The Untold Story of Perry’s Win

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The National Review Online ran a wonderfully contrarian take yesterday on Rick Perry’s primary campaign.

James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, writes for NRO that:

“Since the Tuesday primary election in Texas, all of the post-mortems have focused on the message. Governor Perry found the right message, and found it early; his opponents did not. This magically translated a 20 point deficit into a 21 point victory. In hindsight, it’s obvious Perry would win from the very beginning, so the story goes. Really? 

“The reality is that it was not at all clear a year ago that Rick Perry would win this race. An anti-incumbent mood and a popular, well-financed, challenger commonly herald the end of many a multi-term officeholder.”

The Perry campaign no doubt capitalized on GOP voters’ anti-Washington sentiment.

But Gimpel contends there’s an untold story to how Perry trounced Kay Bailey. He argues that Perry’s blowout was more a result of his campaign tactics than his message.

“Dave Carney, the campaign’s general consultant, for example, is confident enough to be a skeptic of the claims and traditions of the consulting world. He values hard-headed research over guesswork, having digested Alan Gerber and Donald Green’s Get Out the Vote prior to the 2006 campaign. Intrigued by their randomized experiments on the efficacy of campaign tactics, but wanting more, he called the Yale professors, along with Daron Shaw (University of Texas) and myself, to Austin in 2005. Over a series of months, he called for a series of experiments on messaging, campaign fundraising and various modes of campaign outreach, including direct mail and phone banks. The series of tests generally revealed that impersonal modes of contact, such as direct mail and automated calls, while seemingly inexpensive, were worthless.”

Instead, Carney and the Perry campaign—learning from Obama’s success in 2008—poured their resources into two critical areas: field operations aimed at turning out Perry supporters and social media.

Gimpel writes:

“Based on the mounting evidence for the effectiveness of personal contact, they invested in building a field operation of unprecedented size that would eventually situate nearly 40,000 Perry Home Headquarters locations across the state, each charged with mobilizing a targeted number of voters. This was about ten times the number of volunteers they had activated during the 2006 campaign….Building on what was learned from the 2008 presidential election, their contacts with supporters and prospects were routed entirely through social media, e-mail, and website updates.”

This helps explain how Perry dominated a high-turnout primary—when the conventional wisdom had posited that higher turnout would benefit Hutchison.

Perry still might have won without these turnout efforts, but the margin would have been much closer, and he likely would be headed to a runoff today instead of bashing Bill White.

There are lessons here for all candidates.

There’s mounting evidence that mailers and phone banks are useless (unless you’re a political consultant who wants to get paid). Obama and now Perry have shown that ground-level, person-to-person turnout efforts work.

If Democrats ever want to win a statewide race in Texas, they will have to embrace this new kind of campaign. That means ditching their beloved mailers and phone banking, and investing in turnout. (Some in the party have been making this point for years.)

If Texas Democrats still doubt the power of these campaign tactics, they need wait only seven months. Because come November, Rick Perry will show them again just how effective a turnout-based campaign can be.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.