Inside the Democrats' Plan to Save Arkansas—and the Senate

Republicans now have 11 offices open across Arkansas, party officials told me, all of them staffed by field organizers. They have recruited "hundreds" of volunteers, and the RNC has had staff here for almost a year. This effort is indeed bigger than anything the party previously built in this state. "We clearly have the largest mobilization we've had in my memory, which is pretty good," the state GOP chairman, Doyle Webb, tells me, crediting the RNC for stepping up its game. "We've been waiting for the cavalry, and now it's here."

But the Republicans' effort pales in comparison to what the Democrats have built: Democrats are spending more than five times as much money in Arkansas, and have four times as many field offices and triple the number of staff. In the month of July alone, the Arkansas Democratic Party reported nearly $900,000 in federal campaign spending, while Arkansas Republicans reported $155,000. (Most of the money the Democrats are spending has come directly from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.) Democrats listed 64 staffers on their payroll; Republicans listed 22. The RNC claims it has 50 people on the payroll in Arkansas, including some being paid by other GOP committees, but I could not find a record of them and staffers on the ground were not aware of them. According to public records, there are Democratic staffers in places like Cabot (population 24,000), Marion (12,000), Arkadelphia (11,000), and Dardanelle, Tom Cotton's hometown, with fewer than 5,000 residents.

Republican candidates also have organizing help from Americans for Prosperity, the conservative nonprofit supported by Charles and David Koch, which has sought to build its own ground game separate from the Republican Party. Many Arkansans told me the group had the state's most visible canvassing effort. It has five full-time staff on the ground in Arkansas and offices in Little Rock, Jonesboro, and Rogers, spokesman Levi Russell told me. But AFP can't work directly with the Republican Party, meaning the party has no control over its activities. And there are indications AFP's Arkansas efforts aren't meeting their goals. A memo written by a fired AFP Arkansas consultant that was leaked to Mother Jones in April lamented "declining tea party engagement" that was diminishing the group's pool of activists.

Inside the Democrats' Pine Bluff office.
(Molly Ball/The Atlantic)

If, as many believe and some studies have shown, the Starbucks-like proliferation of swing-state campaign offices and staff helped Obama win in 2012, Republicans appear to be in danger of being organizationally overmatched once again.

Democrats believe the ground game has powered them to victory in unlikely circumstances in the past. In 2010, the year of the Obama backlash and the Republican tsunami, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet managed to buck the tide and win by a narrow margin after his campaign invested heavily in data-driven field operations—a daring choice that went against the traditional campaign's reliance on advertising. (Bennet, who chairs the senatorial committee, is the brother of The Atlantic's editor in chief and co-president, James Bennet.) Inspired by Bennet's success, in 2012, Democrats built large field operations in Montana and North Dakota, two red states untouched by the presidential candidates. Turnout in those states exceeded the national average, and Democrats won both states' Senate races even as Obama lost both states by wide margins.

This year marks Democrats' attempt to roll out the program on a national scale. Dubbed the Bannock Street Project, after the Bennet campaign's Denver headquarters, it will, by the time the election is over, comprise a 4,000-employee, $60 million effort in 10 states. The voter-contact metrics recorded in each state are uploaded in real time to the Washington headquarters of the senatorial committee. While such efforts are commonly described as turnout operations, Matt Canter, the committee's deputy executive director, says there's more to it than that. "This is about much more than [get-out-the-vote]," he tells me. "This is not just identifying supporters and turning them out. This is actually building sustained voter contact programs through multiple face-to-face conversations that can persuade voters to change their minds and vote Democrat."

Democrats believe they have a technological edge in their ability to use data to model and target voter preferences. Republicans, who have invested heavily in technology since 2012, are working to catch up. But on a basic level, turning out voters relies on the simple arithmetic of the application of resources—bodies on the ground, close to their communities, tirelessly recruiting volunteers who will work to activate their neighbors and family and friends. On a recent evening in Little Rock, two retirees—Jim Hickman, a former social worker, and Susan Hickman, a former psychiatric nurse—were pulling their regular weekly phone-calling shift along with 21 others at the campaign office. Lifelong Democrats, the Hickmans are regular volunteers for the first time.

Jim uses his personal cell phone in hopes of getting more people to answer, but very few do. "The answering machine rules," he says. Of those who do pick up the phone, many either have no idea what's on the ballot or have already made up their minds. But Hickman hopes he is making a difference. "At least I sleep better," he says. "I go as long as my battery lasts."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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