New Players Shake Up The Campaign Ground Game In N.H.

Oct 28, 2014

Logos for NextGen Climate Change (l) and Americans for Prosperity

It’s a week to the election, and New Hampshire campaigns are focused on getting their voters to the polls. And this year, there are some powerful new players on the field.

On a crystalline fall day, two orange tee-shirted canvassers for a group called NextGen Climate Change wander the breezy backstreets of Portsmouth.

“I know exactly where we are,” says worker Andrea Harkness.

Not quite, it turns out. But with help from a voter-ID iPhone app, she and Tucker Breton do eventually find their target: a house containing someone who might care about their issue, global warming. The canvassers’ salaries and their iPhones are paid for by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer.

“Ah god you guys are catching me off-guard here, ” says resident Sarah Dickson, as she opens the door.

Breton takes the lead with Dickson, who, it turns out, is a big skier.

Dickson: “Skiing season’s totally been affected in the past five years, the snow’s coming later…

Breton: “And less of it”

Dickson: “Lots more rain”

Breton: “And do you know who you’re supporting in the senate election this year?”

Dickson: “No.”

Breton: “You’re undecided? OK.”

Paydirt. Sarah Dickson is just the kind of person the canvassers are looking for. She has a personal stake in climate change, and she’s undecided. 

By the time she closes her door, Dickson’s heard a pitch to support Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in the U.S. Senate race, and heard a few ominous things about GOP opponent Scott Brown’s environmental record. She’s also signed a card that says she’s willing to use her vote to fight climate change – providing a new data-point for NextGen’s voter-contact software.

NextGen is spending 600,000 dollars on the effort in New Hampshire, and another $1.5 million on advertising. That’s just a fraction of the $70 million-plus Steyer’s spending nationally. And NextGen Climate Change is far from the only group out there trying to reach inconsistent voters.

“Our goal is to turn out those people who fundamentally agree with us on the issues, who usually don’t vote in non-presidential years,” said Corey Lewandowski. He directs national voter outreach efforts for Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. 

“To put it into perspective, two years ago, in a presidential year, AFP had about 130 to 135 people out in the field in 18 to 20 states working specifically on the ground to mobilize citizens to get them engaged so they could go and educate people on free market issues,” he said. “This year, we’ve got about 600 people, in those states.”

Including, of course, New Hampshire, where AFP has been supporting Brown and other Republicans. Another group that wants to turn out marginal, GOP-leaning voters is called Unlocking Potential, whose goal is specifically to improve the GOP’s appeal to women voters.

“We do have something of a brand problem,” says Unlocking Potential’s national leader, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive and California candidate for U.S. Senate. She’s been in New Hampshire several times this fall. She led a workshop for GOP canvassers in Manchester last month.

“The Democrats have succeeded in branding us as people who don’t care,” she said. “The Democrats have branded us as people who only care about Wall Street.”

Fiorina coaches her audience on how to soften the Republican image among women, how to pivot away from contentious social issues such as abortion or gay rights and to turn conversations to Republican views on economic growth and self-determination.

She frequently urges her listeners to use the project’s app.

“Download this app,” she said. “I’m serious. Download the app. You have to register with us, and once you’ve done that we can give you stuff and you can send us stuff.”

The databases, software, apps and ground-troops that are being deployed now will have value beyond this year’s election – particularly for the presidential primaries in 2016.

“These groups have an interest in New Hampshire because of our unique role in the presidential primary,” said Karen Hicks, a Democratic strategist who helped pioneer the modern-era of data-driven voter contact when she directed Howard Dean’s New Hampshire primary campaign in 2004. 

She says the outside groups can be most effective in motivating slices of the electorate that really matter in mid-term elections, and in crowded presidential primaries.

“Because if Americans for Prosperity or any of these other groups can help even at a marginal level being influential with three, four, five percent of the vote that makes a big difference when nobody’s walking out of here with more than 22 percent or something like that,” she said.

The trend is being facilitated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the gates for unregulated donations to third-party groups – the Super PACs. At the same time, limits in direct contributions to the traditional parties remain in place.

Americans for Prosperity’s Corey Lewandowski says his group, and environmentalist Tom Steyer’s for that matter, are gaining clout, and the traditional parties are losing it.

“What that does is it makes the parties less effective…  And that’s a good thing.”

Party operatives on both sides downplay the outside groups’ influence, and point to fizzled efforts in past presidential elections. And for now, at least, some of the most traditional party activities are going full.

With control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs, and tight races up and down the ticket in New Hampshire, volunteer and paid workers are going to be on overdrive this week – whether they are working for a party… or for a PAC.