they don’t motivate people to vote.
The door-knocking approach to campaigning is the hot new thing in electoral politics. It’s yielded impressive results across the country—from local elections in Los Angeles, to state races in Colorado, to the 2004 Bush and 2008 Obama presidential campaigns. Yet quite a few political insiders—including some leaders of the Texas Democratic Party—remain unconvinced. They prefer to stick with their traditional ways.
You would expect some skepticism from campaign consultants; after all, they make money from media advertising. But it’s not just consultants who have openly mocked this new focus on grassroots campaigning. In May 2006, as Ewing was piecing together the turnout operation that would help turn Dallas County blue, Paul Begala, the former Clinton White House official turned commentator, appeared on CNN and ridiculed the national Democrats’ grassroots organizing in traditionally Republican states as “hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.”
In Texas, many Democratic campaign strategists have also been skeptical. Matt Angle—a Washington consultant whom some Democrats now refer to in private as the de facto head of the party in Texas—has often expressed support for grassroots and door-to-door efforts. But when it comes time to divvy up campaign funds, Angle and other Democratic consultants still prefer expensive media buys. “You’ve got to have the big stick in the form of direct mail or radio and TV to move your message, move your persuasion message,” says Robert Jones, political director of Annie’s List, which supports progressive women candidates in Texas and helped run quite a few winning legislative campaigns in recent elections. Jones says that every good campaign includes a healthy mix of advertisements and ground operations, but he believes paid media can have a much greater impact. “So I don’t agree with the concept that [media] has nothing to do with turnout.”
Texas Democrats are desperate for ways to improve voter turnout. The state has one of the lowest turnout rates in the country, ranking 47th overall. The problem is especially acute among minority groups that usually lean Democratic. Given how long Texas Democrats have waited for a surge in Latino voters to lift them back into power—and how long they’ve bemoaned the absence of that surge—you would think campaign tactics proven to increase turnout would be awfully attractive. But recent Democratic campaigns in Texas have poured more money into television ads and mailers than voter registration drives and field operations. In their effort to replicate their Dallas success in Harris County in 2008, Democrats spent roughly $1 million on media buys and consultants and less than $200,000 on their field operation, according to campaign finance records.
Meanwhile, Latino turnout has remained flat in Texas. Latinos made up 20 percent of the statewide electorate in 2008, according to the Census Bureau, and 19 percent in 2004. In the last two governor’s races, in 2002 and 2006, Latino turnout declined from 19 percent to 17 percent.
Nearly every Democratic strategist concedes that the party needs to improve how it communicates with Latinos. The question is, what’s the best method—continue the party’s preference for paid media or put more resources into knocking on people’s doors?
While that debate goes on, there is one Texas candidate who has studied the recent trends and built a grassroots campaign that’s devastatingly effective.
His name is Rick Perry.
If Perry wins another term as governor, the genesis of his re-election may date to 2005. That was the year Dave Carney, Perry’s longtime strategist, brought four of the nation’s top political scientists to Austin to study exactly which campaign tactics were the most effective. Among the group were Yale University professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber, who literally wrote the book on how to mobilize voters.
Green and Gerber’s Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout has been a hot commodity in the political world since it came out in 2004. The book presents a contrarian thesis: Green and Gerber contend that traditional electioneering tactics such as television ads, mailers and automated phone calls have no detectable effect on voter turnout.
In Get Out the Vote, Green and Gerber analyze more than 100 studies of political races to conclude that campaigning door-to-door is the most cost-efficient way to turn out voters. Door-to-door campaigning produces an average of one vote for every $29 spent. Phone calls by volunteers are also an efficient way to get people to the polls, resulting in one vote for every $38 spent.
Although there was a time when media ads could sometimes persuade people to switch their votes from one candidate to another, Green and Gerber found that kind of voter persuasion was rare in the age of hyperpartisanship and not worth the high cost.
“It turns out that minds are difficult and expensive to change,” Green and Gerber write. “Although by no means cheap or easy, mobilizing supporters may turn out to be the most cost-effective way to influence elections.”
Carney had read Get Out the Vote, and he wanted to test its conclusions. He asked the four political scientists—Green, Gerber, Daron Shaw from the University of Texas at Austin and James Gimpel from the University of Maryland—to conduct a series of experiments during the 2006 campaign to see which tactics would produce the most bang for the buck. These tests “revealed that impersonal modes of contact, such as direct mail and automated calls, while seemingly inexpensive, were worthless,” Gimpel later wrote on the website of The National Review. “Carney and other Perry advisors reasoned that many conventional campaign tactics were being used out of force of habit—because that’s the way campaigns have always been done—but not because they worked.”
Carney, who runs his consulting business from New Hampshire, didn’t respond to interview requests for this story. But he told the Texas Tribune in June that the 2006 Perry campaign wanted to test some unconventional methods. “Basically we invested the cost of one piece of mail in our field operations.” The results, he said, “blew our expectations.”
Green and Gerber’s theories about grassroots techniques had also been tested in the 2004 presidential election. Democrat John Kerry’s team met or exceeded its turnout goals, only to lose the election in Ohio when the Bush campaign’s field operation—brilliantly designed by Karl Rove—turned out more Republican voters than anyone ever knew existed. Rove had spent years building a field operation based on personal contact: Bush voters reaching out to other potential Bush voters through church groups and neighborhood associations.
When Howard Dean was named chairman of the Democratic National Committee in early 2005, he pledged his party to a more grassroots approach. Dean argued that relying on a handful of swing states every election wasn’t a winning formula for Democrats. So he launched what became known as the 50-state strategy, which sought to build Democratic activism in traditionally Republican states through grassroots organizing. By 2006, the DNC had sent 183 paid organizers to Republican-leaning states. The idea wasn’t exactly popular with the party establishment; Rahm Emanuel, then chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, feuded with Dean over the new strategy. But, as a landmark study by Harvard University professor Elaine Kamarck later concluded, the 50-state strategy helped boost Democratic turnout even in conservative areas—a key factor in the Democrats’ retaking Congress in 2006, which included winning Senate races in Montana and Missouri, states Bush had won two years earlier.
In 2008, the Obama campaign took the 50-state strategy and improved the model—adding its own specially designed grassroots training for the campaign’s army of volunteers and layering on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to make volunteers feel like part of the campaign. Supporters could use the Obama campaign website to organize their own meet-ups.
When Obama staffers first arrived in North Carolina in late March 2008, they found that a well-organized group of volunteers had already been on the ground campaigning for Obama in Durham, which has a large minority population, for three months, as Duke University emeritus professor Lawrence Goodwyn wrote in the Observer. These efforts explain why Obama dominated caucus states during the 2008 primary fight: Obama’s campaign simply out-organized Hillary Clinton—a candidate who began with more money, party support and name recognition. Clinton’s campaign was largely consultant-driven and reliant on party machinery. In North Carolina, as Goodwyn wrote, Clinton had little ground game. The Obama volunteers were unrelenting. And six months later, North Carolina—a state Bush had carried by 12 points and 435,000 votes in 2004—would go for Obama in the general election. It was perhaps the ultimate vindication of the potential power of grassroots campaigning. In Durham, a city of just over 200,000 population, Democrats won by a whopping 71,000 vote margin.
Having witnessed all this, Dave Carney was won over. He began designing a grassroots campaign for Rick Perry’s 2010 campaign that would seek to out-organize its opponents from the ground up.
Now, with Perry seemingly well-positioned to win another four-year term, it’s easy to forget that a year and a half ago the governor faced perhaps the most perilous path to re-election of any incumbent in the country. First he had to navigate a three-way Republican primary in which he had to best U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison—who had more than $18.6 million in campaign money and the support of the Bush family, and who led Perry in early polling by 20 points—while holding off popular Tea Party activist Debra Medina on his right flank. He prevailed without having to waste time and resources on a runoff. Now he’s trying to defeat Bill White, the popular former mayor of Houston and the Democrats’ best-funded and most competitive statewide candidate in nearly a decade.
If Perry does win re-election, his reversal of fortune likely will be credited to his anti-Washington, anti-Obama message. And it’s true that candidates don’t prevail without an effective message. But Perry’s success will be due just as much to the kind of grassroots campaign he’s running.
Consider his trouncing of Hutchison. Before the primary, the conventional wisdom among the pundits was that the senator needed to expand the GOP primary electorate to include more moderate Republicans. A larger turnout would favor Hutchison, the experts said, while Perry would be best served by limiting turnout to just hardcore conservatives. But on primary day, the opposite proved true. The Republican turnout was enormous—more than double the number of voters from 2006—and Perry crushed Hutchison by 20 points.
How did Perry confound the critics and dominate a high-turnout primary? The governor had a winning message, and his strong ad campaign certainly didn’t hurt. But the credit largely went to a massive field operation that turned out more Perry voters than anyone knew existed. The governor received 759,296 votes in the primary—60,000 more than John McCain garnered in the 2008 presidential primary and more than the entire GOP electorate in 2006.
The mechanics of this grassroots approach are visible on Perry’s campaign website. In the HQ section of rickperry.org, visitors are invited to “Become a home headquarters.” A “home headquarters,” the site explains, is simply a volunteer who publicly identifies as a Perry supporter, finds 12 pro-Perry voters “from amongst your friends, family, and co-workers,” and then gets those 12 voters to the polls come Election Day. The site also provides tips on how to recruit, person to person, for Perry: “Start with your family and close friends. Then reach out to neighbors, co-workers, those distant relatives you haven’t talked to since last Christmas and anyone else you know. … Call the people you are inviting. … If you see someone with a Perry, Bush or other Republican bumper sticker on their car or truck and you have a chance to talk with them, ask if they have heard of the Perry Alliance Network. If not, see if t
ey are interested in joining and sign them up.”
The campaign recruited 40,000 of these home headquarters volunteers during the primary campaign, according to Gimpel, the Maryland professor. (The campaign also paid people, including some convicted felons, to recruit these volunteers, The Dallas Morning News reported.) If each of those 40,000 people turned out 12 friends and relatives, that alone would produce nearly 500,000 votes.
And that’s only the first level of the Perry operation. Those who want more involvement can become volunteer leadership chairs, responsible for recruiting at least 25 “home headquarters.” The Perry campaign also plans to hire 4,000 paid field organizers across the state to recruit and train volunteers.
This turnout operation, having already been tested in the primary, may be even more effective in the general election. In the coming months, thousands of Perry supporters will be enlisting their co-workers and neighbors, putting them to work at a relatively cheap cost, perhaps the price of a television ad buy or two. It’s a field operation that Bill White’s team must outwork if they hope to win.
White has promised his major donors that he will run an extensive field operation. White’s campaign says it has trained 1,000 organizers and signed up 16,000 volunteers. Democrats in the field report that the White campaign has paid staffers to organize in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin who have begun voter-turnout operations, including block-walking and live phone calls to voters.
Perhaps no place in the state will be a more important battleground than Harris County, where both candidates have strong political bases. And perhaps no city in the country offers Democrats more untapped voter potential than Houston.
After Texas Democrats’ sweep of Dallas County in 2006, the next move was obvious: Try to repeat the feat in Houston.
With more than 4 million residents, Harris County is not only the largest county in Texas—and the third-largest in the country—it’s home to one-sixth of Texas’ entire population. And, as in Dallas, its people are increasingly non-Anglo. The voting-age population of Harris County is 60 percent minority, according to figures from the state demographer. In fact, Houston’s demographics are quite similar to those of Philadelphia, a city that votes so overwhelmingly Democratic that it has turned Pennsylvania into a blue state in recent elections.
In 2008, Texas Democrats openly talked of emulating Philadelphia. They hoped to create a Democratic bastion in Houston that would provide a large enough margin to offset Republican votes from rural and suburban areas and springboard them to not only win statewide races but also retake the Texas House.
As they had in Dallas two years earlier, Democrats created a coordinated campaign in Harris County, recruited a promising slate of candidates and poured more than $1 million into the effort. But on Election Day, Democrats didn’t come anywhere close to taking over Harris County. They performed well in some races, winning nearly all the judicial contests. But they fell short in the high-profile races for county judge, district attorney and tax assessor.
There are several reasons Democrats failed to repeat the Dallas takeover in Houston. For one, Republicans weren’t caught off guard in 2008, and ran their own spirited campaign. Also, Harris County’s sheer size—both in population and land mass—made a county-wide sweep more difficult than in Dallas.
But there’s one glaring difference that’s hard to miss: Democrats neglected their field operation. Unlike Darlene Ewing’s well-funded ground game in Dallas, the turnout efforts in Houston in 2008 received scant funding.
The Harris County campaign was overseen by Matt Angle. His Texas Democratic Trust provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Houston campaign. The overwhelming majority of it was spent on consultant fees, polls and voter files, according to campaign filings. The trust also funneled money to affiliated organizations such as the First Tuesday PAC, a Democratic outfit formed in 2008 to win Harris County. First Tuesday PAC spent nearly $1 million on Democratic campaigns in 2008 in Harris County, according to state records. Only $51,000 of that went toward field operations and voter outreach. Meanwhile, the PAC spent $775,000 on media buys.
Two months before the 2008 election, insiders involved in the Harris County campaign were already telling the Observer they feared the field operation was being shorted of resources.
The Harris County Democratic Party ran a volunteer turnout effort that included few paid organizers, and the Texans Together PAC, a small outfit focused on turning out voters in legislative races, reported spending more than $90,000 on canvassing. But it wasn’t enough. All told, Democrats sank well over $1 million into the Harris County campaign, and less than $200,000 of it went toward grassroots organizing and field operations. (Angle told the Observer in 2008 that the turnout efforts that year in Harris County were sufficiently funded and that the Democrats made historic gains that they would build on in the future.)
The turnout numbers reflect Democrats’ failure in the ground game. Overall turnout in Harris County in 2008 rose only 2 percent from 2004 —a meager result given the record-breaking voting numbers seen all over the country. Particularly galling was that one-quarter of the 400,000 Harris County residents who voted in the 2008 Democratic primary didn’t return in November. (Those 100,000 votes were much-needed. Three Democrats who lost key countywide races went down by 80,000 votes or less.)
The Latino turnout was equally dismal. The county has an estimated 650,000 Latinos who are eligible to vote, yet just 155,000 (about 22 percent) of them ventured to the polls.
In that sense, the Democrats’ shortcomings in Harris County were indicative of their problems with turnout statewide. Consider these numbers: Texas is already 53 percent minority. Latinos make up about 35 percent of Texas’ eligible voters but only about 20 percent of the electorate.
Only 37 percent of eligible Latinos turn out to vote in Texas, according to the Census Bureau. The national average is 49 percent; in California, it’s 58 percent. For Texas Democrats, that’s especially problematic, since Latinos have leaned heavily Democratic; in 2008, 63 percent voted for Obama in Texas (and 67 percent of Latinos under age 29 voted for Democrats, according to exit polls).
The simple truth is this: If Texas Latinos voted anywhere near the national average, Democrats would be well-positioned to win statewide races this year.
National Democrats have taken notice of the disconnect between Texas’ demographic potential, and the Democrats’ poor election results. “The fundamental problem for Texas Democrats will not be solved until the political class there and nationally finally does something about the elephant in the room: the abysmal turnout of minority voters, especially Hispanics,” Democratic consultant Mike Lux wrote on The Huffington Post in July 2009. “Money alone is not the reason: Texas Democrats have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars per election in statewide races over the last couple of decades, but they’ve spent the vast majority of their money on expensive TV advertising buys.
“The consultants who run Texas Democratic politics don’t make money on voter registration or GOTV drives, they make money on TV ads, and they have never invested in the kind of project that would pick up far more voters for Democrats than most media campaigns. And while I don’t believe you can win a statewide campaign without spending money on TV, I also don’t believe you can win in Texas as a Democrat if you don’t devote a whole lot more to the field.”
Quite a few Texas Democrats likely would agree with that statement. But habits die hard. In late July, a Democratic-leaning political action committee called Back to Basics—funded largely with money from trial lawyers—began airing an attack ad against Perry. The television spot accused the governor of appeasing drug company interests with his ultimately unsuccessful effort in 2007 to require girls to be vaccinated for HPV.
It’s an ad designed to move socially conservative Anglo voters against supporting Perry. Back to Basics PAC reported spending $250,000 on the ad. Perhaps a few middle-of-the-road voters were won over by its reference to a three-year-old scandal. But according to Green and Gerber’s research in Get Out the Vote, that amount of money spent knocking on doors in Houston (or Dallas or San Antonio)—at $29 per vote—could have produced 10,000 Democratic votes on Election Day.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, Darlene Ewing is relying even more heavily this year on grassroots campaigning and door-knocking. She reports that the county party plans to spend 75 percent of its 2010 election money on field operations—including block-walking, live phone calls and community events. If you include all the candidates’ outlays, Dallas Democrats will spend roughly twice as much money on field operations in 2010 as on paid media. Because it works.
“It’s not sexy,” Ewing says. “We don’t have these nice ads that everybody talks about and sees on TV and critiques. It’s just grunt work—walking door-to-door, saying ‘hi’ to the voter, shaking hands. It’s just old-fashioned hard work, and we believe in it.”