By Anjeanette Damon, Las Vegas Sun and U.S. News Agency / Asian
In mid-May, a small cadre of seasoned Nevada political operatives gathered around a plastic table in a sprawling, still-empty strip mall office in Summerlin.
Their task: Craft a functioning Republican turnout machine to blunt the growing Democratic voter registration advantage, stage an army of volunteers to man phones and knock on doors, and then find the voters most likely to vote Republican and deliver them to the polls.
Their challenge: Do it all from scratch. Do it all in five months. And do it well enough to go up against a Democratic turnout machine that has been running in full gear for three election cycles.
When Mitt Romney’s newly hired Nevada director, Chris Carr, sat in the Summerlin Team Nevada headquarters with operatives from the Republican National Committee and Sen. Dean Heller’s re-election campaign, the situation was pretty grim.
The Nevada Republican Party had disintegrated, succumbing to a takeover by Ron Paul activists bent on changing the party from the inside out. No real party structure was left. Party donors had stopped giving money, and nearly all elected Republicans did their best not to associate with the party.
That dysfunction has dominated headlines about Nevada Republicans since the beginning of the year, casting doubt on the chance that either Romney or Heller — not to mention a slew of other down-ticket Republicans — would be able to win the state.
But while the state party has wallowed in that morass, the coordinated campaign dubbed Team Nevada has swiftly built a professional turnout apparatus.
“What people will remember in the near future is: Yes, the ground game got away from us, and we brought it back,” RNC Political Director Rick Wiley said during his recent visit to Las Vegas. “With Chris Carr and the people we have in place now, the operation is much better and more advanced than the Bush-Cheney operation. And that was the gold standard.”
Indeed, Carr helped oversee the Republican ground game in 2004, when President George W. Bush beat Democrat John Kerry in Nevada by 21,500 votes.
But the strength of the Team Nevada apparatus has yet to be truly tested.
Public self-assessments from Republicans so far have been grandiose, with party officials making sweeping claims about the number of voter contacts made in the past several months.
“At this time in 2008, the Nevada apparatus had made 204,000 voter contacts,” Wiley said. “This weekend, we’ll pass the one millionth voter contact. That is remarkably better than where we were last time.”
Nevada Republican operatives familiar with the turnout effort confirmed the 1 million contact attempts, noting that a “contact” includes leaving door hangings at homes where no one answers the knock or voicemail messages when no one answers.
The 1 million contact attempts have netted the campaign 100,000 voter identifications — meaning field operatives know whether particular individuals are a supporter, an opponent or undecided.
Democrats, who wouldn’t discuss their internal numbers, likely have far exceeded that figure because they’ve been on the ground since the start of the year.
Still, the only verifiable public data hasn’t been in Republicans’ favor.
Democrats continue to out-register Republicans month after month. As a result, they have a 56,000-voter advantage over Republicans — a direct indication of a turnout machine’s effectiveness.
And while public opinion polls show the presidential race is a statistical dead heat, not a single survey has put Romney ahead of Obama.
That has made some Republican operatives and donors increasingly nervous. They privately gripe about the fact that Team Nevada has failed to live up to its very public promise to outperform Democrats in voter registration this year.
“There’s been significant concern about the voter registration numbers in that Team Nevada was formed to counter the typical Democratic surge,” said one Republican operative who asked not to be identified in order to speak frankly about the effort. “They set the expectation that they would be able to keep up with the Democrats. That clearly hasn’t happened.
“This entity was created because people did not want to invest in the dysfunctional state party. We wanted to steer the money toward a program with a level of competency. But clearly, it’s difficult to keep up with the Democrats.”
Republicans have worked to deflect attention from the sagging registration numbers. Strategists familiar with the operation say they are targeted to exceed their registration goal. Instead of using registration numbers to gauge the operation’s strength, they point to the experience of the Nevada consultants running the coordinated campaign, including operatives Mike Slanker and Ryan Erwin, who both know the state well.
They note the voter data they have is stronger than it was in 2004 and 2008 and has been maintained by the Republican National Committee, which is continuing to fund Nevada’s operation. And they note Heller’s competitive U.S. Senate race.
“Has it been hard to set this up? Yes,” Carr said. “But where we are now compared to where we were June 1 — I’m very happy. We started this almost from nothing.”
Although Republicans want to shrug off the voter registration disadvantage, that figure will play a key role on Nov. 6.
In high turnout presidential elections, the proportion of voters turning out closely matches the proportion of registered voters — and Democrats have 55,000 more voters than Republicans.
“More Democrats will vote in this election than Republicans, that’s just a mathematical fact,” senior Democratic adviser Zac Petkanas said.
Traditionally, Republicans have a higher turnout rate than do Democrats. That means the GOP doesn’t have to put as much muscle into making sure their voters get to the polls.
In Nevada in particular, Republican consultants typically decided against investing in turnout machines and opt instead for last-minute negative ad blitzes on television and in mailboxes.
Now, however, Democrats have a voter registration advantage that can trump Republicans’ built-in turnout advantage.
That puts the battle squarely into the hands of nonpartisan voters.
Both parties lay claim to an advantage with nonpartisan voters. Historically, when they reach the voting booth, nonpartisans tend to break roughly along the same lines as overall voter registration in a state.
That would mean Democrats have an advantage this year. But in recent public polling, Romney had a slight lead over Obama with independent voters.
Wiley also said that during registration efforts, volunteers ask the screening question: Who do you support for president? He said more of those who register nonpartisan say they support Romney than Obama.
That claim, however, won’t be verified until Nov. 6.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been plugging along with their ground game, using an apparatus that U.S. Sen. Harry Reid first began building in 2006. That machine helped Obama win Nevada by 12 points in 2008 and pushed Reid to victory in 2010.
Democratic volunteers and field staff began knocking on doors and making phone calls months before Republicans did.
“We have a simple goal: Build the best ground game Nevada’s ever seen,” Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, told the Las Vegas Sun. “Considering the past two elections, that’s a pretty big goal. But we are building a campaign that can both talk to the undecided voters in this race and then turn out our key targets.
“We are running the kind of operation we think can be the difference in what we think will be a very close election.”
The difference this year, however, is that Democrats will compete against a coordinated Republican campaign that has at least a semblance of a professional ground game, as well. That hasn’t been the case in the past two election cycles.
In 2008, John McCain’s campaign rejected the Bush-Cheney ground game model. In 2010, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle was at the top of the ticket with a campaign whose dysfunction topped that of the state party’s.
And while voter registration, demographic shifts and resources at the fingertips of an incumbent president may be working against them, Republicans this year are intent not to drop the ball on the ground game.
“The issues with the state party have not affected our ability to organize and implement our program,” a senior Romney campaign official said. “Would we like to have a functioning state party there, that is robust and raises money and keeps an operation in place? We would love that. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen this cycle.
“So it was up to those professional Republicans to get involved and create a system where we can have a functioning operation.”