The Fall of the GOP's Turnout Operation

Republicans once wielded a feared election machine. Nowadays, it's underfunded, out-of-date, and leaves the party vulnerable to Democrats in key races in 2012.

Reince Priebus winter meeting - Jonathan Ernst : Reuters - banner.jpg

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus

DALLAS -- Austerity isn't only a phenomenon for cash-strapped European governments. Saving money is the new "it" thing for the Republican National Committee as well. After two years of profligate spending and shrinking revenues landed the party deep in debt, Republicans are doing everything in their power to stanch the tide of red ink and return the RNC to a strong financial footing.

But the GOP also faces a problem only rarely acknowledged among top party strategists: The Republican Party's turnout operations, which can suck up millions in funds during the critical last days of a campaign, are much weaker than those of their Democratic counterparts. And without a serious investment soon, the turnout gap threatens to undermine Republican efforts to win key contests in the 2012 election cycle.

Thanks to rules that allow voters to cast ballots early, or by absentee, the new reality is that turning out voters is a monthlong process. Republicans once wielded a vaunted 72-hour program, which identified voters most likely to cast ballots for Republicans and whipped them into heading to the polls. Now, the parties must begin turning out voters weeks in advance of Election Day. At the moment, Democrats are much better equipped to get their voters to the polls over that stretch than are Republicans.

Though Republican operatives are loath to publicly acknowledge the shortcoming, it is common knowledge among senior strategists that turnout operations are underfunded and out of date. In a recent interview, new RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said he wanted his legacy to be a focus on identifying those who cast absentee ballots and implementing a program to make sure Republicans return those ballots on time.

"I believe that the 72-hour task force means the last month. My idea of a 72-hour [get-out-the-vote] effort includes the entire month of October and November," Priebus said. "You cannot have a get-out-the-vote effort anymore in the last 72 hours, especially with absentee ballots and early voting going on around this country."

Already, Republicans have felt the negative impact of an underfunded turnout operation. In Nevada in 2010, for example, ballots cast during early voting and by absentee made up more than 60 percent of the total votes cast. By identifying those who turned out early, and by turning out more of their own voters, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's campaign was able to take what it projected was a four-point lead into Election Day, campaign manager Brandon Hall said. Republicans pointed to a Senate race in Washington and gubernatorial races in Minnesota and Connecticut as a few more examples in which Democratic turnout operations bested their Republican counterparts and made a difference in the outcomes.

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