Why the GOP Field Should Steal A Page From Rick Perry’s 2010 Playbook

In 2010, Rick Perry and his team rewrote the book on campaign strategy. Fortunately for them, it looks like almost no one noticed.
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When people heard that Rick Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign wouldn’t have yard signs, political wonks considered it a form of heresy. Supporters could buy yard signs for $7.99, just like they could buy buttons ($2.89) and bumper stickers ($1.99). But the campaign hardly cared if supporters chose to give a a few dollars to show some support.

Instead, from beginning to end, the entire race focused on turnout. Rather than making phone calls and wearing Perry t-shirts, would-be supporters were asked to do something very, very specific: turn out 12 Perry votes from their friends and family.

Only two years before, Barack Obama’s campaign revolutionized politics, using its website and social media sites like Facebook to gain support and promote fundraising. Instead of making very specific requests, Obama’s site allowed supporters to set their own fundraising goals. The campaigns pushed supporters to help with get-out-the-vote efforts and offered a multitude of ways that people could do so. Compared to Obama’s a la carte options, Perry’s campaign was prix-fixe.

Both strategies were ultimately successful, destroying a lot of the common wisdom around campaigns. But while Obama’s techniques have a lot of copy-cats, few people seem to have noticed Perry’s playbook. It’s especially odd because Perry’s strategy may have some particular advantages in presidential primaries.

Back in 2010, Perry was in the toughest race of his career, running in a primary against the wildly popular and well-funded U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Politicos had assumed Perry could only win if turn-out was low; if more people came to the polls, it would mean more moderates were coming to the polls—presumably to vote against the more extreme candidate, Rick Perry.

But his chief strategist, Dave Carney, had already hatched an innovative plan based around bringing more voters to the polls not less.

As I wrote in my recent profile of Carney:

Heading into Perry’s 2006 reelection campaign, Carney picked up a book to read on a plane—Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout. When he finished reading he promptly ordered copies for everyone he worked with. Then he called one of the authors, Yale political scientist Donald Green. Like many others who read the book, Carney was shocked by its findings: That old-fashioned, door-to-door campaigning is the most efficient way to turn out voters. Volunteer phone calls are pretty good too. But television ads, mailers and robocalls—the mainstays of modern campaigns and moneymakers for political consultants—have virtually no impact on voter turnout.

Carney invited the two authors, along with a couple other professors, to run experiments on Perry’s 2006 re-election campaign. When they returned with the same findings, Carney and the Perry team decided that in 2010, they would try something totally new. All the usual political tools were ignored; the campaign ran few television ads, had virtually no phone banks and barely sent out mailers to supporters. Instead, Perry’s website asked supporters to sign up as “Home Headquarters.”  Those who signed up agreed to identify 12 Perry supporters and get them out to early voting. To add incentive, the campaign offered door prizes like lunch with former quarterback Troy Aikman or tacos with country music star Pat Green. (You can still see the old page at Perry’s current website.) Through reaching out online, the campaign continued to build supporters, and then quickly got them recruiting others. The website functioned as its own headquarters of sorts, offering tips on reaching out and giving luddites lessons in using Facebook and Twitter. Unlike the Obama campaign’s famous website, the Perry campaign focused not on fundraising but getting people to turn out to vote. 

The entire effort was a resounding success. Almost 1.5 million voted in the Republican primary, more than had voted in 2008 when GOP presidential nominees were still battling it out. The unprecedented turnout carried Perry to a decisive victory over Hutchison.

The plan is easily scalable—after all, Texas is a big state with both rural, urban and suburban communities. Furthermore, it does not require each town have its own campaign headquarters or official organizers. Instead, community leaders can take a role, working somewhat independently to determine the best ways to appeal to their social network. It also takes some of the burden off the candidate and the campaign; instead of getting introduced the Rick Perry through an ad, you can learn about him through Mrs. Johnson down the street.

In small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire, where local political leaders have outsized influence, the strategy would seem to work particularly well. Win over some big-wigs and they’ll start turning out their friends. Who in turn, will turn out their friends. And perhaps most appealing, the plan makes a very specific request—deliver 12 votes—which means that everyone signs up knows exactly what they’ve committed to.

It’s too early to tell if Perry will use the same strategy in the national election. His website is currently pretty bare—it doesn’t even have an issues section. But if he does choose to revive the plan, we’ll get to see the pros and cons of his plan compared to Obama’s. That’s because Mitt Romney is shamelessly borrowing Barack Obama’s web strategy.

Obama had the unfortunately named social network “myBO”; Romney has the even worse-sounding “myMitt”. Just like “myBO”, supporters create an account that functions much like a social media site. They can set fundraising goals and show the different ways they were supporting the candidate. They can even link their campaign work with sites like Facebook and Twitter and even AOL (for those 12 people who never made the switch.)

Romney’s site does have a few kinks, however. Click the button for “Action” and you come to a page with four options: fundraise, gear up, donate and volunteer. Unfortunately, not a single one of these options has a link. You may want to volunteer but there’s no clear way to do it. MyMitt doesn’t really have a lot of instructions or explanations. Plus, you have to set your own goals.

Undoubtedly both strategies have some drawbacks—while Perry’s 2010 plan was very straight forward, there was little emphasis on fundraising. (In Texas, there’s no cap on campaign contributions, so he could rely on a few mega-rich donors.) Obama’s 2008 approach garnered unprecedented sums, particularly from small donors. But giving supporters specific tasks and goals, a la Home Headquarters, offers particular advantages. Using the web to orchestrate more local, in-person networks may especially suit places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

There’s also a chance that some campaigns choose to combine some of Perry’s 2010 strategies with Obama’s plan from 2008. There are some indications that campaigns are far less wedded to political dogma. These days a Mitt Romney yard sign goes for $15—coincidentally the same price as Barack Obama’s.