Leaders of the Vermont Republican Party have done their best to set expectations for this year’s elections at an achievably low level: a gain of perhaps three Senate seats plus something close to ten pickups in the House. Well, now comes VTDigger’s Anne Galloway with an outlook on the legislative races; she quotes Vermont Pundit Laureate Eric Davis as projecting two or fewer gains in the Senate and two to four in the House.
And I say, “Bet the under.”
For those unfamiliar with sports gambling, the bookmakers set a “point spread,” which is basically the expected margin of victory. (Technically, it’s the bookmakers’ estimate of where bettors will lay their money; the bookies’ goal is to get half the money on each side of the proposition.) Say, the Patriots are favored by 8 points over the Jets. In order for you to win a bet on the Pats, they have to win by more than 8. If you bet on the Jets and they lose by 7 or fewer points, you win.
That’s called “betting the under.” Davis has basically made the Republicans a two-point favorite in the Senate and two-to-four in the House.
And if I were a (ramblin’) gamblin’ man, I’d bet the under. The Republicans will not even manage to meet Davis’ projection.
The Dems have a huge disadvantage, in that they are defending a large quantity of seats, including (presumably) a number of marginal constituencies that could easily swing Republican. On the other hand, the Dems have many advantages:
Davis says the Vermont GOP’s inability to recruit statewide candidates for state treasurer, secretary of state, auditor and attorney general indicates the party has organizational and financial difficulties that weaken its chances for regaining seats in the state Legislature. The Republicans have one full-time staffer and $36,430 in cash on hand as of the end of May.
The Vermont Democrats have candidates for all but 16 districts, and most are incumbents, which gives the party a huge boost out of the gate. The party also has strong infrastructure, $119,429 in cash as of May 31 and four full-time staffers.
Jinkies, whatever happened to that Republican windfall from last December’s Chris Christie fundraiser? You know, the one projected by party officials to take in perhaps a quarter million dollars? Methinks the take was a hell of a lot smaller than that, based on (1) their current bottom line, (2) the fact that, as far as I can tell, the VTGOP never released a dollar figure after the event, and (3) a cursory look at VTGOP financial reports doesn’t reveal any influx of cash in the six figures, let alone $250K.
Anyway, that’s a daunting list of challenges for Vermont Republicans.
But it doesn’t even include the Democrats’ biggest advantage: the in-depth, state of the art operation they can generate with their financial and organizational edge. You might recall a post-election report by Andrew Stein, then of VTDigger, entitled “Got Ground Game? How Data Drive Vermont’s 2012 Elections.” It detailed how the Democrats exceeded expectations through the use of newfangled voter identification, tracking, and persuasion techniques based on a firm foundation of “robust voter data.” These techniques are actually much more effective than the traditional methods of mass mailings and advertising.
Stein reported that the Dems were much more attuned to these methods than Republicans, who were still reliant on the stuff of traditional campaigns. And while the Republicans came out of 2012 well aware of their deficiencies, they are still drastically under-resourced, while the Dems maintained a sizable full-time staff between 2012 and now. Including John Faas, then a newcomer to Vermont who ‘creatd a database that shows Vermonters’ voting hsitory, contact information, any previous contact with the party, the districts voters live in and party-specific modeling information.”
Well, Faas has remained on the job ever since. You think the Dems’ data has gotten even better in the last two years?
If you are in inveterate politics nerd, I recommend a lengthy article from late April in the New Republic, “How the Democrats Can Avoid Going Down This November.” Reporter Sasha Issenberg goes through the history of campaign strategy and tactics, leading to the data-heavy 21st Century iteration which has fueled Barack Obama’s two successful campaigns and benefited Democrats across the country.
There’s a whole lot of information in the story, but I’ll pull out a couple of key points.
There are two kinds of voters in America, and I don’t mean conservatives and liberals. I mean “reflex voters,” who vote in just about every election, and “unreliable voters,” who tend to vote only in Presidential years. Lately, the Republicans have had an edge in Reflex voters while the Dems have a lot of Unreliables.
The Reflex voters will show up no matter what. The traditional stuff of campaigns — advertising, mailings, phone banks, etc. — doesn’t make any difference for them. The key to successful Democxratic electioneering is getting Unreliables to the polls. And the traditional stuff of campaigns won’t do the trick. Of political ads on TV, Issenberg starkly observes that there’s no proof that they work. Which perhaps explains the faceplant of Vermonters First, the ad-heavy conservative SuperPAC that seemed to have no effect at all on the 2012 race.
What does work is personal contact. Which is extremely time-consuming. But modern campaign research has identified ways to get the benefit of personal contact through printed or emailed material, and to professionalize formerly volunteer-driven field operations. But for all this to work, you have to know which voters to target. And the Dems have built a vast database of their Unreliable voters, which has allowed them to invest their resources in closely targeted, proven effective techniques. In 2012, this resulted in larger-than-expected Unreliable turnouts both nationally and in Vermont. And larger-than-expected Democratic success.
By itself, these methods don’t win elections. But they make a measurable difference, and can mean the difference between defeat and victory in close campaigns.
Vermont Democrats sail into the 2014 campaign season with these advantages fully on their side. And that’s why I’m betting the under: the Dems will limit their losses and might even pull off a gain or two.
In Galloway’s article, Davis identifies several legislative races that could result in Republican pickups. It’s safe to assume the Democrats are well aware of that list, and will concentrate their organizational efforts on the closest of races. That’s a lot of firepower focused on a relative handful of contests, and is almost certain to result in Democratic surprises come November 4. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dems actually manage to extend their majorities.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Jeff Bartley, the VTGOP’s “Victory Director.” He’s fighting a steeply uphill battle against far superior forces, and he’ll be lucky to claim even a few victories on Election Night.