Sophisticated Turnout Machine Fueled Abbott's Big Margin of Victory
Unlike the Democratic turnout group Battleground Texas, the people who launched Republican Greg Abbott’s ground game hatched their plan in secret and never publicly discussed any goals beyond getting their candidate into the Governor’s Mansion.
But this week, the Abbott campaign pulled back the curtain on its sophisticated turnout machine, which it is now crediting with Abbott’s strong showing among Hispanics and his eye-popping margin of victory — 20 percentage points — over Democrat Wendy Davis.
At a briefing Wednesday morning, the day after Abbott’s big win, the campaign’s top strategists described its highly targeted TV advertising, its robust online presence and the approach it took in motivating sometimes apathetic voters.
The Abbott campaign's stealthy ground game started with a huge paid field operation, spread out across Texas and costing $5 million to $6 million. The team, aimed largely at identifying and motivating voters who infrequently participate in state elections, was almost 10 times larger than the one Gov. Rick Perry put together in his 2010 re-election campaign.
Overseen by deputy campaign manager Sarah Floerke, a former top Perry aide, the operation began with two people in January 2013 and eventually grew to more than 90 paid staffers — with more than 40 in the Houston and Dallas areas alone. By comparison, Perry had 10 field staffers statewide when he ran his last race for governor in 2010.
Floerke set a goal for each field representative of 250 verified Abbott voters each week. People were given wide latitude to meet their goals, but if they fell short they were quickly let go. By the end of the race, 320 field staffers had cycled through, but only the 90 successful ones were kept on.
“If they missed two weeks, they basically knew their head was on the chopping block,” said Dave Carney, Abbott’s chief strategist. There were eight staffers in Austin backing up the field team, he said.
Beyond the boots on the ground, the Abbott campaign developed a highly sophisticated voter targeting apparatus that allowed the Republicans to more directly reach their target audience, both on TV and online.
Using consumer data such as magazine subscriptions and combining it with past turnout history from state election records, the Abbott campaign built a massive database with every one of the state’s 14 million-plus voters. It then modeled the election that officials were expecting to take place months before it happened, said Chris Wilson of Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, the Abbott campaign’s polling firm.
The voters were then broken up into various “universes,” such as solid Abbott voters, "persuadable" voters and Davis supporters, and then targeted accordingly.
“Every single voter in the state of Texas was given a turnout propensity score, “ Wilson said. “It allowed us to efficiently target who was voting.”
After Labor Day, the campaign ran nightly “what if” scenarios using different turnout assumptions and survey data. By 8 a.m. each morning, the strategists knew which individual Abbott voters most needed a little nudge. Then they would reach out to those voters using a variety of methods, from an old-fashioned phone call to a Facebook message, to urge them to vote for Abbott.
“We were actually doubling and in some cases quadrupling what the turnout would be by focusing on them,” said Abbott technology guru James McKay.
Abbott spent $5.5 million, about 18 percent of his media budget, on digital outreach and advertising.
There were six full-time people dedicated to the online effort, which included two videographers who cut ads that were being seen by 1 million Texans a day. Chris Gulugian-Taylor of Targeted Victory, a consulting firm Abbott hired, said all told it created 90 million “video impressions." Some 40 million of those were unique views in which the whole ad was seen, a rate the campaign described as far higher than the norm.
The Abbott campaign took an innovative approach to its TV advertising campaign. Using advertising methods that weren't widely available even during the 2012 elections, the campaign obtained detailed data from cable satellite TV systems to specifically target voters, campaign officials said.
So instead of relying on the traditional “gross ratings point” system to hit a target audience based on Nielsen ratings of TV viewers, Abbott’s team actually knew what its voters were watching and more efficiently targeted its ads to them, campaign officials said.
“We knew what shows they were actually watching,” McKay said. “It’s kind of creepy, but it’s the wave of the future. It’s how everything will be done eventually. ”
Abbott’s campaign is touting the success of its turnout operation for boosting his support from Hispanics. According to exit poll data, Abbott got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 38 percent for Perry four years ago.
Abbott fell well short of his stated goal, however, of winning Cameron County and getting 45 percent of the vote in Hidalgo, border counties in the Rio Grande Valley that he courted with frequent trips and attention. Davis beat Abbott 55-42 in Cameron and 63-35 in Hidalgo.
Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who employed both “big data” techniques and old-fashioned outreach to media outlets in his courtship of Latinos this year, narrowly won the Hispanic vote, according to exit surveys. He beat Democrat David Alameel 62-34 overall, winning the Latino vote 48-47.
Alameel narrowly beat Cornyn in Cameron County, 50-44, and fairly handily, 59-35, in Hidalgo.